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ABORIGINAL RIGHTS and First Nations Governance

The Nuu chah nulth Whale Hunt

NB: This material is published here by Turtle Island Native Network
with permission from the author, Tom Mexsis Happynook

Securing Nuu chah nulth Food, Health and Traditional Values
through the Sustainable Use of Marine Mammals


Before I begin I would respectfully ask the symposium organizers to please extend my sincere appreciation to the traditional owners of this land, Chief Anthony Morales and the Tongva people, for allowing me to enter their ancestral homelands to be with you today.

I would also ask the symposium organizers to please accept my sincere appreciation for the invitation and the opportunity to share the ancient teachings that I have been taught by my Nuu chah nulth grandparents, great grandmothers and great grand aunts.


Uuk-ltha-ma Mauk-sis-a-noop, his-tuk-shilth Cha-Cha-tsi-us, uh-aa Huu-ay-aht, uh-aa Nuu-chah-nulth-aht. My Name is Mauk-sis-a-noop which means gray whale hunter. This name has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. My family comes from Carnation Creek which is part of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation which is a tribe within the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Group. My family has been a whaling family within our tribe for thousands of years, so please note that 1000, 3000, 5000 years from now: there will always be a Happynook whaling family, it will never end.

Nuu chah nulth Belief System

The Nuu chah nulth belief systems evolved within the natural limits of nature and has four principal spirit chiefs: on the land spirit chief; in the sky spirit chief; in the water spirit chief and beyond and below the horizon spirit chief. The last spirit chief is considered to be unattainable, unapproachable, unseeable and unknowable. Just as you can, and will, chase the horizon forever. We also believe there is a multiplicity of spirit forms that is found in everything that surrounds us. Respect is given to all natural resources for the many functions they play within Nuu-chah-nulth life. We always position ourselves in relation to nature because everything has a value other then its physical anatomy. For example, when we prepare to hunt a whale we not only acknowledge the spirit of the whale, but also extend our gratitude for the many products the whale is providing which helps us survive socially, culturally, spiritually and economically.

Animals play an important role in Nuu chah nulth society because they express life in many ways. Wolves are considered to be our professors and pathfinders. Eagles express love, honor, peace and friendship. Otters teach us balance; not to be too serious; to have some fun. Mink express arrogance and self-importance. Bears express solitude, loneliness and strength. The octopus exhibits shyness, timidness but yet has great strength in its own environment. And in the case of the whale, they are considered to be the keeper’s of the record. There are of course many other examples.

The Importance of Nuu chah nulth Whaling

Whaling within Nuu chah nulth society was the foundation of our economic structure. It provided valuable products to sell, trade and barter. In essence it was our national bank. Whaling strengthened, maintained and preserved our cultural practices, unwritten tribal laws, ceremonies, principles and teachings. All of these elements were practiced throughout the preparations, the hunt and the following celebrations. Whaling strengthened and preserved our spirituality and is clearly illustrated through the discipline that the Nuu chah nulth hereditary whaling chiefs exemplified in their months of bathing, praying and fasting in preparation for the hunt. The whale strengthened our relationships with other nations and communities. People came from great distances and often resulted in intertribal alliances, relationships and marriages. The whale strengthened the relationships between families because everyone was involved in the processing of the whale, the celebrations, the feasting, and the carving of the artifacts that can still be seen today in many museums around the world. The whale strengthened the relationships between family members since everyone shared in the bounty of the whale. And the whale strengthened our people spiritually, psychologically and physically.

Health Benefits of Sea Mammals

For thousands of years our ancestors and indeed our non-Nuu chah nulth historical trading partners sustained optimum health by consuming the health-promoting meat and fats found in sea mammals. At that time it was the Nuu-chah-nulth sea mammal hunters who were making a fundamental contribution to the health of the people by providing sea mammal omega 3 essential fatty acids. Today our health is a far cry from the health of our ancestors and many suffer from numerous chronic, debilitating and often life threatening illnesses such as: diabetes; heart diseases; high cholesterol; atherosclerosis; osteoporosis; rheumatoid arthritis; asthma; gingivitis and psoriasis. Clinical trials in Canada and experience over the past thousand years clearly indicate that the "Inuit diet" of sea mammal oil virtually eliminated the risk of death from heart and other related diseases. Clinical studies in the US, (Alaska), have also found that consumption of seal oil five times a week is an effective method of reducing glucose intolerance and diabetes. More then a dozen studies over the past ten years have shown that sea mammal omega 3 fatty acids can help alleviate some of the symptoms of arthritis including morning stiffness, fatigue, pain and the number of inflamed joints. This is simply because sea mammal oil is more readily absorbed into the bloodstream than are the omega 3 fats found in fish and flax seed. Whales and seals are mammals; we are mammals. Health is only one of the important reasons to reinstate our cultural practices.

