Cover image for A whale hunt
A whale hunt
Sullivan, Robert, 1963-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [2000]

Physical Description:
285 pages ; 24 cm

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E99.M19 S85 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A gloriously idiosyncratic fusion of travelogue, ecology, history, moral controversy, and high-seas adventure from the acclaimed author of The Meadowlands. In the fall of 1997, Robert Sullivan arrived in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the most northwestern tip of America, home to the Makah, a Native American tribe. For centuries the hunting of the whale was what defined the tribe, but when commercial whaling drove the gray whale to near extinction in the 1920s, the Makah voluntarily discontinued their tradition and hung up their harpoons. In 1994, after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, the Makah decided to hunt again. Faced with the problems endemic to other reservations, including poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism, many Makah believed that a traditional whale hunt would inject their community with a new sense of pride and purpose. The problem was that all the old whalers were dead -- no one knew how to go about hunting a whale. During a sojourn that lasts longer than anyone could have predicted, Robert Sullivan chronicles the two years he spends in Neah Bay as the Makah prepare for and stage the first hunt. With a damp, plywood fisherman's shanty for lodging, Sullivan roams the spectacular surrounding wilderness, learns about ancient Northwest whaling traditions and the history of the Makah, follows the migratory path of the gray whale down the West Coast, and gets to know the crew and their beleaguered captain, Wayne Johnson. Combatting tribal infighting and inexperience, the crew must also face the passionate, furious animal rights activists and swarming reporters who besiege the once sleepy Neah Bay. Before the ragtag group of hunters evenpursues a whale, there are clashes, disappointments, and defeats, small triumphs and unexpected heroes -- all made vivid by Sullivan's keen eye for irony and his captivating, lyrical prose. Another legendary whale hunt becomes the fascinating and funny subtext to this tale as Sullivan notices eerie parallels -- and oppositions -- between the Makah's quest and the whaling classic Moby-Dick. A book of many layers and revelations, A Whale Hunt is the story of the demise and attempted resurrection of a Native American nation, and of the individuals on the reservation whose lives are forever changed.

Author Notes

Robert Sullivan, a contributing editor at Vogue, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review He recently moved from Portland, Oregon, to Brooklyn, New York

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The Makah are a Native American tribe living on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The gray whale is a migratory cetacean, hunted for generations by the Makah and other coastal tribes until it was nearly driven extinct by commercial whaling. A moratorium on all hunting of the gray whale was declared, and the Makah had not hunted whales in 70 years. In 1995 the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, and the Makah began a legal battle to resume whaling. There was only one problem: all of the old whalers were dead, and the tribe had to reinvent the techniques and traditions of whaling. Sullivan, a former newspaper reporter, spent two years with the Makah as they built a whaling canoe, chose and trained a crew, and taught themselves how to catch and kill a 35^-45 foot sea mammal. Along the way, animal-rights activists, the Coast Guard, a German film crew, other Native Americans, and a fleet of reporters get involved, so that by the time the Makah hunters try for their first whale a fullfledged media circus is well underway, with the hunts and the reactions of the protestors being carried on live TV. Sullivan's wry reporting, with sympathy for all of the participants in the hunt (including the whales), puts the reader right into the midst of the action. No matter where one stands on the subject of aboriginal whaling rights, this book will be fascinating reading. --Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1999, a small armada of animal rights activists, TV crews and Coast Guard ships swarmed around a canoe off the coast of Washington State carrying seven Makah Indians as they hunted and killed a gray whale for the first time in living memory. The activists were attempting to halt the slaughter of an animal only recently removed from the endangered species list, while the Makahs were reviving a whaling tradition that had been dormant for generations. For visiting journalist Sullivan (who made a splash last year with his quirky natural and social history of The Meadowlands of New Jersey), it was an irresistible story. SullivanDwho writes like a hipper, edgier William Least Heat Moon and spent two years with the MakahDgives a kind of outsider's insider view of the hunt's preparation and aftermath, from the private anxieties of the tribespeople to the external pressure from the U.S. government, which insisted that the whale be killed "humanely" with a bullet in the brain immediately after the harpoon strike. He also provides funny commentary on subjects like neighboring Seattle ("a city filled with people who walk around in technologically advanced outdoor fabrics") and the too-easily ridiculed animal rights protesters. But Sullivan never quite communicates why the whale hunt was so important to him personally, or what it really meant to the Makah themselves. Did they actually hope to restore tribal heritage and pride? Or were they merely aiming to get rich by selling whale meat to the Japanese, as the animal rights protestors alleged? Sullivan mostly ducks these questions, which may disappoint those who come to this wry and sympathetic account for a hard-hitting look at the issues it raises, rather than to ride along with its engaging author. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Freelance writer Sullivan's account of his sojourn in Neah Bay, Washington, is as much about his relationship with Wayne Johnson, the captain of the Makah whaling crew, as about the late 1990s hunt. Sullivan's report of the fury and intolerance of those gathered to stop the controversial hunt, the first for the Makah since the 1920s, contrasts with the demeanor of the hunters. Sullivan notes abundant ironies. He travels with "whale watchers" who long to touch a whale but trample their human companions to do so. Reading Moby Dick along the way and finding parallels between Melville's work and what he experiences at Neah Bay, Sullivan has created his own allegory. Johnson is represented as a man with modest goals and a monumental dream who has had a moment of potential greatness thrust upon him. Against him is an army of the self-righteous who possess and consume more resources in their challenge than Neah Bay residents would use in a year. Who are the heroes? Who represents evil? This is Sullivan's text, his story. It claims to be nothing more. General collections. L. De Danaan Evergreen State College



