PHOTO: L.A. HENDERSON
The Way of Water
- Apprenticeship to Animal Play
- Animal Allies
- War and Peace with Wolves
- Noahs Ark Days
- Listening to the Sea Breathing
- Great Blue
RETURN TO TOP
Praise for Singing to the
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 amazon.com
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, amazon.com
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Singing to the Sound is the long-awaited sequel to Brenda Petersons
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, Petersons 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. Petersons writing moves from love
song to prophesy, from the way things are to a vision of what they
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.
to the Sound
For two decades now I have cleaved to the misting, mysterious shores
of Washingtons 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, Dalls
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 waters 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 its in the Florida
Keys, along the rocky Maine coast, within the Gulf of Mexicos
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
Midwests Great Lakes-water is alive and in relationship with
those of us who are blessed with such a world-shaping, yet abiding,
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 studios 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 Im 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 studios
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 childrens
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 whales
tail for a handle. Orca and bottlenose dolphin magnets breach right
on my refrigerator, holding up a family album of photos, both human
When it doesnt 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 turtles 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)
RETURN TO TOP
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 tribes 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
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 Micahs 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 tribes
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, Im 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. Theres 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 centurys 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 governments continual
exploitation of a small tribes 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 Andersons patient
explanations of why many people opposed a return to whaling. Ive
tried to be respectful to the Makah tribe, Will began, but
these whales are not the same whales the Makahs 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 were hungry! a Makah woman screamed.
In this middle-aged womans 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, Were
just hungry, thats all! And we dont 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, Youre
liars. Youre 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 Micahs 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 Micahs 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. Id 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 Makahs 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 todays
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
* * * * *
RETURN TO TOP
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 animals eye-that theres a person in there.
After I saw that, I couldnt kill animals, I had to protect
"Havent you heard about the food chain? interrupted
the Makah woman who had earlier shouted out her hunger.
And havent you heard us ask your Tribal Council again and
again just to sit down and talk with us? another conservationist
pleaded with her. Theyve 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. Dont talk
to her! he angrily advised the McCartys. Shes
a nature writer who does essays for The Seattle Times."
We were all stunned into silence by the lawyers 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 McCartys weathered face
was somber, showing the same bone-deep weariness Id 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 lawyers
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 McCartys
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 theyre
standing right here? I dont 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 Id found myself dropped down someplace I didnt
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
* * * * *
RETURN TO TOP
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 fathers
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 Micahs 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
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
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 Northwests evening
"Look, Micah said, noting that a whaling crewmans
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 countrys 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. Thats 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 were at odds with the Makah when we share so much. Dont
you think were 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 youre 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 dont 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 Makahs 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 dont 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 dont know what
I will do."
For a long while we all sat in silence. Studying Micahs 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. Its
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 hed 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, Ive really been thinking about the
common ground between us. Were 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 were 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 dont
know what to do now, except keep protecting the whale. But now I
also hold dear one who holds the harpoon."
* * * * *
RETURN TO TOP
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 McCartys 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."
* * * * *
RETURN TO TOP
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
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 Micahs 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 Councils 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 Micahs choice to leave the whaling canoe, I remembered
his quiet face in August when we sat at his fathers kitchen
table. His words haunted me. I dont 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 dont know what I will
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 banshees 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 tribes 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, well 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
Ben White was highly suspicious of the U.S. federal governments
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 Micahs 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 Bahai spiritual tradition. Her life emphasis is on
finding inner and global peace. She had feared for her sons
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 sons welfare.
Reflecting both his mothers spiritual expansiveness and his
fathers 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
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 crews 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 tribes 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 Makahs
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.
* * * * *
RETURN TO TOP
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 countrys 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
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 Micahs 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.)