Bio-cultural diversity

When we talk about Nuu chah nulth cultural practices we are in fact talking about responsibilities that have evolved over millennia into unwritten tribal laws. These reflect our relations to the natural world, and are the product of the slow integration, or co-evolution, of our culture within our environment. Thus, the environment is not a place of divisions but a place of relations, a place where cultural diversity and bio-diversity are not separate, but are in fact interdependent. The most essential of these responsibilities are those that integrate people, (the human relationship), with the ecosystems found within their environment. Reflecting on the past, we can see that some Nuu chah nulth practices were purely of social and cultural importance (arranged marriages, etc.). But it is a fact that most Nuu chah nulth practices, such as fishing, hunting, gathering and whaling have a much deeper ecological management role. These Nuu chah nulth practices maintained the balance within nature, the environment and the ecosystems of which our people, with all our cultural institutions and practices, are an integral part. This is bio-cultural diversity, a complex state of environmental relationships. These relationships have developed and been nurtured over millennia and determine our fundamental obligations and responsibilities to the ecosystems which sustain us.

In the Nuu-chah-nulth language "Hishuk Tsawalk", everything is one; everything is connected.

This longstanding human relationship with our natural world is now under attack by those who wish to see us "evolve", to live in a state of urban separateness from our natural world. Those who would separate us from nature are the so-called "environmentalists" or "protest industry".

One of the protest industry's most successful strategies to date has been the crusade towards protecting bio-diversity. Regrettably, real progress towards understanding bio-diversity is being undermined by their choice of tactics, and their focus on financial gain. In fact, this is where the relationship between the environmental movement and the Nuu chah nulth was severed. In their effort to raise millions of dollars they have removed us from fulfilling our obligations to the natural resources of which we are dependent. They have highlighted the most photogenic or exotic species (whales, seals, elephants, forests, etc) to the detriment of human relationships with, and sustainable stewardship of, bio-diversity. The result is an unbalanced and unreal view of nature. According to the traditions of the Nuu chah nulth, the whales (and all other elements of nature) are our equals: is this not the ultimate expression of what has been called "animal rights"? To address them as equals, to honour and respect them for their contribution to our health, our cultures, societies and economies?

In their repeated attacks upon our Nuu chah nulth lifeways, members of the protest industry have had the luxury of using powerful but imprecise words. Having no real obligation to facts or the truth, they bypass accuracy and veracity in favour of emotionally powerful but factually challenged statements. As Mr. Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd Society) has stated in his book Earth Force; An Earth Warriors Guide to Strategy, (page 42), " A headline comment in Mondays paper far outweighs the revelation of inaccuracy revealed in a small box inside the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday". As my elders point out that is lying, plain and simple.

Furthermore, in addressing the question of human relations to the environment the protest industry has lobbied to established a system that leaves humans outside of nature, leading to a belief that "we are dominant over nature", or (as some animal rights advocates assert) a "cancer on this earth". As Nuu chah nulth, our approach is very different. Our systems of justice, tribal laws, societies and cultural practices, expressed as the Nuu chah nulth, indigenous and/or human rights of today, have developed within the "natural law of nature". It is from this perspective that respect and concern for bio-cultural diversity is resurfacing.

