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    When worlds collide: Bad blood at Neah Bay

    Reprinted from Straight Talk, November 3, 1998.

    Push is coming to shove at Neah Bay, and it’s looking increasingly likely that whales won’t be the only ones to shed blood into the cold north Pacific Ocean this fall.

    Would-be whale hunters and would-be whale protectors have been getting in each others’ faces for a more than a month now. But last weekend’s confrontations on the Makah Indian reservation near Washington’s northwestern tip were the first to cross the line into physical violence. While property damage was minimal and human injury relatively slight, tempers are clearly fraying on both sides, and something dark and ugly is bubbling up from the psychic depths.

    On Saturday, about 30 protesters drove onto the reservation and swapped insults and profanity with tribal members. According to a Seattle Times account, one protester shouted, “You are evil! Evil! Evil!” to the Makah whalers. Tribal member Michael Johnston taunted a protester, blowing kisses at him and daring him to fight. “You better hope we don’t mistake you for a whale, you fat pig!” another Makah yelled at the protester.

    The next day, four Sea Shepherd Conservation Society members were arrested by tribal police as one tried to come ashore at the invitation of Alberta Thompson, a Makah elder who is an outspoken opponent of the whale hunt. Protesters and Indians shouted insults at each other and Makahs threw rocks, fireworks and chunks of concrete at the protesters and their boats. Some windows were broken aboard the Sea Shepherd’s flagship Sirenian and several crew members were slightly injured. Tribal members dragged the protester’s inflatable boat ashore and triumphantly claimed it as their own.

    The front page of Monday’s Seattle P-I showed protester Ken Nichols, blood streaming from where tribal police had scraped his forehead on a concrete boat ramp, being led away in handcuffs. The detained protesters were turned over to Clallam County authorities, who released them with no charges.

    Meanwhile, Thompson says she has been threatened with expulsion from the reservation as an enemy of her tribe.

    The weekend’s developments are not comforting news to those who had hoped an underlying basic human respect would help keep things from getting out of hand. There are some on both sides who are clearly spoiling for a fight.

    And as those who see themselves as defenders of a gentle and intelligent race of near-humans face off against those whose souls burn with the injustices done their people for two centuries, it becomes harder to envision this intensely emotional drama playing itself out in anything other than tragedy.

    What whirls at the center of this maelstrom is a fundamental and profound inability of two worlds to see things through the eyes of the other.

    To the protesters, the whales are not animals; they are folks. Not people, exactly, but sentient, knowing beings with some palpable connection to humans. Those of you who have had close encounters with the local orca whales know what I’m talking about. Many times people making their first contact with the orcas find tears streaming down their faces. What is that reaction?

    When it happened to me, it was an instant and unexpected welling of emotion, not unlike the feelings that swept over me the moment I saw my first son born. It was a sense of connecting to something huge and primeval and profound, a long-lost cellular link with my biological being. It felt like coming home.

    To the Makah, the whales also symbolize a connection to home. By re-establishing their traditional relationship to the whales, they feel, they can reclaim their spirit as a people and re-establish the ancient bond with their place and with each other, a bond they feel the poorer for having lost since European America washed unbidden over their shores.

    Both worlds feel acutely what the whales can do for them. In a modern age where alienation from the natural world and from other humans is the endemic malaise of the soul, both worlds crave the sense of connection the whales offer. Both worlds need the whales to heal their wounded hearts.

    The point of conflict, of course, is that the whale-lovers need the whales alive, while the Makah feel the whales must die to impart that healing. And I honestly don’t see how to bridge that basic impasse.

    For my part, I empathize with the Makah’s legitimate need for re-connection to the source that once sustained them. One reason they have by and large done so poorly in the world white society has created is that they are in some fundamental way out of place in it; in a very real sense, they don’t — and perhaps can’t — fit in.

    The whale and the Makah may well have had some ancient metaphysical bond, an agreement that the whales would nourish their human brothers and sisters with their bodies.

    But in a time when the Makah drive pickup trucks and watch cable TV and eat frozen dinners, I believe that bond is irrevocably broken. Rather than try to revive that lost connection, I hope the Makah can forge a new relationship with the whale, one that takes the next evolutionary step toward understanding what the whale have to teach us.

    Because, as we enter the new millennium, I believe humans can best find their true identities by what they nurture, not by what they kill.

    I’ll see you on the street.

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