Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
April 8, 2000 - Issue 07

Classmates Piece Together Whale Bones
by Florangela Davila Seattle Times staff reporter

Amid the Pepsi vending machine, fliers touting an upcoming dance, teens dressed in Fubu and Old Navy and other ordinary features of high-school life is a rather extraordinary thing: a 700-pound skeleton of the gray whale Makah tribal members killed last year.

Here it lies, blanketing the floor in a large shed at the back of Neah Bay High School. The jaw has been bolted together. The vertebrae are arranged atop a canoe mold. Some ribs - cleaned first by the sun, then maggots, then students with scrub brushes dipped in borax soap - form what looks like a giant comb.

Carpentry students are spending one, two, sometimes three periods a day assembling this mammoth puzzle with 260 or more pieces. The 30-foot-long skeleton being reconstructed will eventually hang in the tribe's museum here.

The 3-year-old immature female, shot twice and harpooned three times, is the whale the world will long remember, the whale whose death revived a modern-day Indian tribe's ancient whaling tradition and ignited global outrage by animal-rights activists. It was the first whale hunted by the Makahs in more than 70 years.

Nearly a year later, visitors to this soggy, slightly scruffy village will see no signs or commemorative plaques marking the hunt.

But among the more popular clothing at Neah Bay High School are red-hooded sweat shirts and black T-shirts that read: "May 17, 1999. 6:54 a.m."

It was the moment history was made for the Makah tribe.

Outside the shop class shed, rubber-gloved teams of two scrub whale bones. The sun shines. Music plays. The scene is similar to that most typical student event: a school car wash.

Every student in the class can recall the hunt. Older siblings rousting younger ones from sleep. The throw of the harpoon on TV. All the yanking and tugging to pull the mammal, estimated to weigh more than 5 tons, onto rainy Front Beach. Somersaulting and diving off the whale's back. The salty bites of blubber handed out to the crowd.

"It was humongous, man," says Patrick DePoe, 17, who helped haul the whale in. "I just wanted to be part of it. It was an adrenaline rush."

"I was in California, and I was kind of sad when I missed it," says Jackie Svec, also 17. "All my friends were calling me."

In the months before the hunt, the tribe defended its 1855 treaty with the U.S. government that guaranteed its right to go whaling, and the controversy grew ugly. Makah leaders held firm to their notion that the hunt would revitalize the tribe, spiritually and culturally.

Makah teenagers now working on the whale project - some who signed up specifically because of the bones, others who needed a class - talk about a feeling of pride tied to the hunt.

"It's weird to be working on something that used to be living," says Eddie McCarty, 16. "But it ain't all that weird, because we're assembling something we're proud of.

"It's about going back to our tradition, learning more about our culture. I thought it was real cool."

The tribe, through its agreement with the federal government, has the right to hunt five whales per year through 2002. Makah leaders say they are preparing for another hunt this year, though no definite plans have been announced.

Bill Monette, a non-Makah who is married to a tribal member, oversees the whale project. He used to run a construction business full time. After he requested space at the school to store racing canoes, he was recruited to teach shop. He is now also the senior-class adviser.

Monette, who talks rapidly in a flat Minnesota accent, guides students in building cedar-strip canoes. Students put fiberglass on a boat. They renovate a house.

Monette had no experience assembling a whale skeleton. The key to the work, he explains, is to approach it like any other construction project.

Last May, after the Makahs butchered the whale and the meat was distributed to the tribe, Monette used his construction equipment to help haul the carcass off the beach and into a filet-plant freezer. The carcass was then fenced in at a 10-acre site in the woods and left to decompose.

In a series of rank-smelling field trips, Monette's students collected the bones, further dissolving the remaining meat, or "snard" as it's called, in vats of ammonia.

Students are now scrubbing clean and tagging each bone.

"One-inch pipe will get threaded this way," says Monette, showing how the skeleton will be knitted together. At the base of the skull, the melon-sized hole where the .50-caliber bullet blasted its head is visible. In one vertebrae is an impression of a harpoon.

Chunks of plastic foam will be used as cartilage. For the mouth, the National Marine Fisheries Service will provide the fringelike baleen whales use to filter food.

The annual Makah Days festival used to be the biggest, most-exciting event around here, students say. Then the hunt happened and the village came alive.

There has been other excitement in Neah Bay since then. When the school's football team in December slogged its way to the state-championship game at the Tacoma Dome, the town went wild.

All that adrenaline, remembers Daniel Greene, a senior and the team's quarterback, "meant a lot to me."

But even that, he adds, pales in comparison to hunting a whale.

back to the What's New page

Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.