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Originally published Thursday, June 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

We should not be denied our right to harvest whales

The Makah Tribe recently observed the 150th anniversary of our treaty with the U.S. government. One essential component of this solemn...

Special to The Times

The Makah Tribe recently observed the 150th anniversary of our treaty with the U.S. government. One essential component of this solemn observance was missing: whale meat. That's because our right to harvest whales is systematically being denied purely on the basis of raw emotion, despite our treaty-guaranteed right to harvest whales in our traditional areas.

We are a whaling people. Whales have always been central to our culture. Whales are so important to us that we voluntarily stopped hunting them in the 1920s because non-Indian commercial whaling was decimating gray whale populations.

Today, gray whale populations have rebounded to historic levels. In fact, populations are so healthy, the whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. An approved whaling plan and two environmental assessments by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that our planned harvest of up to five gray whales a year would not harm the population.

The songs and ceremonies resurrected when we harvested a single gray whale in 1999 were a cultural renewal for our people — especially our children. Many of our young people are now enrolled in programs to learn the Makah language and songs. Our youth take pride in the effort to protect our treaty right to whale. The crew members who harvested the first whale are held in high esteem by our children because they know how much spiritual and physical preparation it took to be successful.

Despite the cultural importance of whales to our society, despite our treaty-guaranteed right to harvest whales, and despite scientific assessments that say our harvest will not harm gray whale populations, we continue to be denied our constitutionally guaranteed right. To us, harvesting a whale is the same as harvesting a salmon, deer or elk. Just because our traditions may be different from the dominant non-Indian society, it doesn't mean they are wrong, just different.

In the latest round of the comprehensive effort to deny us our treaty right, animal-rights activists have forced a federal appeals court to order another time-consuming, costly environmental-impact statement. Further, the court ruled the tribe must apply for a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to conduct a harvest. This is despite language in the MMPA that specifically states that it is not meant to abrogate any Indian treaty.

We fulfilled our part of the treaty when we gave up hundreds of thousands of acres of the North Olympic Peninsula. Many Makah men and women have served with valor in the U.S. armed forces to defend the values and integrity America represents. We only ask the same in return. It is morally, ethically and legally imperative that the U.S. government uphold its treaty obligation and remove the barriers preventing us from exercising our treaty right to harvest the whale.

Ben Johnson is chairman and David Sones is vice chairman of the Makah Tribal Council. Council members Blanchard Matte, Debbie Wachendorf and Micah McCarty contributed to this commentary.

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