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click for an enlarged view of Singing to the Sound
ISBN 0-939165-40-6
192 pages
$13.95 US
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Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals and Spirit
By Brenda Peterson

One Spirit Book Club Selection

“Singing to the Sound is a lyrical and heartfelt tribute to the Northwest, as well as an exploration of the relationship between people and the natural worlds... It is such empathy for both humans and the natural world that sets this remarkable author apart."


In Singing to the Sound, nature writer Brenda Peterson reflects, observes, and reports on living by water, perched on the shores of Puget Sound. She writes about her observations of animal play; finding peace in a high-paced technological world; the ongoing battles over hunting the wolves and whales; the threatened salmon; lessons from the great blue heron, and more. Critics praise Peterson as “a new breed of essayist in America, especially in the American West.” Once again, Peterson gives her readers the opportunity to become “other” as she muses and envisions nature, animals, and spirit.

This timely new collection also includes three essays in which Peterson unravels the complexities of the highly controversial Makah whale hunt, the first off U.S. mainland shores in nearly a century. Since 1996, Peterson’s essays on the Makah have appeared in The Seattle Times, and now, for the first time in book form, Peterson gives an in depth view of this dramatic and complex story. Peterson, who helped mediate between the Makah and environmentalists, moves beyond the polarized view of “indians vs. environmentalists” often portrayed in the media.

Brenda Peterson, author, Singing To The Sound


The Way of Water

Common Ground

Between Species

  • Apprenticeship to Animal Play
  • Animal Allies
  • War and Peace with Wolves
  • Noah’s Ark Days
  • Listening to the Sea Breathing
  • Great Blue


Praise for Singing to the Sound

A Peterson essay can take off like a flock of birds. In this vibrant collection, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals & Spirit, nature writer Brenda Peterson sings to more than Puget Sound where she has lived for two decades. She sings to us about ourselves. These essays are not so much about endangered salmon or Makah whale hunts as they are about awakening to a sense of our deepest connection with all life.

Fran Shaw, Ph.D., Parabola magazine

Singing to the Sound is a lyrical and heartfelt tribute to the Northwest, as well as an exploration of the relationship between people and the natural world....It is such empathy for both humans and the natural world that sets this remarkable author apart.

The Bloomsbury Review

Brenda Peterson is amazing, a soulful and profound observer of nature--from whales to humans--in all their glory and distress. Singing to the Sound is a wonderfully tender and disturbing book, in which Peterson again brings environmental issues into a sharp focus with her sparkling vision.

Diane Ackerman, author of Deep Play

Whether she is discussing her wind-rattled studio on the shore of Puget Sound or her deep relationships with marine and land animals, Peterson writes with spiritual maturity and environmental authority. Each passionate story in Singing to the Sound examines the way humans commune or collide with the natural world, so that a pearl of wisdom is always found beneath the surface.

Gail Hudson, editorial review for

Nature writing at its finest: elegant, revelatory and absolutely finely crafted. Brenda Peterson is a deep-sea diver; her territory the immense psyche of the American Dream.

Joy Harjo, author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky

Brenda Peterson is amazing, a soulful and profound observer of nature-from whales to humans-in all their glory and distress. Singing to the Sound is a wonderfully tender and disturbing book, in which Peterson again brings environmental issues into a sharp focus with her sparkling vision.

Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses

Each passionate story examines the way humans commune or collide with the natural world, so that a pearl of wisdom is always found beneath the surface. Whether she is discussing her wind-rattled studio on the shore of Puget Sound or her deep relationships with marine and land animals, Peterson writes with spiritual maturity and environmental authority.

Gail Hudson, Spirituality Editor,


Brenda Peterson

Singing to the Sound is the long-awaited sequel to Brenda Peterson’s popular classic Living by Water first published in 1990. From her two decades on the shores of Puget Sound, Peterson now advances her “love song for a region” into a new century in which the West is leading and shaping environmental ethics worldwide. An acclaimed nature writer, Peterson’s literate, lyrical writing moves from stately reporting to memoir.

Singing to the Sound reveals darker and more troubled waters--from the Makah whale hunt to the feared extinction of Northwest salmon. Peterson also offers subtle solutions and visions of future environmental restoration and healing. Peterson’s writing moves from love song to prophesy, from the way things are to a vision of what they might be.

Brenda Peterson is the author of three novels, one of which, Duck and Cover, was selected by The New York Times as a “Notable Book of the Year.” Her recent works of nonfiction include her memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. She has co-edited with Linda Hogan two highly acclaimed anthologies; the groundbreaking Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals and The Sweet Breathing of Plants. Upcoming work by Peterson includes Sightings; The Many Mysterious Worlds of the Gray Whale (National Geographic, 2002), co-authored with Linda Hogan.

Peterson lives in Seattle on the shores of Puget Sound with her beloved cat, Isabel.

Singing to the Sound

For two decades now I have cleaved to the misting, mysterious shores of Washington’s Puget Sound, far-flung in the Pacific Northwest. The Salish Indians call Puget Sound Whulge, which truly sounds more like this Sound with its deluge of mighty gales and intimate, watery whisperings. My beach studio, with its walls of salt-splattered windows, its wind-tunnel whoosh and clatter, its precarious perch several stories above the high-tide splashing of the Sound is like living inside an aquarium. Except here, humans go about our daily lives encased in glass, while sea gulls, bald eagles, Dall’s porpoises, harbor seals, orca pods, and an occasional meandering, migrating gray whale are the observers. Sometimes I believe they are, since seals are known to fix on a familiar landmark on shore and navigate their deep, fishing dives. Perhaps marine mammals who surface to spy on our human activities consider our shore-clinging structures to be alive like an undersea coral reef city. We land creatures slip in and out of our houses, hide for long hours as if we were moray eels or tropical fish with our flickering bright yellow and red rain slickers.

