NEAH BAY, Wash. — The hunters paddled frantically, closing in on their target. When they drew near, one of them stood in the cedar canoe and thrust a harpoon into the spine of the 30-foot gray whale.
With the help of fishing boats, the men towed their catch into a small cove in Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, where hundreds of fellow Makah tribal members greeted them like heroes. People hugged and cried. They celebrated what felt like the return of better days.
It was 1999, and the tribe’s first successful whale hunt in seven decades. It was also their last.
The Makah are the only Native Americans who have a treaty with the United States government that allows them to hunt whales. But they have not because of a protracted administrative and legal battle waged by conservationists and animal rights activists, who call the practice “barbaric” and have generated a wave of negative sentiment against the tribe.
The two-decade tussle could flare in the coming weeks over a proposal that would allow the Makah to resume whaling as early as next year. Tribal members say the struggle goes beyond their right to hunt, and see it as a fight over restoring Native identity, honoring indigenous treaty rights and respecting age-old traditions.
“People argue that you haven’t done it for 70 years, you don’t need to do it anymore,” said Patrick DePoe, 37, a member of the Makah tribal council. “They’re not Makah. They don’t understand what it means for us.”
An administrative law judge is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday on a proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to exempt the Makah from the federal ban on whaling. The exemption would allow the tribe to catch as many as four Eastern North Pacific gray whales every two years for the next decade.
People on both sides of the debate expect that NOAA, which oversees ocean resources and habitats, will issue a permit for the Makah to whale again. But activists have vowed to take the fight to court and use procedural challenges to continue to prevent future hunts.
“Just because there is a treaty right does not mean that they must exercise it,” said Catherine Pruett, the executive director of Sea Shepherd Legal, a nonprofit environmental law firm. “Whaling is an archaic and barbaric practice, no matter how you do it.”
Various tribes signed treaties with the federal government through the late 19th century, making concessions in exchange for the protection of rights and provision of services. Over time, tribal leaders say, those rights and privileges have been denied.
“We’re talking rights here,” Nate Tyler, a 47-year-old tribal council member, said of whaling. “It’s our identity.”
Many Makah believe a traditional diet that includes whale can help to improve their health. The preparation for a hunt is also physically and spiritually nourishing, tribal members say. Hunters train by running and paddling every day. They fast, abstain from sex and face the sun and pray each morning. After a kill, they pray for and thank the whale for providing for them.
“It brings to life a better part of our culture,” said Spencer McCarty, a 59-year-old Makah whaler.
Even as tribal members fight to hunt again, many fear a repeat of the vicious backlash they faced last time, when they received bomb threats and heard chants of “Save a whale, kill a Makah.” Hackers targeted the tribe’s website and replaced Neah Bay on a map with “Death Bay.” Things got so bad that the National Guard was sent in to protect the reservation, which sits on a picturesque 47 square miles of cedar trees and rocky coastline.
Much of the opposition came from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a sister organization of Sea Shepherd Legal. During the hunt, the organization’s activists buzzed motorized fishing boats around the hunting canoes and made loud noises. After the hunters caught the juvenile whale, activists called tribal members derogatory names like “baby killers.”
Mr. McCarty said he remembered a man who posed as a journalist and came to his home. Inside, the man revealed himself to be an anti-whaling activist and threatened to harm Mr. McCarty’s granddaughter if he continued whaling, Mr. McCarty said. He went to grab his rifle, but his mother quickly shooed the intruder out the door.
In the past, Sea Shepherd activists believed they needed to protect whales by any means, Ms. Pruett said. But the organization’s tactics have changed, she said, and activists are focusing on using legal and diplomatic measures to protect whales.
After the successful hunt in 1999, activists filed a lawsuit, leading a federal court to rule that the tribe needed to go through a more rigorous permitting process in order to hunt whales. That process has been ongoing ever since.
