Native Peoples and the Ancestor Excuse

March 9, 2015

 Native people veganism
Photo: Makah Indians on the beach after a whale hunt, 1910; Photo by Asahel Curtis/Seattle Public Library

Note: This article has been modified since its original newsletter form to include some clarifications on my opinions about the undercurrent of white supremacy inherent in this issue—thank you, readers!

The Makah Native American tribe, an indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau of Washington, may soon be granted permission to resume their 2,000 year old whaling tradition—a practice that had been halted by court rulings over environmental concerns.

Here's where liberalism comes to a screeching, identity-confusing halt. Oooh, lord! Which side is a good liberal to take in the intersection of animal-protective environmentalism and native peoples' rights, in a conflict where there is an undercurrent of historically racist policies? Which are you—an imperialist or a whale murderer?

When I've talked about veganism with, say, meat-eating Hawaiian, Filipino, Native American, Japanese people (really anyone who identifies with an ethnic/cultural/social/national group—people from the U.S. South, Italians, Latinos, etc.) a common response is, "My ancestors ate [insert animal here]. Our people need that food to be healthy, we can't give it up, it's part of our blood and tradition."

This is exactly what T.J. Greene, chairman of the Makah tribal council, is stating about the potential whaling reinstatment: "The tribe hopes it leads to being able to practice our traditions, our culture...[whaling] is something that is strongly connected to our spiritual existence. We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come."

(No regard for the fact that every whale killed in its tracks was on a trajectory of its own, in a tradition of its own, in a nation of its own.)

As a student of American history and its historically racist and white supremacist policies, and as the relative of Holocaust victims and survivors, I tend to side with minority, oppressed, and colonialized parties in all political matters. Not because of white guilt, as many lazy thinkers would accuse (I'm an equal-opportunity critic), but as a result of historical and contextual examination and because thier side is more often seeking justice, not power and control. 

By that same measure, I call bunk on the native peoples' excuse to hunt. The last (illegal) whaling kill the Makah made was carried out using a high-powered rifle (how's that for tradition?). The whale bled out for hours before it died. 

No political alliance that I make goes unchecked. Today, hunting whales can not be considered ethical or moral by any measure. Allowing it does not bring justice to any party, does not change the political or economic standing of the tribe. It may signify a right to self-determination, but when that comes at the cost of another species, especially one in peril, it feels like a power play parallel to the status quo models of domination and oppression. I think we can all do better with our politics and with seeking true justice for all. 

A ban on traditional whaling is not a zero-sum game, where the environmentalist's win requires the native's loss. This particular conflict affords all parties an opportunity to honor native ancestors by rethinking and re-creating their values in the context of a new world.

Ancient Hawaiians lived and ate by the concept of ahupua'a, a system of land division which ensured sustainability and the efficient use of natural resources.  The entire concept was interwoven with their spiritual beliefs about the interconnectedness of nature's elements and living beings, of daily and seasonal life. It is an idea coming back into popularity as organizations look for sustainable solutions on the islands.

Native Americans, in a million ways, self-monitored their use of natural resources in the context of respect for and interconnection with the Earth. 

The list goes on with every native culture.

None of our ancestors would sanction a modern practice that destroys our health, or the last remaining animals of a species, the environment, or our connection to the Earth. 

The Makah don't have to lose their connection to the whale. If the ban on whaling is upheld, and it should be, I hope the Makah will redefine the ceremonies and practices that involve the whale so important to their culture (if you ask me, I think a ritual blessing ceremony would do beautifully).

But it is up to all of us to protect the wisdom of our ancestors, beyond their ancient practices, and forge new traditions that honor the old world.  

Contact the Washington region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here to ask them to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act (phone number is 206-526-6150). Or leave them a Facebook comment.

Please leave your comments below so everyone can take part in the discussion!