Such musings from my beloved waterfront studio might seem strange to anyone not familiar with the Northwest. Seattle is a whole city practically underwater. One recent winter, we had twenty-seven inches of rain in three months and mudslides are now as familiar as side streets. Northwesterners live like slowly drowning people. We are well aware of the predictions that in the next millennium our Pacific Rim shores will sink from the volcanic tsunami waves into an Atlantis-like abyss. So my daily meditations inside this weather-beaten studio are most often centered on water. And my air-filled aquarium apartment beached here on the Sound is the closest I can get to my childhood dream of living inside a diving bell at 50,000 leagues under the sea.

The Sound is an inland sea-cold, fertile, fabled. Its lovely lengths embrace our islands and peninsulas like a green dragon that coils north from Seattle, entwines its fresh water with the salty Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and finally comes to lick at the docks of Vancouver and Victoria. Our Sound is studded with fjords and long archipelagoes. Sometimes gazing out my window at Bainbridge, Vashon, and Blake islands, I imagine they are breaching whales, blowing mists of lavender-gray geysers.

Northwesterners have always been water folk, shaped by this Sound and also by the sounds of rapid rivers and dousing rains. Northwest Coast Natives tell stories of sea creatures and underwater tribes that “shape-shift” into humans then return to the original People the animals. Our tales are syncopated with rhythms of tide and wind, cries of seagulls, osprey, and eagles, the mystical breath of whales, and grieving arpeggios of foghorns.

Our abundant, defining coast holds us all together with its cadences of water and weather. Sometimes we feel so hidden by marine fog and darkening showers that we wonder if our far-off territory is truly isolated from the remaining, mostly landlocked sprawl of North America. But when we try to spell out our “rainy day people” intimacies to outsiders, they cannot believe that we actually enjoy living for many months aswirl in great, flowing gowns of gray mist. To survive here without the daily illumination of sunlight, we must have an inner life bright with hidden worlds; we must awaken even though it may still seem like night. We must recognize another radiance-what the poet Rilke calls the shining of a “dark light."

When I describe for my far-away friends the Northwest subtle shades of weather --- from gloaming skies of “high-gray” to “low-gray” with violet streaks like the water’s delicate aura-they wonder if my brain and body have, indeed, become waterlogged. Yet still, I find myself praising the solace and privacy of fine, silver drizzle, the comforting cloaks of salt, mold, moss, and fog, the secretive shelter of cedar and clouds.

For those who live by the sea, water is a character to be reckoned with as a neighbor or close relative. Whether it’s in the Florida Keys, along the rocky Maine coast, within the Gulf of Mexico’s warm curves, on the brave Outer Banks; or, for those who nestle near inland seas such as the brine-steeped Great Salt Lake or the Midwest’s Great Lakes-water is alive and in relationship with those of us who are blessed with such a world-shaping, yet abiding, intimate ally.

Every day, I am moved by this double life of water-her power and her humility. But most of all, I am grateful for the partnership of this great body of inland sea. Living by water, I am never alone. Just as water has sculpted soil and canyon, it also molds my own living space, and every story I tell.

My studio’s battered teak desk is sun-blistered and rain-swept from summer winds blowing sea mists in through window screens. It looks like salvage washed ashore off some nineteenth-century shipwreck. Writing out here on the glass-paneled porch, with no baseboard heating, I wear a black-knit cap, goosedown vest, wool mittens with no fingers, and an afghan or Siamese cat draped across my knees.

At the end of the workday, it feels as if I have been sailing outdoors for hours. A mahogany rocking chair and several pine bookcases in my aquarium office look waterlogged because the damp winds of winter bluster right through the waterfront windows like a loquacious guest. I am lucky. I like the whistling sound of the windy monologue that accompanies the unceasing syncopation of the sea. Waves are a second language to me. And whenever someone telephones, my voice may be drowned out by sea gulls crying. If I’m lounging in the bathtub, I hear the raucous dinosaur-call of the great blue heron through the air vent above as if that great-winged bird is dive-bombing my little bubble-bath lagoon. At night, reading in bed by my stained-glass blue water lamp with its full-spectrum, I close my eyes and simply listen to the stories told by sounds, as if all the silkies and sea sprites are singing me chanties to sleep.

Living so close to this vital, inland sea and all her creatures lends my home expansiveness and balance. My waterfront studio’s decor is an extension of the beach as if designed by mermaids. Lining each long windowsill are seashells, driftwood, a Chambered Nautilus, black, bejeweled barnacles. All my plants, from desert aloe vera to humid Norfolk pine, have somehow found themselves draped with dried seaweed. There are binoculars for handy viewing whenever my resting eye catches sight of a seal, river otter, or eagle diving down for salmon. In the hope that passing marine mammals will recognize a land-legged ally, I hang small stained-glass medallions of orcas and dolphins in the window. Facing these wide windows hangs a Makah drum painted with a thunderbird, whale and serpents by Makah master carver Spencer McCarty; this native drum was given me by my friends to auspiciously mark my birthday, which fell that year on 8.8.88.

I imagine my little kitchen is a galley. Turquoise tiles the color of Hawaiian waters adorn the walls with a few yellow trim tiles to remind me of sun-which is usually no more than a faint rumor here. Over the kitchen stove there is a favorite children’s book poster, A Swim Through the Sea, with Seamore the Seahorse and “many munching manatees.” There are also cooking essentials: a copper mold pan in the shape of a leaping salmon, a bronze dolphin bottle opener, and a midnight blue-glazed teakettle with a whale’s tail for a handle. Orca and bottlenose dolphin magnets breach right on my refrigerator, holding up a family album of photos, both human and cetacean.

When it doesn’t smell of spicy tea, basil, or nutmeg, my kitchen offers the bittersweet scent of mold compliments of brine and kelp, and sometimes the pungent waft of neighboring fish swimming right by my skillet. And one spring evening, as I was washing dishes, I glanced out the window to marvel at a giant gray whale, graceful tail flukes waving as it migrated.

There is a bond and a balance when one counts as neighbors the marine kinfolk and seabirds who share our beach. Except for one neighbor, who hired an animal control agency to trap several river otters she found rolling on her lawn, many of us here on Puget Sound embrace the other animals who make our houses seem alive, our families extended. In fact, those otter traps were destroyed as soon as they were discovered. And within a month, the river otters returned to our backyard beach, even going so far as to lazily lounge and sunbathe on two sailboats anchored out in the Sound.