Theron Parker was the hunter who harpooned the whale two decades ago. He said he had never seen the Makah people as united as they were on that day. Not being able to hunt has taken a toll on his mind, he added.
“It’s depressing to be way on top and then just to be dropped out and just kicked to the curb, basically,” he said.
After spending so much time preparing to hunt, then being unable to continue, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction, he said, and was one of five Makah arrested for illegally hunting a whale in 2007, an action that the tribe disavowed. Mr. Parker, 57, said he has since recovered from his substance abuse and that he believed a return to whaling would benefit the entire reservation, where nearly a quarter of the 1,600 residents live in poverty.
As the original inhabitants of the most northwesterly point in the lower 48 states, the Makah, with about 3,000 enrolled members, have been whaling for at least 2,700 years. Fishing accounts for as much as 70 percent of the tribe’s economy during the high season.
Today, dozens of fishing vessels sit parked in the marina at Neah Bay, where restaurants serve buttery cod and where the skeleton of the whale caught in 1999 hangs from the ceiling of the tribal museum.
The Makah voluntarily stopped hunting whales in the 1920s, when commercial whaling operations were common. An international moratorium on commercial whaling was established in the 1980s, but indigenous whaling for subsistence and cultural reasons was still allowed. There are indigenous people in the United States who currently hunt whales: Native Alaskans, who were exempted from the federal ban on whaling in a law passed by Congress in the 1970s.
When Eastern North Pacific gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994, the Makah announced that they planned to resume whaling.
Some tribal members believed the tribe did not need permission to whale because of the treaty with the federal government, signed in 1855, in which their ancestors gave up hundreds of thousands of acres of land. But leaders decided to go through international and federal permitting procedures in an effort to maintain a good relationship with the United States government.
Sea Shepherd Legal has argued that the Makah can maintain their traditions without killing whales, pointing to a neighboring tribe, the Quileute, that gave up whaling but holds an annual ceremony for whales.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, in this day and age, that anybody thinks they have the right to tell us what should be important to us,” said Janine Ledford, the executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center.
Sea Shepherd officials also say that whales are highly intelligent and social mammals that should not be killed. And they argued that the hunting process was inhumane — in the past, hunters would stab the whale and let it bleed out, but now they shoot it after it has been stabbed, for a quicker kill.
Activists also argue that whales provide significant benefits to the ecosystem, pointing to research suggesting that whales can help to reduce the atmosphere’s level of carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to global warming.
But subsistence hunting by indigenous people does not cause whale populations to collapse, said John Hocevar of Greenpeace USA. The current gray whale population is strong, at an estimated 27,000, and Greenpeace, which started the Save the Whales campaign 45 years ago, does not oppose Makah whaling.
“From our perspective, the most important thing is honoring the Makah’s treaty rights in this case,” said Mr. Hocevar, who is the director of the organization’s oceans campaign.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have vowed to honor the government’s treaty obligations to Native Americans, but an issue like whaling is bound to test that support because of the controversy over the practice.
“Most politicians can continue to get elected without going out on a limb for a treaty right,” said Nicole Willis, a political consultant and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Most elected officials hesitate to take an unpopular position, even if it means “doing the right thing for Native people,” she added.
Five of the major presidential candidates address Native issues on their websites. Only Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign responded to inquiries about the Makah whaling treaty. Senator Warren believes that treaty obligations are a legal and moral responsibility, and that the government should “honor its agreement” with the Makah, said Alexis Krieg, a spokeswoman for the campaign.
The legacy of the 1999 hunt lives on in a tribe that is physically healthier and more focused on traditional language, songs and dances than it was before, said Russell Svec, the Makah fisheries director. But sitting in a one-bedroom, oceanfront cottage decorated with a picture of his great-great grandfather carrying a harpoon, Mr. Svec, 57, worried that those things were being lost.
“Over time, things do seem to fade away,” he said. “This hunt, we need this to bring that health back to our people and keep going.”