Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
December 11, 1999

Makah Football Team is a Source of Pride
adapted by Garnet1654 from an article by Jayda Evans
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle Times: Makah football team is a source of pride

NEAH BAY, Clallam County - The smell of burning rubber cuts through the saltwater breeze. Teenagers spin their cars in dizzying circles in the general-store parking lot and scream "We're No. 1!" in the brisk night air.

Stereo bass vibrates. Girls squeal. Boys laugh. Everyone is excited about Neah Bay High School playing for a Class B-8 State championship tomorrow at the Tacoma Dome.

On the Makah Indian Reservation, isolated on the northwestern-most point of Washington, the undefeated football team is just one of the many blessings for the town of about 1,500. Isabel Ides, the tribe's oldest member, celebrated her 100th birthday Nov. 13. Two little-league football teams won championships. And May 17, the Makah killed their first whale in more than 70 years.

"This is the year for the Makah," said Marcy Parker, an administrative assistant at the Tribal Council.

But as the tribe winds its way down Highway 112 in rented rooter buses or vans decorated with posters saying "Native Power" and "Go Red Devils!" for the 4 p.m. game, their joy isn't always shared. Sometimes what awaits them is reminiscent of segregation in the 1960s.

Bumper stickers stating "Save a whale, kill a Makah" adorn protesters' cars. People throw things and scream obscenities at the players. And before Coach Ron Johnson takes his team into a restaurant after games, he defuses any uneasiness with a little joke.

"Do you serve Indians?" Johnson asks with a warm grin.

When the waitress replies, yes, he teases: "Good, I'll take two."

"It's just something to break the ice because there's still a lot of prejudice around," Johnson explains. "We've sat and haven't been waited on before."

Reviving the tribal tradition of hunting whales added to the tension the Makahs already sometimes face. Killing the female gray whale brought pride to the community that eagerly wants to return to its roots, to the days it survived by fishing. Yet, despite the 1855 treaty that allows the tribe to hunt whale like its ancestors, outsiders don't understand why.

"It's not easy being Indian," said Mary Hunt, a Makah who's in her 25th year teaching at the school. "We have a song we sing that's translated, `There is no one equal to our nation' and I tell the boys to put it in here, their heart.

"We've had to deal with so much," Hunt continued, brushing back her black hair from the tears forming in her eyes. "Especially this team, they've had to deal with so many harassments from the whale hunt: `You can't come in my store or my cafe.' People picking on us, telling us we're not worthy. We're not equal . . . but we keep our heads high . . . we are proud of our culture."

It's a culture where football now is woven as deeply into the fabric of the community as the intricate baskets the Makah women make.

Time out for football

As the field lights warm and beam brighter, more cars line up around the fences.

Flicking on the lights is like calling people to a town meeting. Every Wednesday night parents and community members are drawn in to watch the 25 players practice. And for Friday home games, the entire town seems to show up at the throwback grass field with two wooden bleachers that hold maybe 100 fans and a rickety white press box.

"This place is pretty dead when we play," junior center Josh Buckingham said. "We get a lot of support. Whatever the team needs, the community will be there."

The tradition dates back to the late 1800s, when the U.S. first tried to assimilate the Makah and confiscate their land. The government forbade them to speak their language or perform their family dances and songs publicly.

Schoolchildren were sent to government boarding schools around Washington and Oregon. The children were gone for nine months of the year.

"It was real sad during the holidays," said John Hottowe, a 76-year-old war veteran. "When the children came back, they were like locust. They were running wild."

In 1932, Luke Markishtun, Hottowe's father-in-law, donated about 10 acres of his land to the state to build a school for the reservation. The state built and operated the school, and in its first year, 26 started first grade. Twelve years later, only two graduated from that class because of World War II.

Hottowe's wife Edith was one of the women who graduated from Neah Bay.

"Some thought my father was selling out," said Edith, Class of '44, who works with the Head Start program. "But he had 10 children and wanted to keep the family together. Donating the land was the only way."

When the school was erected, John said the community got involved in everything to show they supported their children and didn't want them sent to boarding schools.

"We were so happy to have them back," John said. "Anything they did - school plays, basketball games - we'd fill the place up to watch them. And the streets were like a parade."