For those of us who choose the companionship of water, there is always the longing to give something back, to grow even closer to this other body of water, like the elusive desire for a lover. We water folk are possessive, protective, and passionate. I will never forget witnessing one luminous Solstice and Christmas celebration-where else? But on the beach. It was a night that will always define for me both the hope of a New Year, a new millennium, and the prospect of reciprocity between humans and nature.

The December tide was low and the moon full when hundreds of people huddled together in circles around a bonfire on Alki Beach. Christmas boats strung with red and gold lights glided across the ebony Sound like winter bobsleds skimming black ice. In the perfect, chill air, liquid music from the Christmas boats carried across the accompanying waves. As we celebrated these darkest days of the year, our spirits and breaths were visible in bright puffs. We sang Solstice songs to summon back the wayward sun. Addressing ourselves to angels and passing harbor seals, we raised a chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The bonfire glowed like a small sun settled on the beach and illuminated our faces. Our boots sunk in wet, winter sand and although the night was freezing, we sang our “Glor-or-or-or-or-or-ria!” in perfect synch with the surf.

I wondered if any sea lions raised their whiskered snouts to listen to our glad song. Were gray whales passing on their migration to winter breeding grounds trying to decipher our gleeful vocalizations? Did jellyfish and seals float a little easier near our shores because we were singing to them? How long had it been since an entire tribe of people made joyful noises of song on this stretch of sand? As we sang at the top of our voices, the children ran circles around the bonfire and stopped to adorn themselves with seaweed and shells.

Harmonies of surf, wave, and human voices held me close and I remembered a childhood story-an Indian girl plays atop the round, hard shell of a tortoise that is really the whole world. One day the great Grandmother Turtle wakes up, stretches out her sleepy head, and discovers the little girl on her big back. Will the turtle shake the girl off as a parasite or let her continue living on top of her shell? The Grandmother Turtle and little girl make a simple bargain: the girl can stay on the turtle’s sturdy, round back if she will always remember to sing to Grandmother Turtle as she sleeps. If the singer ever stops so does the symbiosis.

So I sing here to the Sound, to Whulge and her multitudinous sea creatures whose lives accompany mine. Living by water restores my sense of balance and natural rhythm-the ebb and flow of high and low tides, so like the rise and fall of everyday life. Wind, water, waves are not simply a backdrop to my life; they are steady companions. And that is the grace, the gift of inviting nature to live inside my home. Like a Chambered Nautilus I spin out my days, drifting and dreaming, nurtured by marine mists, like another bright shell on the beach, balancing on the back of a greater body.

(Excerpted from Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals & Spirit. Copyright 2000 by Brenda Peterson and NewSage Press)


Hunters of the Whale

This is the story of a trust forged, betrayed, and bewildered-yet not quite broken. In the summer of 1998, the tribe’s whaling crew practiced daily in a thirty-two-foot cedar canoe for their highly controversial and federally sponsored whale hunt off the far tip of the Northwest Coast. Anti-whaling protesters streamed into Neah Bay and the Makah tribe itself was divided about the whale hunt.

On such a small reservation with only six hundred full-time residents and two thousand years of a shared, complex history, rumors abounded. Some feared that the whaling crew-who had much difficulty paddling the turbulent waters-would scrap their traditional craft and instead hunt the whale with motorboats. Others worried that the crew was not spiritually or technically prepared for such a strenuous, soul-stirring hunt because of alleged drug and alcohol abuse by some of the crew members. In addition, there was much complicated infighting among long-feuding Makah families who clashed over which songs and ceremonies were proper for the whale hunt. Traditionally, the preparations and rituals surrounding the whale hunt were passed down secretly through the generations, which has resulted in present day confusion as well as lost rituals.

Standing in the center of the canoe and the eye of this storm, was Micah McCarty, 27, the young man many believed would be chosen to throw the first harpoon. Micah is the great grandson of the last Makah whaler, Hishka, who passed on to Micah’s father, John McCarty, the stories of the whale hunt. If there were any spiritual spokesmen for a volatile and often angry whaling crew, it was Micah and John. John had been the executive director of the tribe’s whaling commission. However, he resigned after being forced out by those on the Tribal Council who were more interested in modern technology than traditional whaling practices.

While some whaling crew members were belligerent and seemed to enjoy posing with the bazooka-sized, .50-caliber antitank gun to the eager press and an outside world appalled by their unpopular hunt, Micah and his father spoke with a reverence about the spiritual aspects of the ancient bond between the Makah and gray whale.

“To me, I’m like the last will and testament of my ancestors,” Micah told a New York Times Magazine reporter in August 1998. Reiterating his concern that the hunt be respectful and not sacrilegious, Micah was in strict spiritual and physical training to prove he was worthy of this first hunt. His training included rigorous jogging, paddling, and cleansing. “There’s an old saying that the whale chooses the whaler,” Micah told The Times, “and I want to be honorable enough to be chosen by the whale."

As already polarized lines were drawn so taut that even reporters feared violence from covering the imminent fall hunt, Micah and John McCarty emerged as moderates. Cautiously and calmly, the father and son balanced many of the more militant whaling crew members. The Makah Tribal Council was flush with its expected “win” of a whaling quota at the fall International Whaling Committee (IWC). Hundreds of media people camped out at the reservation awaiting the photo op of the new century’s Indian Wars.

Most of the media, especially from outside Washington State, indulged in the usual polarities of Indian versus environmentalists. There were a few exceptions, such as Lynda Mapes of The Seattle Times and Paul Shukovsky of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer who spent months carefully interviewing and reporting on the acrimonious and complicated factions, both within and without the tribe.

What nobody was reporting, because it was behind-the-scenes, was the five years of quiet negotiations between moderate Makah and moderate environmentalists. Their hope was to form a bond based on trust, not positions. Together, they tried to see past the present disarray and dark forces gathering on both sides, to a time when mutual trust, not treaties, might be made.