Science of Relations / Traditional Ecological Knowledge

When we talk about Nuu chah nulth social structures we are talking about structures which occur within, and are informed by, ecological structures. This practice of observation and reflection constitutes a "science of relations", -- Nuu chah nulth science. This science has developed over millennia providing principles, which reflects an acute awareness of the necessity of including social, cultural, spiritual and economic considerations within our understanding of the ecological world. The natural world is a complex web of such realities, and together, they teach us there is a natural law of nature which we must live by. We are only one component in this web of life and have a particular place which we must occupy. Everything is inter-connected and when one element in the web of life is over exploited, or removed from the system through total protection, the balance in nature is lost. We are not dominant over nature which is clearly evident in our Nuu chah nulth ancestor’s ancient and unbreakable relationship with their surroundings. People have a role to play, which is to assist in maintaining the balance in nature even as we maintain our place in it. One of the most important tools we have at our disposal to do this is respectful, responsible and sustainable utilization. We must manage the relationship between people and nature, and not seek to manage either people or nature; it is the relationship between these entities which must be managed. Indeed, it is these principles that unite us into the web of life.

From these basic principles "traditional ecological knowledge" has evolved, providing us with an accumulation of ancient wisdom and understanding of where we fit within nature, the environment and the ecosystems found within our territories.

Commerce versus subsistence / Sustainable versus Unsustainable

Systems of Nuu chah nulth governments include systems of commerce and exchange, different concepts of wealth and very different nutritional habits which have been developed on the strength of, and in accord with, generations of observing the natural systems which we live in and which ultimately sustain us. When the term subsistence is used it is always viewed in its minimal form, survival. This invokes deeply rooted colonial stereotypes of indigenous peoples as a people perpetually on the edge of starvation, living hand to mouth. But as our Nuu chah nulth ancestors tell us, ours was (and is) a world of abundance and responsibilities. Our principle of respect was not born from a longing for mere sustenance, but instead in gratitude for the cornucopia found within our territories. Nuu chah nulth peoples subsist enmeshed in the pattern of relationships with nature, the environment and the ecosystems. This pattern of relationships is not merely to survive, but to thrive; it includes everything; the plants, the fish, the sea-mammals, the land mammals, the mountains, trees, water, and even the winds which change with the seasons. Everything is deemed worthy of our respect, and consideration.

When we speak of "subsistence whaling", we are not referring to whaling done out of desperation, or a practice which demands we be dressed in the fashion of our ancestors 500 years ago. Indeed, "subsistence" hardly seems an appropriate word. It is a category imposed on us by a section of society whose view of nature has been clouded. With a proper understanding of what we mean when we are discussing subsistence, the values of Nuu chah nulth whaling will be properly understood because it extends into the realm of culture, spirituality and economics. Topics not easily explained to those who insist we must be on the verge of starvation before we are permitted to whale, claiming that we "do not need to whale anymore", as though our fundamental social, physical, psychological, spiritual and economical needs differ from our ancestors. For Nuu chah nulth it is, at its most fundamental level, a very visible expression of the relationship existing between our people and the natural world. The ecological relationships that unite hunters and the hunted continue. Killer whales hunt whales, some whales eat fish; some fish eat krill, some whales eat krill. So what is missing? What has been consciously suppressed by the protest industry? It is the ability of people to once again be a part of the web of life which is the root of subsistence and the foundation of sustainable utilization.

Whaling, as with all other "subsistence" activities, has always had a commercial aspect. In the Pacific Northwest whale products were traded great distances inland for items not readily available on the coast. This was accomplished through a complex and established network of traditional trading routes. However, it represented more than a trade of goods, it was also a way in which political, social, and familial ties with distant and neighbouring peoples was established, maintained, and strengthened. Commerce provides a central social and cultural dimension to subsistence -- something often forgotten in the western world's insistence that our economic activities must exist as a separate category.

When the term "commercial" is used there are voices that cry out from distant urban centres that whaling must stop; that the "slaughter" must end. Meanwhile the protest industry conjures up images of the unforgivable over-exploitation of whales to generate a whirlwind of concern. At the heart of these cries and fabrications exists the misguided impression that there is a global re-emergence of industrial whaling.

To a generation schooled in the Western world on the excess of industry, whose daily bread may itself be toxic, and whose fears are exploited by a protest industry bent on using them, commercial whaling is presented as a symptom of "our" presumed slide into ecological devastation. In spite of all the emotions, the truth is very different. In fact, there is a vast difference between the "industrial self-regulated whaling" of the past and the sustainable, science based "commercial whaling" of today. The issue is not about some elapsed debate between the profiteering industrial whaling of the past versus the small-scale commercial whaling of the present. It is not about commercial whaling versus aboriginal subsistence whaling, or any other sort of convenient distinction. It is about sustainable resource extraction versus non-sustainable resource extraction. Who can say what commerce will look like in another thousand years? The medium of exchange may change, but the principles of respectful, sustainable and ecologically sensitive utilization will not. These fundamental understandings will continue to be passed down and remain integral to the maintenance of bio-cultural diversity.

