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Neah Bay 20 August 2018

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We began the day in La Push, where the fog was as thick as ever. We're glad we got a glimpse of At-Ka-Lat island when we arrived, or else we would not have believed in its existence.

We headed straight north to the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the wide passage between Northwestern Washington and Vancouver Island ...but, once again, we have to believe the maps, because the smoke is so heavy the other side is fictional. This upper right corner of the US lower 48 has always fascinated me ... for its verdance, its remoteness, the fact that it's all Tribal and National Park, and since (maybe) 1993, when we traveled up this way with Sienna, the Macah home village at Neah Bay.


The earliest datapoint around these parts is the Ozette Settlement, a sort of Oz in the legends of the Makah people until preliminary archaeology uncovered evidence of a long-buried village in 1966. The Archaeological Establishment apparently said "Ho hum" and went back to studying digs elsewhere.

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In the Winter of 1970, a big storm and coastal erosion uncovered parts of the site, and the Makah Tribal Elders appealed to the University of Washington and the site's co-owners, the National Park Service, to preserve the artifact, conduct further explorations, and prove the truthfulness of the legends.

Wikipedia is of two minds about when the village was buried by a mudslide ...either 1750 or 1560. Maybe both dates are right – one of the longhouses appeared to have been partially buried by a mudslide, repaired, and then entirely inundated when the rest of the village went under ...but it's clear (1) that the picture at left is NOT Ozette Village, and (2) Ozette Village would have looked something like this had it survived until the end of the 19th Century.

Funny story. The First Nations People all along the western Pacific Coast up here consider themselves to be related, friends, and trading partners ...and are resentful of the artificial boundaries of nationality imposed by the 'Big Floating House people' and their white-eyed successors, and simply do not recognize the distinction. 

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Radiocarbon dating of the findings at Ozette indicated that the settlements had been in continuous use for 8,000 or 9,000 years. These important discoveries obviously required a home, and the Makah Cultural and Research Center Museum was the result. It's a little gem, devoting most of its display space to preserved artifacts from Ozette.

Despite the mudslide, the Makah kept using the pristine area around Ozette as a resource, and a stubborn few insisted on 'living rough' out there until the US Government finally ceded them a chunk of land there. Where? That's a secret, as it still yields artifacts every storm or so.

Lake Ozette is a recreation area of Olympic National Park.


It is clear that the Makah have been hunting Pacific Grey Whales for at least 1,500 years, until recently in eight-man cedar dugouts, and with hand-thrown harpoons. The canoes are about the same length as the whales caught. Greys, when hurt, have an unfriendly habit of sinking, so once harpooned, the line attached to the harpoon was buoyed with sealskin bladders to tire the whale and keep it afloat, and when it slowed enough --- sometimes this required staying out overnight – a swimmer dived in and sewed the whale's mouth shut so it couldn't sink.

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There's a thorough description of the whaling here, as explained by the Makah whalers themselves.

Despite your and my resistance to the notion of killing whales, I'm forced to recognize this as heroic, and completely in scale and justified. The International Whaling Commission agreed when petitioned in 1999 to resume the hunt, and when challenged in 2015, was ratified by the Federal Government. The Makah had a right to catch five whales a year; we know, from decades watching the Greys go by, that they have rebuilt their numbers sufficiently to handle this cull.

What I'm not sure about: How heroic is it to use motorboats? Seems to me, there went the heroism, and all the spiritual benefits that went along with the hunt. But let's just forget about that little detail for now, and stay with the meaning of the whale hunt, and the necessities of life out on the furthest northwestern edge of the continent. 


The Makah Museum does not allow photographs (and I'll explain why below) but the upshot of that is I can't do their lovely museum justice here. I have 'borrowed' a bunch of their own published photos below; please don't tell them.

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This cedarwood 'saddle' isn't used to ride Orca, I'm told; it was specifically designed for curing the dorsal fin and associated meat for the harpooner who 'owned' the whale. This was considered the best part of the whale. A tray was placed below the saddle, for catching the whale's 'best' oil, that also belonged to the harpooner. 

This particular saddle was found at Ozette, with many of the Sea Otter teeth decorating it missing. The restorers faced two problems: first, that they couldn't get permission to 'take' enough Otters to fill the missing holes (they used sea snail shells instead), and second, this object and many, many others preserved with whale oil could not be preserved in the usual way. (There's more to this preservation story come.)

Invisible to us, but known to the curator who explained this to me: underneath the saddle, on the inside, there's another pictogram showing a cycle of exchange, whale to wolf then back to whale. The Makah believe that these animals are two manifestations of the same creature, one in the marine form and the other terrestrial.

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The symbolism of the inlay is the symbol of the Makah Tribe: a Thunderbird in a canoe.

The rest of the preservation story has to do with the Makah belief, reaching back 'to the beginnings of time when the animals and people could talk together.' Even then, of course, even the wood and stones could speak (one presumes, less vociferously) and that we cannot know just how old these symbols are ... perhaps they are from those early times? 

Since it's only simple politeness to ask someone before you take their picture, and since these clearly ceremonial objects must have voices, but we are so unevolved that we cannot hear them, we mustn't take their pictures. Unless we ask, and they reply.

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The Museum carefully explains the means of pre-contact life, with especial attention to the wood technology, the stone technology, the bone and antler technology, and the plant technology. Of course, all the techniques were inter-related. All of the explanations are in the 'voices' of the expert practitioners. Bone handles were fitted with shale or stone blades; it is known that the Makah had iron tools before contact, most likely washed up on Asian boats lost on the other side of the Pacific. The tool display's 'voice' says something like, 'Of course, although we did not know the origin of this material, we immediately understood how to use it.'



The Makah were splendid basket-makers. Some of their baskets were, like Pomo baskets, so tightly made that they could hold water and be used for cooking, by dropping hot rocks into the water.

The saddle (above) and the mask (right) are emblems from the Makah's rich 'symbolic' life (the word 'spiritual' is not used.) Appeasing and imploring the living entities – whales, elk, the ocean itself – was very much a part of what we might call 'sympathetic magic' ...although if we lived as simply and as closely connected to the land and sea, I suspect we would have a much healthier attitude toward this relationship. The most frightening spirits, of course, had human faces. 


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That was, for me, an intense and meaningful visit.


We drove along the Strait through unbelievably green and remote lands, until we finally we emerged at Port Angeles, the westernmost outpost of what's laughingly called 'civilization,' and sat ourselves down for some Hama Hama Oysters at Kokopelli Grill. I'm sure you see that we were so hungry, we had already devoured two by the time I remembered to take the picture. Never did get a picture of the Halibut Fish and Chips or the Smoked Salmon Chowder. Yummy.

Salad at 'home' – if it wasn't so smoky, we could see Canada from here.

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Here's a little Makah Creation story for you:

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