In early August 1998, an anti-whaling activist meeting in the fishing town of Port Angeles, Washington was the scene of a near riot when pro-whaling Makah tribal members showed up uninvited. Will Anderson of Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) moderated the panel, joined by panel participants Makah elder Alberta Thompson, Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., a consultant for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and Ben White of the Animal Defense League (ADL).

Honored in the United States and internationally, Makah anti-whaler, Alberta Thompson, often returned to a grim, but familiar scene at home-threats from pro-whaling tribal members and censorship from the Makah Tribal Council. She was about to lose her job at the Makah Senior Center for initiating discussions between tribal elders and members of anti-whaling groups. Alberta was growing weary of the prejudice directed against her by the Makah Tribal Council and others pushing for the fall hunt.

As Alberta sat on that Port Angeles anti-whaling panel, she seemed beyond exhaustion. Stoically, she gazed up past a mostly anti-whaling audience to eye familiar Makah who lined the back of the room, their faces hard and accusing. Yet for all their outrage, the pro-whaling Makah seemed anxious. They were at the meeting uninvited and no one knew what to expect. This was the first time Native and non-Native groups on opposing sides had met face-to-face in one room. “This is about me!” one of the Makah women in the back of the room shouted out. “This is about the whale!"

In the small auditorium of several hundred people, the most palpable emotion running through the crowd was fear; fear of the unknown, of what was to come, of each other. Distrust and despair ran deeper than the historic bitterness between Native and non-Native. This bleakness told me that any day now, maybe even that night at the meeting, there would be someone who crossed the tense boundaries and instigated violence.

It was so familiar. This anger from hardliners on both sides of the issue, fanned by the media, anticipated by even peaceful protesters, and in an eerie way egged on by the federal government’s continual exploitation of a small tribe’s fractured culture. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and that night in Port Angeles, everything had conspired to make enemies easy to identify.

Angry Makah shouted and disrupted Will Anderson’s patient explanations of why many people opposed a return to whaling. “I’ve tried to be respectful to the Makah tribe,” Will began, “but these whales are not the same whales the Makah’s ancestors hunted. Whale watching has given millions of people a new appreciation for this intelligent and unique species who already face so much jeopardy. We need to make decisions based on who the whales are now to us. What responsibility do we have to protect and preserve them for the future?"

Heckled and shouted down during his speech, Will was clearly frustrated and reminded the pro-whaling Makah that they had not been invited to this meeting. He warned that he might have to call security, at which point the Makah at the back of the room shouted even louder. “But we’re hungry!” a Makah woman screamed.

In this middle-aged woman’s fierceness, I felt a hunger far beyond physical subsistence. There is poverty, high unemployment, and poor health on the Makah reservation, including rampant diabetes, a travail for many tribal peoples. Perhaps this Makah woman was talking about a hunger that may never be truly sated-the hunger for what had been stolen from them. Was she talking about a hunger for pride, for tribal identity, and respect from within the tribe as well as from the outside world? Maybe this woman was remembering that once long ago, the gray whales had put an end to all hunger. Might the whales once again save her people?

“But is it the whale meat you really need now?” someone in the audience engaged the Makah woman. “Or is it the whale?” The Makah woman turned on him and cried out, “We’re just hungry, that’s all! And we don’t make friends with our food!” The entire auditorium erupted in a shouting match as pro-whaling Makah streamed into the audience and engaged in heated arguments with attendees. All semblance of a forum disappeared as everyone yelled and talked at once.

As a pro-whaler and an environmentalist screamed at each other, their faces close, their bodies tense, I hunkered down in my seat. All I wanted to do was escape this angry scene, but then I saw two images at the front of the room that held my attention: One was Alberta Thompson being harangued by a Makah man yelling, “You’re liars. You’re all liars!” The other was the forlorn sight of Micah McCarty standing in the front row near where he and his father had sat quietly listening to all sides before the melee erupted.

Bewildered, Micah tentatively held his Makah drum in front of him like a shield. He had carved his own drum after a long apprenticeship to a master carver, his cousin, Spencer McCarty, who was now a pro-whaler. Micah had painted his traditional Makah drum with his own dream images, and a black-and-red whale who had a large eye that seemed to gaze at the chaos with sorrow and dismay. I, too, had a Makah drum similar to Micah’s that had been made by Spencer McCarty. It had hung on my wall at home for nearly a decade prior to this meeting-a prophetic connection of my involvement with the Makah.

Unlike the pro-whalers holding forth at the back of the room, clearly intent on disrupting the meeting, the McCartys had come to talk, to explain, to seek some understanding outside the tribe. “I believe that man,” Micah nodded to Ben White on the panel. “He invited us to talk “ Micah’s voice was drowned out by the shouting match around him.

Courtesy and compassion departed as the auditorium rang with shouts and curses. Many moderate Makah and conservationists had hoped to talk with each other, but this seemed unlikely. From my long interviews with Makah elders such as Alberta Thompson, I had learned that there was a “silent majority” on the reservation who were afraid to speak out in the presence of the more adamant pro-whalers.

Tentatively I approached Micah McCarty. “I’d like to hear what you have to say,” I told him. “Please talk, if you can."Around us, the room seemed to roil and swirl, but Micah and John McCarty, environmentalist Ben White, and I talked with our heads close together.

"This is going on today,” Micah began in a soft voice, “because at the time of the treaties [in 1855] it was only three years after a major smallpox epidemic obliterated a village of our people.” After this great epidemic, two thirds of the Makah tribe were dead. Before contact, the Makah’s population was estimated at between two thousand and four thousand. By the late nineteenth century, the number was under one thousand, and by 1910, there were as few as 360 living Makah. For Micah and the Makah, this history continues to be a living and terrible legacy of what can result when the Makah have contact with outsiders.

Micah continued, “Stecowilth-his name means ’gray whale’-was concerned the government was taking away our way of life. They wanted to move us to the cape [Cape Flattery] and everyone was afraid that life was going to change forever. Stecowilth said, ’I want the sea. That is my country.’ And so we got our fishing, seal, and whale hunting rights."

It is impossible for those of us who are non-Indian to fathom the fear that a living history of genocide has left, even in today’s generation. But ironically enough fear was something all sides shared as the first whale hunt neared. There was so much at stake for both humans and whales.