Chapter Two The Car Ride I remember exactly where I was when I read that the Makah were going whaling, when I felt suddenly compelled to go to my map and point to Cape Flattery, when I felt the place calling me. I was at home in the kitchen and it was one and a half years before the Makah actually threw a harpoon at a whale. I'd just heard on the radio that they wanted to try, and I was amazed, of course, that anybody would want to even attempt to hunt a whale, what with a whale's size and its connotations, and I was amazed that whale hunting was part of the tradition of this place I'd never even heard of before, even if that tradition had died or was disused. But in the beginning, it was the cape itself that most amazed me, just the idea of the place. I'd been living in the great Pacific Northwest for several years, and Cape Flattery was always one of those spots that cried out to me from my atlas as I studied it in the evenings, prowling America's far corner and all its farthest-away places for the nourishment of my about-to-go-to-bed soul: it is a place where the road north and west ends emphatically, a peninsula that reaches out to the sea, to the vast aquamarine-colored area that is -- in the color codes of my map, anyway -- not described, as if infinite and immeasurable. It's where the tip of America meets the North Pacific, where the water seems charged and about-to-be roiled, like the water off the bow of a ship. My work being what it is, I generally go to places as a reporter, as a filer of facts for hire, so after Cape Flattery called me, I made a few calls myself, and, in time, found a magazine editor who hired me to type up a quick and simple report on the tribe's plans, a few paragraphs that would pay for my way there. I set aside a few days to check things out. Then, just before dawn on a drizzly fall morning, I stuffed the trunk of my car with raincoats and boots, filled a thermos with coffee, grabbed my brand-new copy of Moby-Dick, which I had never read and which seemed like a good book to take along, and I set off to see how the Makah would go about hunting a whale.a If I had known then that as a result of that day's drive I would be compelled to repeat that six- and sometimes seven-hour drive so many times over the course of the next two years that I can now describe every chain-saw sculpture along the road in my sleep; if I had known that I would be living for weeks on the edge of the woods in a cold, damp shack or often in an old tent that was so leaky that I finally had to break down and buy a new one, which was better but still leaked sometimes; if I had known that I would eventually be compelled to temporarily abandon my family and drive for days along the length of the West Coast of North America in hopes of touching a whale in a tropical lagoon in Mexico; if I had known that I would sit in a hot, dark sweat lodge and think about my soul or the soul of anybody else, for that matter; if I had known that I would end up diving nearly naked into the ice-cold winter water around Cape Flattery or end up going out on little boats that were chased by animal rights activists whom I didn't have anything against really -- if I had known any of that before I took off that drizzly fall morning, I might have stayed in bed. On that autumn morning, shortly after I pulled out of my driveway in Portland, I felt the secret expectancy of the beginning of a long trip, an excited shiver. I got on the interstate and crossed the wide Columbia River, which runs through the Northwest like a spinal cord, and I saw Mount Hood, the glacier-topped volcano that stands up in the Cascade Range, cutting a black silhouette against the red rising-sun sky. I drove past suburban developments and car dealerships, past Mount Saint Helens and the huge drumlins of ash left over from Mount Saint Helens' last explosion, past tree farms and paper mills and aluminum plants and rivers such as the Lewis and the Kalama, the Cowlitz and the Skookumchuck. Sometimes, I passed trucks carrying cut trees and sometimes the same trucks passed me in a plume of forest rain, violent sixty-five-mile-an-hour weather systems. Above me, gray clouds herded over the road faster than I could believe. For the first couple of hours on my trip, I was headed in the direction of Seattle, which is a sophisticated city, a city with happening restaurants and specialty coffees and whole-grain muffins, a city filled with people who walk around in technologically advanced outdoor fabrics, who work for software companies and Internet sites and live on a series of beautiful lakes and bays -- a place where, in general, you will not see a lot of whale hunting going on, much less hunting of any kind. But halfway to Seattle I turned left, which is to say west, and I worked my way onto the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic Peninsula is not Seattle; it is Seattle's sometimes-still-wild backyard, the place where residents go to commune with nature or to ponder their place in the universe or to do what most people in Seattle do when they head for the woods, what is a kind of postindustrial ritual: utilize state-of-the-art outdoor gear. The Olympic Peninsula is a Connecticut-sized land of mountains and rivers, of state parks and timber mills, of vistas that sometimes look scenic and sometimes