International Treaties and Conventions

Over the past number of years there has been tremendous lip service given to indigenous peoples, the importance of their traditional ecological knowledge and the relationships they have with their environments. If you look hard enough you will find wonderful words "enshrined" in many international treaties, conventions and declarations. As usual that is all they are: "words". Moreover, decisions derived from national acts, such as the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, national legislation and international policies, which were made years ago, do not considered the implications they are having on Nuu chah nulth, indigenous and/or human rights today. It is clearly obvious changes must be made to these acts, pieces of legislation and international policies. They need to reflect today’s situations and not past political perspectives based on paternalistic colonialism.

Nonetheless, despite campaign rhetoric opposing whaling, whale hunting has never stopped. In fact, less than five percent of the world’s whaling falls under the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission. Furthermore, whale populations have increased in conjunction with sustainable science based whaling and is indeed continuing to flourish while the whale watching industry grows.

Furthermore, I am compelled to point out, (even though the Protest Industry would have you believe that whaling has stopped on the West Coast of North America), whaling has never stopped. The Alaskan Eskimos have never stopped hunting the Bowhead, Beluga or the Gray whale stock which migrates past the California coast. It has not impeded or had negative effects on the many whale watching companies that have sprung up between Mexico and the Arctic seas. The fact is, the US is still, and will always be a whaling nation, in addition, Alaska, whalebone art is readily accessible and is a booming global economy.

The world will not witness a return to the self-regulated industrial whaling of the past. The market for whale products is limited, outside of the use of meat and blubber for food and the need for bone and baleen for traditional works of art. It is practically non-existent. Synthetic oils have replaced the need for whale oil to lubricate the machinery of industry, vegetable oils have replaced whale oil in the food industry, perfumes are no longer made from ambergris and corsets no longer need baleen. In economic terms, it can be said that the contemporary world is one in which whale stocks far exceed current and projected market demand for whale products. A return to the industrial scale whaling of the past would certainly cause alarm for everyone, in particular the small-scale whalers of today. The lessons of the industrial whaling period will not be forgotten.


At the very least, we must move the debate from the realm of emotion and protest profiteering, to the realm of logic and ecology. Emotion is powerful, immediate, and a good source of financial support for one's cause. One is able to take immediate advantage of the public and gain financial support in the process. But this is very dangerous. Emotion changes much faster than ecology.... people become desensitized to emotional pleas over a relatively short period of time. You can see it happening already. People are getting tired of the protest industry and are indeed becoming frightened by their tactics which now includes terrorism. Where will this overemphasis on emotion, to the detriment of bio-cultural diversity, leave the public’s understanding of nature 20 years from now, when emotional appeals no longer work, and the ecology has become a casualty of the overemphasis on emotion. Even as Nuu chah nulth seek to embody the traditional principles that the resources and ecosystems remain healthy for seven generations after we are gone, it is conceivable that the protest industry could exhaust the public's interest in, and understanding of ecology within mere decades. From this perspective Nuu chah nulth whaling represents a key example of the very notion of stewardship, and ecological awareness that many claim is lacking in the industrialized world.

In closing, I leave you with this thought. If we are not mindful, understanding, -- and most importantly -- observant of the world’s hunter-gather societies we will eventually contribute to the extinction of cultures and traditional ecological knowledge --- the accumulation of ancient wisdom. I don’t think any of you would want that as part of your memoirs.

As French Author George Sand said, "we must accept truth even if it changes our point of view"

This material was prepared by Tom Mexsis Happynook, Founding Chairman, World Council of Whalers, Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, Canada.

From a presentation at the Whaling and the Nuu chah nulth People A Symposium at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage Griffith Park, Los Angeles Saturday March 24, 2001. Presented in conjunction with Out of the Mist: treasures of the Nuu chah nulth Chiefs - a striking exhibit that explores the culture and beliefs of the Nuu cah nulth people of the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Northern Washington State.

World Council of Whalers

Protecting Mother Earth

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