In a later conversation, John McCarty would note that by the 1920s-long before the rest of the world declared a moratorium on hunting the gray whale-the Makah elders voluntarily stopped hunting the whale. They were gravely concerned about the dwindling grays along the coast. “A good hunter never hunted an animal to extinction,” McCarty explained firmly. He was referring to the Yankee whaling ships led by Captain Charles Scammon who by the mid-1800s violated even the gray whale birthing lagoons, slaughtering mothers and calves. By 1874, an estimated 10,000 to 11,300 gray whales had been killed by Yankee whalers off the Pacific Coast. By that time, many believed gray whales were all but extinct.

Since then, thanks to the voluntary hunting moratorium by the Makah, and later, the federal Endangered Species Act, the gray whale rebounded. But there were still many threats, including pollution and a proposed salt works to be built by Mitsubishi in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico, which scientists worldwide believe would destroy this fragile habitat.

"We Makah are very concerned about the survival for the next generations of the gray whale,” John McCarty said, expressing a fear that many felt. “We want to do this hunt right with dignity and tradition-not to just kill a whale and have it float up spoiled on the beach. We have to do this hunt like the ancestors and bring that whale back up onto the beach for all the people."

Listening to Micah and John McCarty tell their stories at that Port Angeles meeting, and during many future conversations, I learned that they, too, loved the whale. And this mutual bond was a beginning between us.

* * * * *


That bond was called upon when Ben White, a long-time activist for Native American as well as animal rights, leaned toward Micah at the Port Angeles meeting and said, “Listen, what I learned about nature I learned from your people. You taught me a way to look in the animal’s eye-that there’s a person in there. After I saw that, I couldn’t kill animals, I had to protect them."

"Haven’t you heard about the food chain?” interrupted the Makah woman who had earlier shouted out her hunger. “

And haven’t you heard us ask your Tribal Council again and again just to sit down and talk with us?” another conservationist pleaded with her. “They’ve refused our every request."

Micah was about to begin again when he was interrupted by a lawyer the Makah Tribal Council had hired to represent them in their quest to return to whale hunting. “Who are you?” the attorney demanded, frowning at my tape recorder.

When I told him my name, his frown deepened. “Don’t talk to her!” he angrily advised the McCartys. “She’s a nature writer who does essays for The Seattle Times."

We were all stunned into silence by the lawyer’s demands. And in that moment it was as if we all looked at each other for the first time. I saw before me in Micah a young man with his long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, his dark eyes as serious and eloquent as his words. Now, he held his hand-carved drum solidly in front of him as if protecting his heart from the onslaught. Yet, even amid the loud shouting, he remained soft-spoken and thoughtful, like a statesman. Next to him, John McCarty’s weathered face was somber, showing the same bone-deep weariness I’d seen growing over the last two years in another Makah elder, Alberta Thompson.

In that instant, I wondered, What did the McCartys see when they studied me? Was their lawyer right to warn them away from talking to this fair-skinned, silver-haired woman with her tape recorder held tentatively toward them? Could they have recognized in me the daughter of generations of hunters, a girl who had grown up on a national forest eating nothing but wild game? Could they see my own mixed blood heritage from Cherokee, Seminole, and French Canadian?

Whatever we saw in each other was enough to override the lawyer’s command that they silence themselves. Micah calmly took up again, “We just want to be clearly understood,” he said.

Again the Caucasian lawyer, hired by the Makah, interrupted our fragile dialogue to talk right over the top of John McCarty’s head to Ben White. “Listen,” he said, as if the McCartys were not there at all, “these are simple people."

"How dare you patronize them?” Ben demanded incredulously. “These are not simple people. How can you say that when they’re standing right here? I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to the Makah."

This seemed to break the stranglehold the lawyer had tried to impose, but we knew that we could not have any real conversation amidst such turmoil. So I asked the McCartys, “Would you meet again with a few of us to try and seek some common ground?"

"Yes,” they said firmly.

At the end of the meeting, I stayed a little longer to talk with the McCartys. By the time I was ready to leave, I had lost track of my companions. Micah and I walked to the parking lot together and unknowingly I ended up in the midst of the Makah whaling crew as they encircled Micah. The crew held Micah in high esteem and they considered him the spiritual spokesman for them. Soon we were all laughing and joking together as the whaling crew teased one another. Suddenly I became aware that I was not only an outsider, but also the only woman. Traditionally, whaling is the strict province of Makah men. Yet, despite these differences, in that brief interaction I felt strangely at ease with these men who would be the hunters of the whale.

For a moment, I was confused with how comfortable I felt. It was as if I’d found myself dropped down someplace I didn’t belong. But as I heard their gruff, masculine taunts to each other, their playful struts and claims to victory, their boasts about their imminent hunt, I felt myself suddenly returned to my own childhood. All my life I have been surrounded by my father, himself mixed-blood, and his talk of hunting. Sometimes I accompanied my father and his hunting buddies as they set up camp for their deer or elk hunts. They were always successful, and I had spent my childhood eating the wild, sweet game of these hunts, torn between my love for the animal and my love for my father-who had confused me. He was the one who had taught me to love and study animals.

Nothing was simple anymore. Nothing was easy now. To make this conflict an either/or situation, the “Indian versus the environmentalist,” was simplistic, and not true. All I knew was that we were building a bridge between seeming opposites who still had much to say to each other.

* * * * *


The following week on August 21, 1998, four of us continued our dialogue on the Makah reservation. “We are among the more moderates of the tribe,” Micah had confided when we first agreed to this meeting. This marked the first time a whaling crew member, Micah McCarty, had agreed to sit down and talk with representatives of whale conservation groups. Marine biologist Toni Frohoff, and Ben White of the ADL, joined Micah and myself.

Micah met us at the door and invited us into his father’s home, although John McCarty did not join us that day. We all recognized that this was an historic meeting and the openness and courtesy on all sides contained us. Just as we walked into the living room, a nightly news clip showed Micah and his fellow whaling crew members vigorously paddling their canoe in training for their imminent fall hunt. We all sat down with Micah’s sister Maggie to watch the news. Despite the import of the meeting, in that moment there was a familiar sense that we had simply “come calling” like far-flung neighbors.

