Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Throw a Good Potlatch: Just Add Whale for the Makah Tribe in Washington State, the Revival of a Centuries-Old

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Throw a Good Potlatch: Just Add Whale for the Makah Tribe in Washington State, the Revival of a Centuries-Old

Article excerpt

Mary Jo Butterfield couldn't recall anything like it: members of the Puyallup Indian nation, and the Tulalip tribe, the Hoh, the Quinault, the Yakima, the Cowlitz, the Lummi, all streaming into her reservation, canoes in tow, traditional costumes in hand, and loaded with gifts and good wishes for her people, the Makah.

All because Mrs. Butterfield's tribe in Neah Bay on the farthest tip of northwest Washington State had hunted and triumphantly returned home with their first gray whale in more than 70 years.

"Never have I seen this, not in my lifetime," Mrs. Butterfield said of the visitors. The spectacle in this remote corner of North America offered once again a window into the clash of ancient traditions and the modern world. Even as the Makah were celebrating their centuries-old customs and successful hunt, environmentalists were protesting the killing of the whale from boats, and much of the rest of the world looked on with a mixture of fascination and puzzlement at the ancient ritual. From the start, the Makah believed that harpooning a whale was a way to bind together their 2,100 members and awaken in their children an appreciation of their heritage. But along the way, they gained something unexpected: declarations of friendship and support from numerous other tribes responding to public criticism of the tiny tribe. At their weekend potlatch - a ceremony common among Northwest Indians where gifts are exchanged to celebrate significant events such as salmon catches - tribal well-wishers came from as far away as Arizona. The day started with a parade at 9 a.m., followed by a traditional noon dinner at the high school. Then, the evening ceremony, with more food and dancing. Since the tribe's name translates as "generous with food," banqueting arrangements were taken seriously. "We have oysters and clams and fish, even several caribou roasts," Butterfield said. "And we have gallons and gallons of huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries." And, of course, whale. Part of the female gray whale taken May 17 had been hung to cure in a meat locker. Other chunks were smoked. Since the Makah announced last fall their intention to exercise their 1855 treaty rights to hunt whale again, a tribal committee had been studying how to cook it, interviewing elders and consulting texts. …

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