look chewed up, fields left for logged. At the heart of the Olympic Peninsula is Olympic National Park, which was first designated a park by President Theodore Roosevelt, who hoped to preserve the indigenous elk population in the Olympic Mountains and who was an avid elk hunter. Taverns stand in for postmodern restaurants serving French-Thai food on the Olympic Peninsula; llama farms stand in for corporate campuses; people are as likely to hunt and fish as kayak and hike. Once, in a gas station on the peninsula -- in a particularly clean and friendly place across from a yard where acres of trees that had recently been converted to telephone poles were waiting to be strung with wires -- I watched a man drive up with a dead deer in the back of his pickup truck. He was a logger and he'd spotted the deer while he was in the midst of chainsawing a tree; he had grabbed his rifle just in time. At the gas station, he posed for a Polaroid picture of himself and the dead deer that was subsequently posted on the bulletin board across from the men's room: in the photo, blood splashed across the logger's face and his sawdust-covered work shirt and jeans; the deer's eyes were far away. The Olympic Peninsula is, geologically speaking, like an island that is nearly still out at sea. Fifty-five million years ago, off the coast of what was then becoming the North American continent, the Olympic Peninsula was a collection of sand and sediments. Basalt remains of underwater volcanic eruptions were later thrown in, and over a period of millions of years, all of it was eventually forced up and out of the ocean and smashed into the rest of North America. When these two enormous slabs of rock met, they ground into each other with immeasurable force: according to the Olympic National Park's literature, the earthquakes that resulted were "more violent than any the modern world has seen." The mountains that the Olympic Peninsula ended up with as a result aren't especially tall as far as western mountain ranges go, but they are tall given their proximity to the Pacific. They stand and stare the ocean wind straight in the eye and collect the moisture from the sky like eight-thousand-foot-high rain gauges. And there is a lot of moisture to collect: in the rain forest at the center of the Olympics the yearly rainfall count is between twelve and fourteen feet. Rain is the theme of the Olympic Peninsula. As it rained and rained and eventually poured on the day I first drove up to Cape Flattery, I imagined that one rainy night the Chehalis River might again cut the peninsula off completely and cast it away. Eventually, I came to Aberdeen, on Grays Harbor, where fog mixed with the steam from the pulp mills, where huge yards were filled with piles of logs the size of discount office-supply stores (piles of logs that are small compared with what they have been traditionally). I passed through Hoquiam, another old logging town; through a logging town called Humptulips, and then through the logged and unlogged woods and over the rivers raging down from the peaks of the Olympics. I passed a clear-cut that had recently been set on fire -- a forest management practice that halfheartedly mimics an actual forest fire burn: a faux inferno. I drove through an alley of huge cedar and Douglas fir trees that darkened the road despite the clearing sky. And then, all of a sudden, the woods opened up like a curtain to feature the Pacific Ocean. From the edge of the Olympics' forest, the Pacific looks so big and vast that it commands you to park at the tree line and walk into the dark gray sand and feel the foamy coldness on your feet and wade in a ways. When I was back on the road, the glacier-covered mountains at the heart of the Olympics peeked over not-so-faraway ridges. Just past the town of Forks, a road sign advertised the ancient land of the Makah at last. It said: MOST N.W. POINT. The road to Neah Bay is serpentine, a thin twist of wet double-yellow-lined gray. It flirts for twenty miles with the edge of cliffs that seem to stand at the mercy of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its wide swath of soon- to-be Pacific Ocean. Mapmakers mark it as scenic when it would be better marked IMAX: waterfalls and cliffs and mud slides on the left; white-capped blue water dotted with tall, just-off-the-shore rock formations on the right. I could see Vancouver Island, in Canada, across the vast strait and through the clearing sky. Its mountains were topped with snow and clouds. And out in the water, I looked for whales -- I looked as long as I dared, that is, until I remembered the road and the hairpin turns and then jerked the steering wheel back toward land. And while I was looking and jerking and swearing and doing my best to stay alive, I got whale on the brain: the idea of one floated in my head like a portent. The sight of this creature in my mind's eye contributed to the concerns I had vis-à-vis my life on this dizzyingly beautiful cliff-side road, so that by the time I pulled into Neah Bay, and saw the boats tied up peacefully in the marina, and the little houses tucked gently beneath the Olympic Peninsula's most western peaks (the very last hills before the sea), I was hunched over the wheel and exhausted. Copyright © 2000 Robert Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