Micah pointed out the sleek contours of the ancestral canoe, “The Hummingbird,” carved by a Makah under guidance from the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, long known for their paddling prowess. Later Micah would tell us that many traditional canoes such as “Trying to Get There” were named for the whale hunt. In the past, Makah whaling chiefs had polished their names, increasing their reputation for humility and generosity with names such as “The One Who Makes the Whale Blow on the Beach” and “Always Comes Back with the Whale."

When the newscaster reported on expected protests and violence in the upcoming annual summer event, Makah Days, the mood darkened in that living room still bright with the Northwest’s evening summer light.

"Look,” Micah said, noting that a whaling crewman’s face was blurred on the screen. “He asked them to not show his face.” The Makah crew had gotten anonymous death threats. And the Makah well remember a history of threats that have plagued this country’s Native peoples-from government sanctioned massacres to stolen homelands and attempts to annihilate Native languages, traditions, and cultures.

After the newscast, we settled in to listen to Micah. Maggie sliced and passed around warm bread, creating an air of openness. “It goes back to the great famine,” Micah began. “We were here before the last Ice Age. A man went to a mountain to pray for starvation to come to an end. That’s when Thunderbird brought the whales to all the beaches. This changed the Ice Age, brought warmth back to the land. The whales beached themselves for us. They saved the people from death by hunger."

For more than an hour Micah explained the history of whaling while we listened. After a long pause, Ben said, “This is a tragedy that we’re at odds with the Makah when we share so much. Don’t you think we’re all being used here, suckered? While big business and big governments make deals that have more to do with U.S. free-trade policies with Japan and Norway than with caring about either the Makah or the whales?"

Ben has risked much of his life in defense of other species. Where Ben has the passionate and philosophic stance of a spiritual warrior, Micah is a young statesman of his tribe and an ambassador for the Makah. He has a dignity and authority that belie his 27 years. And an ability to listen graciously while others speak.

Ben told a story of living for three days and nights up in an ancient cedar in the Dosewallips rainforest in Washington State to protest the cutting of old-growth trees. “After you’re up there in the treetops for days, you notice things,” Ben said thoughtfully. “Every evening at dusk there is this surprising shiver that runs through all the trees. You don’t just sense it, you can see the trees tremble like with wind. Then someone told me it is the trees themselves going through their daily change-from breathing out to breathing in. And this kind of consciousness, aliveness, we all share with each other and the animals as well."

Micah nodded knowingly: “We see the whales as beings. We even have ways of addressing the whales, and their ancestors, too.” Then he lamented, “But so many of the Makah’s old whaling songs and dances have been lost. We have tried to remember them. I want us to be one with the whale in spirit.” Micah paused, then gravely added, “I will tell you that I don’t know what I will do if, when we get out there and I look into the eye of the whale, I see that our crew is not in the spirit-not cleansed and ready in the old ways to take the whale. I don’t know what I will do."

For a long while we all sat in silence. Studying Micah’s almost bowed head, I had a sharp pang of fear for him. What would be more dangerous for him in this modern whale hunt-going against his own whaling crew or censoring his own doubts about their spiritual readiness to meet the whale as had their ancestors?

"I have seen things within my own tribe that make me sad,” Micah continued, referring to past Tribal Council corruption and politics. Then, as to forgive such failings, he added, “We have suffered so much. And we still are oppressed. Many people cannot forget or see past this. Some Makah only see an ongoing retaliation, a brutal drive by outsiders to assimilate us and tell us what to do.” As he spoke, I thought about what a Native Hawaiian woman once told me: “When you study the history of indigenous peoples, you also have to reckon with neo-colonialism. This is the third or fourth generation of Native people, some of whom have taken on the rapacious ways of the first colonizers. These neo-colonials-even though they are Native-turn upon their own more traditional people. And this begins yet another cycle of persecution, but from within."

Her explanation made perfect sense in relationship to the Makah. The very U.S. government that once persecuted Native peoples, now supports certain corrupt tribal councils on the mainland. “It’s happening everywhere,” the Hawaiian woman observed. “The split is between tribal traditionalists devoted to the old ways of knowing and the natural world; and contemporary, economically driven tribal councils."

I thought about elder Alberta Thompson who was still bravely speaking against the whale hunt on behalf of many frightened elders. She had just been fired from her job of fifteen years at the Makah Senior Center by the Tribal Council. The council sent a memo citing her helping another elder make telephone contact with a representative from the environmental group, Sea Shepherd, as grounds for her dismissal. What would she do now to make a living? And if the council made good their threat to drop her from the tribal rolls, who would pay for her food and health care?

As Micah spoke I wondered if one day after he’d completed his environmental law studies at the Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, he might be welcomed back to his own tribe as a future leader like his father. He certainly had the vision and intelligence to grasp the complexities of government. He also had the compassion. Then Micah offered, “I’ve really been thinking about the common ground between us. We’re losing so much,” he continued, referring to all of us who care about the environment. “Our fisheries are in bad shape so that many fishermen are not making ends meet. I, too, share your concern about Mitsubishi salt mines in the Baja gray whale birthing lagoons.” For another hour or so we talked about the threats to timberlands, watersheds, salmon, wolves-the same problems that affect all peoples of the Northwest.

Then we returned to the subject of the imminent whale hunt. Micah concluded, “Like you, the Makah are trying to balance our spiritual lessons with our material existence. And we’re trying to keep our own identity."

I thought back to the recent Port Angeles meeting and one overwhelming image that rose above the chaos. Whether they were wearing cetacean jewelry or T-shirts with gray whales emblazoned on their backs, or like Micah, carrying a drum with gray whales in a family design-all the people in that auditorium were identifying with whales, but from different perspectives.

At the kitchen table, Toni and Micah began swapping whale-sighting stories. For the first time, both sides told their stories of this shared identity with the whale. Micah spoke about journeying to Hawaii to swim with the same wild dolphins both Toni and I had studied. Toni talked about her winter Baja trip to the birthing and breeding grounds of grays. “We want the whales to do well and stay healthy,” Micah agreed. “It is in keeping with our traditions and the way of our ancestors."

