Killing Canoes

The Makah are people who live close to the sea. For over 2,000 years they hunted grey whales off the unforgiving coast of Cape Flattery until the whales were hunted near extinction by other men whose only wisdom was greed. It was a dangerous occupation. Boats could be stove in by a whale’s flukes, capsize or break apart in heavy weather. Entire crews could be lost and villages devastated. Two millennium of seamanship taught the Makah that their boats were more than tools—they were sentient, capable of loyalty or betrayal, and accountable. A boat that betrayed its crew to their death and survived itself was traditionally burned. One boat, however, was spared.

That boat had been selected from the Makah forest reserved for ceremonial woodworkers. It had been chosen as a living red cedar, felled and hauled to the men’s longhouse where it was sculpted by hand. In that boat was vested the Makah’s hope for the resurrection of their tribe, the first boat to hunt grey whales off Cape Flattery in five generations. They named it Hummingbird.

Hummingbird ignited a controversy that burned across the world. She was both venerated and vilified. To many she represented an unforgivable sin—the gratuitous killing of one of the great whales. To others she symbolized the rebirth of the First Nations and the regeneration of an ancient wisdom. When the Makah completed their first successful whale hunt in 1999, it was onboard Hummingbird.

In July, 2006, Hummingbird again participated in a cultural event—the annual Intertribal Canoe Journey where many of the First Nations from throughout the Salish Sea undertake long canoe journeys to celebrate their cultural heritage. On July 26 she was off Dungeness Spit, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on a passage from Neah Bay to Sequim.

Hummingbird had left Neah Bay in the company of several other canoes and chase boats participating in the tribal journey. By the time they had reached Port Angeles, the west wind was blowing hard and creating waves of six to seven feet with a six second interval. Many of the crews were already in trouble and required a tow from their chase boats. By the time Hummingbird had reached Dungeness Spit, she was alone.

The wind was gusting to 35 knots. The seas were steep and breaking. Running before the seas would likely result in the canoe burying her bow in the trough and broaching. Turning beam-to would have invited capsize. With a six second interval, there was no time to recover from the impact of one wave before the next struck. Inevitably, the 32 foot canoe capsized.

The crew of six was pitched into the 54 degree water. One man—a hereditary chief of one of the First Nations of Vancouver Island, British Columbia—drowned in the cold water. The canoe was recovered next day from a beach near Dungeness Spit.

Ben Johnson, tribal chairman of the Makah, later announced that Hummingbird would not be burned but retired and placed on display at the Neah Bay marina. The rancorous history of the boat wasn’t forgotten, however. Sea Shepard, an extreme animal rights group that forcibly led the opposition to renewed Makah whaling, posted the following on their website.

"The boat that took the life of Yabis the baby gray whale in 1999 has now claimed a human life. [Yabis was apparently the name given the gray whale after it was harpooned by the Hummingbird’s crew.]

"What goes around apparently comes around," said Captain Paul Watson. "In my opinion that boat was cursed the moment the harpoon left it and entered the body of the whale."

It seems the Makah are not the only ones who believe in animism.

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