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Opinions Vary On Fair Punishment For Makah Whale Hunters

The five Makah Indian hunters who killed a gray whale over the weekend could face simultaneous charges in federal and tribal court.  Opinions differ on and off the coastal reservation about the proper punishment for the illegal whale hunt.  A few hail the hunters as heroes.  Farther away the outrage is just getting started.  Correspondent Tom Banse has this report from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Neah Bay, Washington is a small place.  About a thousand people…mostly Native American such as these four guys playing basketball in the street.

Tate Perry takes a breather to voice a common viewpoint.  He says what the whale hunters did last Saturday was wrong.  But he feels their frustration at being kept off the water.

Tate Perry: “I mean we’re all trying to be good little Indians and sit here and wait for it all to be done. But, excuse me. This was a treaty done back in the 1850’s. It said the Makah tribe can go whaling. That’s what we don’t understand. They want us to go through paperwork, go through paperwork.  Now, these guys that just went out, a lot of us are right there with them.  Man, we’re tired of this.”

Perry doesn’t think the whalers should go to prison.  Neither does a fellow player who says to call him by his Indian name, Hiska.  The 23-year-old aspires to be a harpooner someday.

Hiska: “I think the tribe is going do what they have to do to make it a point that they’re not supposed to go whaling like that. But then again, I think the tribe should just give them a misdemeanor slap because it was part of our tradition. It is in our treaty and it is our rights.”

Leniency for the whalers does not seem to be in the cards.  The men will stand trial in tribal court promises Makah councilman Micah McCarty.

Micah McCarty: “The integrity of our tribal government is at stake here.  If we don’t handle them with the rule of law that governs how we are as a sovereign… You know, we have no choice.”

Federal investigators are also on the case.  McCarty says double jeopardy is not an issue — you know, when you’re not supposed to try someone twice for the same offense.  He says the tribe and the feds would rely on different statutes.

Micah McCarty: “I’m certain they are going to be facing the music in our tribal court.  I think there will be some other tunes they’ll be listening to here quickly too.  My assumption is that there’s undoubtedly pressure being put upon the federal government to take decisive action.”

Under tribal law, the unauthorized whaling could bring down a maximum one year in jail, a $5000 fine, and suspension of treaty privileges.  Violation of the federal marine mammal protection act could also amount to a year in jail, plus up to a $20,000 fine.

Margaret Owens: “I think everyone should throw the book at them.  And I don’t know if there’s a book heavy enough.”

Anti-whaling activist Margaret Owens lives by the water about an hour east of the Makah Reservation.  Owens thinks the whale killed Saturday might be a resident gray called “Kelpy” by local whale watchers.  She strains to control her emotions when asked what should happen to the hunters.

Margaret Owens:  “I wish there at least was some remorse — if not for the treaty exercise itself — at least for the 10 hour suffering of that whale, or for the waste of that whale’s life, or for the lack of skill in being able to humanely kill the whale.”

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire gave no indication Monday that the state will get involved. She added she’s “very upset” by the killing of the whale.

On the reservation, the official line is to view the hunt as a misguided “act of civil disobedience.”  Here there’s broad and deep support for whaling.

Joddie Ray runs the Makah Maiden cafe.  The lifelong Neah Bay resident says whaling would keep her tribe’s culture and tradition alive.

Joddie Ray: “It does a lot for my young people in the village. It brings self esteem. It’s just like watching someone live day-to-day – just like on a treadmill. Then all of a sudden, there’s a reason.  There’s a purpose. This is who we are.  We can do these things.”

It’s been eight years since the last legal hunt.  And that was the first in seven decades.  Now a delegation of Makah is off to the nation’s capital on an urgent damage control mission.  They want to assure Congress and other federal agencies that the tribal council did not approve the killing of that gray whale last weekend.

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