Toward the end of our five hours together, most of it spent huddled around the kitchen table, we found ourselves considering an alternative-a nonlethal, ceremonial Makah whale hunt. We wondered if this imagined annual ceremonial hunt might become as successful as the Seattle salmon homecoming powwow and celebration, which attracts more than sixty thousand people every September, a majority of them tribal peoples from throughout North America.

At this ceremonial Makah whale hunt, we wondered whether the Makah might increase their proud reputation worldwide: That the Makah were not the killers, but the Keepers of the Whale. “I have had this vision,” Micah said with conviction.We took our leave of each other with the pledge to meet again. As we walked away, Toni leaned towards me and quietly admitted, “I don’t know what to do now, except keep protecting the whale. But now I also hold dear one who holds the harpoon."

* * * * *


During the early fall of 1998, as preparations for the first whale hunt intensified and tensions escalated, the quiet and fragile coalition between the moderate Makah represented by the McCartys and the conservationists strengthened. Our dialogue and personal trust in each other had grown, even as newspaper headlines screamed of “a recipe for disaster” on the high seas when those protecting the whales and those hunting the whales clashed.

Before the hunt polarized everyone even further, now seemed the time to give voice to this fledgling dialogue seeking common ground. The McCartys agreed that an article in The Seattle Times on what some of us fondly referred to as “the Kitchen Roundtable” would be helpful. I admired the McCarty’s courage to go public with their ideas, which were in conflict with the Makah Tribal Council. It was as if through the newspaper forum, they could make audible many of the silenced voices among their tribe. The McCartys knew that the world as well as their own tribal members would be listening. When I asked John McCarty whether printing this story might jeopardize him or his son within his own tribe, John said simply, “We are who we are."

I read the entire article over the speaker phone to the McCartys and other tribal members unknown to me who gathered to hear what I had written for The Seattle Times. Journalists rarely check more than their quotes with interviewees, but I felt it was more important to continue the trust we had carefully built by letting the McCartys hear all I had written. After all, it was their story. Also, I did not want to put them in any danger with their own people or others who might be more militant.

After I finished reading the entire text, there was a long silence and I imagined the other Makah gathered around the speakerphone. Would it float? I wondered. Would they back out in fear of possible repercussions? After all, they were putting out the idea of a hunt in which no whale was killed, but ancient traditions and an interspecies bond still honored. Anxiously, I awaited their comments. At last Micah softly responded, “You have done us honor. We are not afraid.” “Thank you for your courage,” I said, and let out a long withheld breath. “And for your vision."

* * * * *


On October 2, 1998 the article ran in The Seattle Times under the headline, “Makah Have Another Way to Hunt and Honor Whales.” Reaction was immediate and unexpected. One Makah told me anonymously that if the ceremonial and nonlethal whale hunt idea would be voted upon in Neah Bay at that moment, “it would have unanimous support on the reservation."

Some of the Makah were unhappy with the whaling crew. One member had been seen breaking the strict purification and cleansing regimen of a Makah whaler by drinking beer in the midst of preparations for the sacred hunt. There were more rumors about drug abuse among some whaling crew members. Mixing substance abuse and antitank weaponry was a dangerous cocktail, especially when the world was watching.

The publication of the McCarty essay happened to coincide with an embarrassing and very public capsizing of the whaling canoe into cold waters during a practice run. The media also recorded the whaling canoe being towed around Neah Bay by a support motorboat. The public reacted with strong disapproval that the crew was relying upon modern, rather than traditional skills.

In those televised video clips, I was surprised not to see Micah in his usual position in the whaling canoe. Later he announced publicly that he left the whaling crew mid-hunt because he wanted to return to college in nearby Bellingham. But privately, it was a different story.

The personal reasons why Micah left the whaling crew remain within his family and are inviolate. A variety of anti-whalers claimed to have influenced Micah’s decision. These claimants included Michael Kundu of Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization much reviled on the reservation for its intimidation tactics, which rivaled the Makah Tribal Council’s own hard-line style. But I believe that the McCartys had come to this decision long before any dialogue with outsiders, including our Kitchen Roundtable.

Pondering Micah’s choice to leave the whaling canoe, I remembered his quiet face in August when we sat at his father’s kitchen table. His words haunted me. “I don’t know what I will do if, when I get out there and look into the eye of the whale, I see that our crew is not in the spirit, not cleansed and ready in the old ways to take the whale-I don’t know what I will do."

I do believe that at the time, if Micah had taken his place with the whaling crew and thrown the first harpoon, the act may have shattered his soul. Many whalers have reported that when a gray is struck with a harpoon, the whale lets out a banshee’s wail that will haunt a man for the rest of his life. The only balance to such a cry from a wild animal would be the firm conviction of a whole tribe’s spiritual subsistence.

With their spiritual center gone, the whaling crew fell into the hands of angry young men led by Wayne Johnson, the crew captain, and driven by members of the Tribal Council, such as the Parker family. Wayne was more accomplished with his antitank gun practice than with press conferences. Again and again he stumbled publicly when explaining what was the true meaning of this hunt for his people. Under the tutelage of the Tribal Council and Wayne, the Makah hunt focused more on an exercise of “in-your-face treaty rights” than the restoration of spiritual and cultural whaling traditions.

Wayne enjoyed posing with the .50-caliber, armor-piercing antitank gun-twice as powerful as an elephant gun-for media photos. He summarized the spectacle surrounding the whale hunt for The Seattle Times as, “Big whales, big waves, big guns, and a lot of crazy people.” If his crew were threatened by protesters, such as the Sea Shepherd, who were known for ramming illegal whaling vessels, Wayne promised, “If they ram us, we’ll ram them."

In the fall of 1998 the whaling crew did not succeed in taking a whale. In the background, there was a frenzy of confidential negotiations and private presentations by environmentalists to the Tribal Council. Ben White led a coalition of concerned environmental organizations looking for long-term economic alternatives to whale hunting for the Makah. He stressed that all plans must be both pro-Makah and pro-whale. Among the offers by moderate, grassroots environmental groups was buying back land for the Makah that the federal government had once taken from the tribe. There were also offers to create programs that increased economic health for the Makah, including whale watching, reforestation, wind generation, and educational opportunities.