1. Editorialsp. 13
2. The Car Ridep. 17
3. Cape Flatteryp. 22
4. The Cape Motelp. 25
5. The Museump. 30
6. The Crewp. 36
7. A Descendant of Kingsp. 38
8. Squirep. 41
9. The Captainp. 43
10. The Whaler--An Ancient Viewp. 46
11. The Whaler--A Modern Viewp. 50
12. The Canoep. 52
13. Detailsp. 55
14. The Protestorsp. 59
15. Whalers of the Worldp. 62
16. Potlachp. 66
17. Whalesp. 73
18. The Grayness of the Whalep. 75
19. Donnie Doesn't Kill a Sealp. 80
20. All Riled Upp. 86
21. The Experimentp. 92
22. Enter the Protestorsp. 96
23. Prophetsp. 100
24. The Media Arrivep. 104
25. The Shantyp. 106
26. Preparationsp. 108
27. The Crew Comes Upon a Whale and Decides Not to Hunt Itp. 111
28. Exit the Protestorsp. 115
29. On Watchp. 118
30. A Prayer Closetp. 120
31. Q and Ap. 122
32. The Resident Issuep. 124
33. The Prince of Monacop. 126
34. On the Beachp. 128
35. Evilp. 135
36. Slavesp. 137
37. The Negativesp. 139
38. Cast Awayp. 143
39. Storiesp. 146
40. Trucep. 148
41. The Problemp. 149
42. A Promotionp. 149
43. Follow the Whalep. 155
44. Save the Whalesp. 158
45. On Late-Twentieth-Century Pictures of Whalesp. 161
46. Good Verus Evilp. 165
47. Los Angelesp. 168
48. A Visionp. 170
49. On the Road to Bajap. 175
50. Scammonp. 179
51. Saltp. 184
52. Touchedp. 186
53. Back in Neah Bayp. 189
54. On the Jobp. 190
55. Wayne to Courtp. 193
56. The Germans Weren't Aroundp. 196
57. Responsibilityp. 200
58. Sensiblep. 204
59. A Handp. 206
60. Fish-inp. 207
61. Painkillerp. 211
62. Fuck-Upsp. 215
63. The Shakers Are Comingp. 216
64. A Bulletp. 220
65. A Leakp. 223
66. Anchoredp. 224
67. Red-Facedp. 227
68. Whales Are Everywherep. 229
69. Alonep. 231
70. Wayne Meets Theronp. 232
71. Stuckp. 233
72. Waynep. 235
73. The Peakp. 236
74. A Hunt--Day Onep. 238
75. A Hunt--Day Twop. 244
76. A Hunt--Day Threep. 252
77. After a Whale Is Deadp. 266
Notesp. 279
Acknowledgmentsp. 285