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Makah Nation denounces unauthorized whale hunt

The Makah Nation of Washington arrested five tribal members who took part in unauthorized whale hunt on Saturday, vowing to punish them to the "fullest extent of the law."

In a statement, the tribal council denounced the hunt as a "blatant violation" of Makah law. The five who were arrested and jailed before being released on bond will go to trial for harpooning and shooting a gray whale without permission from the tribe.

"We are a law-abiding people and we will not tolerate lawless conduct by any of our members," the tribal council said. "We hope the public does not permit the actions of five irresponsible persons to be used to harm the image of the entire Makah tribe."

But the captain of the small crew that took Neah Bay early Saturday morning wasn't remorseful. Wayne Johnson, who led the tribe's first successful hunt in more than 70 years back in 1999, told The Seattle Times he was tired of the legal and political battles that have kept hunters off the waters since 2002.

"I should have done it years ago," Johnson told the paper.

Whale hunting is a Makah tradition that dates back thousands of years. An 1855 treaty with the federal government secured the right to hunt but the tribe stopped in the 1920s after international exploitation reduced the gray whale's numbers.

The U.S. government eventually placed the gray whale on the list of endangered species. But after it was removed in 1994, the tribe sought federal and international approval to resume the hunt.

The Clinton and Bush administrations have consistently supported the Makah Nation's whaling rights and subsistence hunts by Eskimo whalers in Alaska. The International Whaling Commission also has approved quotas for the Makah and the Eskimo.

The support led to the tribe's first hunt in 1999, in which one whale was killed. Another hunt took place in 2000 although no whales were landed.

The practice came to a halt in 2001 when animal rights activists -- along with a former Republican Congressman who was a treaty rights opponent -- won a court ruling that required a new environmental review for the hunt. The federal government complied by taking public comments and conducting a more comprehensive analysis of the hunt.

A second ruling in 2002 posed a bigger challenge. For the first time, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 1855 treaty was abrogated by a law that protects marine mammals like the gray whale.

The tribe then petitioned the government for a permit under the law. This triggered another round of public hearings but no decision was ever made -- a delay that frustrated Johnson.

"I'm not ashamed. I'm feeling kind of proud," he told the Times. "At least I attempted to do something. I have nothing to be ashamed about."

The statement from the tribal council did not say what type of punishment Johnson and the four others might face under Makah law. But charges under federal law are possible -- the Marine Mammals Protection Act provides for civil and criminal penalties.

Previously, the U.S. Coast arrested non-Indians for interfering with the tribe's earlier hunts. A non-Indian woman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to community service in 2000.

Relevant Documents:
Tribal Council Statement | Makah Tribal Whale Hunt | Marine Mammal Protection Act

Court Decisions:
Anderson v. Evans (June 7, 2004) | Anderson v. Evans (December 20, 2002)

Relevant Links:
Makah Nation -