As the community leaves town, they'll "honk-around" - a parade through the town with horns blaring. School for the 420 K-12 students will be canceled and the Makah Tribal Council is shutting down so that everyone can attend.

Most will wear the red and black colors of the tribe and school. And some will sit in the band section with their drums to sing tribal songs. They plan to ask the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to let the tribe perform a special dance after the game - win or lose.

"They can get pretty rowdy," senior quarterback Daniel Greene said. "The football team is really important to the community. It's a tradition and brings us all together."

Footnote from the past

One bronzed cleat. That's all that remains of the 20-inch figure atop the trophy.

But this week memories of the so-called "Finger Bowl" have breathed life into the dusty trophy hidden in the back of Neah Bay's award case. This week the scuffed-up trophy missing the bronzed athlete that cradled a football proudly in 1953 was moved to the front for all in the cafeteria to see.

"It's the only football title we have," Coach Johnson said.

Since the sport was introduced to the Makah tribe in the early 1940s, Neah Bay has always had successful football teams. Johnson, a 1958 Neah Bay grad, said boys were expected to play football and some years the 30-plus boys in the school would make three different teams - six-man, eight-man and 11-man - because the school was so dominating.

For eight years, stretching through the 1950s, Neah Bay was undefeated.

"Some teams wouldn't play us because we'd whip them so bad," said Ed Caplanhoo, a 1956 alum and former manager for the teams.

Two decades before the state adopted a playoff system, the school challenged anyone in the state to a championship. The University of Washington's freshman team and every big school in the state was issued a challenge through the newspapers. No one responded.

Except Touchet.

The Makahs didn't even know where Touchet, a small farming town near Walla Walla, was located. Yet in late November 1953, the team drove over the Cascades to play the undefeated team in Southeastern Washington.

"We got there real late, but they woke us up at what seemed like 5 a.m. to do chores," said Blanchard Matte, who was a backup quarterback in the game. "Here, we would call that an old Indian trick. For them, we called it a farmer trick - to make us tired for the game."

After a big country breakfast, the teams played in an early-morning game. Neah Bay won. The trophy was presented at a huge feast after the game. The plaque reads "Neah Bay Ironmen 13, Touchet 6."

"I think they called us Ironmen because we only had two subs for 11-man football," said John MaCarty, a running back on the team. "They made a big deal out of it and had this huge banquet with hams, turkeys, corn, pies, cakes. About four tables were plum full of food . . . more than anybody could ever eat."

Forty-six years later, Neah Bay (10-0) is playing Touchet (11-0) again. This time, the undefeated teams will meet in a state-sanctioned game at the Tacoma Dome, and Touchet is the defending Class B-8 champion. And there won't be a country buffet afterward.

"Our old-timers are talking about that (1953) game," Touchet Coach Wayne Dickey said. "But they don't remember too much because we were the losers."

Back then, Neah Bay was led by Chuck Davis, a feisty quarterback. On Friday, senior quarterback Daniel Greene will lead the school into its first state championship game since losing to Odessa 74-28 in 1989 at the Kingdome.

"This is the biggest game we've ever played in," said Greene, his chestnut eyes sparkling. "It's going to be exciting. I can't sleep sometimes. I have to try not to think about the game. But it's hard."

Two different worlds

The icy wind whips across the sand at 30 mph. The rain feels like tiny pellets on the players' skin.

On Mondays the players run, some barefoot, along Hobuck Beach. In warmer months, they swim in the Sooes River. Johnson started the traditions in 1981 because the players couldn't handle the monsoon-like weather during a football game.

This season Neah Bay played in 50-mph wind and driving rain against Oakville and won 54-6. Inside the dome tomorrow, they won't face any inclement weather.

The team will be a world away from its one-general-store-and-gas-station town with serene views of the Pacific and marina. Tomorrow, Neah Bay will play in the 17,800-seat Tacoma Dome that could house its entire tribe.

"I can't believe we're playing in the state championship game," Greene said. "We talked about it in Little League, but the time went by like that. Now, the world is going to be watching us because of everything that's happened and we are going to show who we are."

Wall Mural at Neah Bay High School

Neah Bay Schools!nbwp.htm


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