Ben White was highly suspicious of the U.S. federal government’s involvement. “We have to ask this,” Ben declared. “Why is the U.S. government behind this hunt? Why did the Commerce Department give $310,000 to the Makah to sell this idea? Could it be that open war on wildlife is being thrown to the Native people as an affirmative action plum instead of serious redress for land issues and genocide?"

The Tribal Council rejected any proposals for alternative economic development other than whale hunting. This included a $3 million offer from communications mogul Craig McCaw who had financed other whale conservation projects. In the face of these offers, the Makah Tribal Council strictly limited the issue to an exercise of treaty rights, repeatedly stating the Makah whaling rights were not for sale. The Tribal Council continually narrowed the dialogue others were trying to open.

Amid all of the tension, Toni Frohoff and I journeyed several times more to the reservation to meet with Micah and John McCarty. We were also invited to meet Micah’s mother, Anne Lunt. John and Anne had divorced, but they keep a close, cordial relationship with each other and their shared children. Anne, a Caucasian woman from Boston, is both a long-time Indian rights activist and a follower of the Ba’hai spiritual tradition. Her life emphasis is on finding inner and global peace. She had feared for her son’s safety on the Makah whaling canoe; she had also seen much on the Makah reservation to give her concern for her ex-husband, her daughter, and her son’s welfare.

Reflecting both his mother’s spiritual expansiveness and his father’s Native traditions, Micah searched for his own answers in the divisive issue of Makah whaling. He and his father were not helped in this complicated path by a betrayal that came from outside the tribe.

Throughout the autumn of 1998, we quietly arranged for another whale watch with Makah and conservationists. The McCartys had agreed to come together in trust again, this time on the water. More than thirty Makah tribal members excitedly signed up for this whale watch, right in the midst of the whaling crew’s final preparations for a whale hunt. The whale watch was intended to be another gesture for creating more understanding between Makah and environmentalists. Only a handful of people, aside from the Makah, knew of this event planned for late October 1998. We kept the whale watch plans quiet in order to avoid a media circus and the potential for violence.

Happily, we were preparing to meet again and enjoy the autumn whale watch on Neah Bay. But in the final weeks all our efforts fell apart. On October 16, John McCarty called me in a fury. Someone in a non-profit environmental organization had leaked our whale watch plans, not to the press, but to a Hollywood philanthropist who is involved with environmental issues. In a flagrant disregard for the McCartys or any grassroots conservationists who had labored for almost four years to build this fragile trust, this philanthropist had unilaterally decided to dispatch a letter by fax to all 150 tribes on the West Coast. In the fax he hailed the McCartys as heroes for opposing their tribe’s hunt and advised all tribes to follow their example. It was a classic example of a white man dictating “The Way” to Native peoples without any respect or knowledge of the Makah’s complex history or culture, or that such an action might be damaging to the McCartys.

After the betrayal of our shared whale watch by the environmental organization, the trust between the McCartys and those engaged in common ground dialogues was only partly restored. The McCartys were gracious enough to keep inviting me to their home. But they firmly closed the doors to others. The trust first forged between these Makah moderates and representatives of environmental organizations may never again be as it once was. Yet for six months after our thwarted whale watch, those seeking a pro-Makah and pro-whale solution still continued to share ideas.

In January 1999, Micah McCarty took his place on an international panel on Makah whaling at Whales Alive on Maui. Though Micah was challenged by some marine mammal scientists and whale activists questioning the Makah decision to resume the whale hunt, he maintained his calm and contemplative presence. Over the days, our kitchen table dialogue was extended to the global stage as all sides listened to one another. Without the glare of the media awaiting violent photo ops of militant clashes or blood in the water, diplomacy and the attentiveness of mutual respect held sway.

Negotiations and offers to the Tribal Council for an alternative to the whale hunt continued up until the day before the Makah whaling crew harpooned and killed the first gray whale hunted off the North American mainland in almost a century.

On May 17, 1999, when Makah whaling crew killed a juvenile gray whale, I tried to go about my day. But I could not get out of my mind the image of that young juvenile gray looking up at the canoe so trustingly. She was only two years old. Two years before that, I had reached far out of a boat on a Baja lagoon and touched my first gray whale calf.

* * * * *


Looking back on that turning point when peaceful negotiations between moderate Makah and moderate environmentalists faltered, I wonder about the other trusts that have been betrayed in two centuries of our country’s struggles between indigenous people and settlers. A broken promise, an indiscretion, an honest mistake-there are so many stories that never made the history books. We hear only of the wars-the winners and losers. But what of those who battled most to understand themselves and to reconcile seeming opposites? What about those who allowed themselves troubling ambivalence and soul searching, without an easy answer? These mediators and moderates may in the end change history; but rarely are their stories heard beneath the clash and drama of violent foes.

Perhaps there will come a time when historians record and praise the stories of dialogue and negotiation, instead of simplistic pro-and-con and the either/or split that have driven historical accounts. Will we also write stories about those who ventured far away from their own comfortable positions, to imagine and understand the points of view of the Other? The peacemakers-as Chief Sealth was in the early days of the city that still bears his name-must also have their day.

In setting down this story, I wanted to conserve what I believe is best about the human spirit. That is our openness and ability to change, to learn flexibility, and to understand even contradictory or paradoxical opinions. My favorite aphorism of intelligence is “the ability to tolerate a high degree of ambiguity."

Micah McCarty now lives on the Makah reservation with his wife and their firstborn, a daughter whom they named Ianna, after the ancient Sumerian goddess who visits the underworld and returns with her soul completed by the descent.

What worlds will Micah’s daughter or other Makah children find when they return from the descent into which this whale hunt has cast their tribe? On their windswept tribal lands by the sea, ancient history, and a new century must meet-as sure as the tide, but never as expected.

(Excerpted from Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals & Spirit, copyright 2000 by Brenda Peterson and NewSage Press.)



Copyright © 1998