After 25 years of legal maneuvering, the Makah are now one year away from resuming a tradition central to their culture and identity, the hunting of gray whales. The long, public battle involving hearings and lawsuits, false starts and conflicts that regularly appeared in headlines since 1994, will finally be over. But what most people won’t see is how it began decades before with a winter storm.
In February 1970, a fierce storm pummeled the northwestern tip of Washington state. Wind and rain scoured a small coastal area about ten miles south of Neah Bay near Ozette Lake. Six Makah longhouses previously buried for hundreds of years appeared on the surface.
Ed Claplanhoo, a Makah tribal elder, contacted an archeologist from Washington State University named Richard Daugherty, who had previously surveyed the site. Daugherty came and examined the remains of the longhouses and realized that, although collapsed, they were almost perfectly preserved. A massive mudslide hundreds of years before had covered them, preventing deterioration. The longhouses and the artifacts they contained became known as “the Pompeii of America.”
For the next 11 years, Daugherty and other archeologists, as well as students from the Makah tribe, painstakingly excavated the site, carefully unearthing and cataloging 55,000 artifacts. Many were made of whalebone or were in some way related to whaling. This verified what anthropologists long suspected and what the tribe knew for a certainty. The Makah were primarily whaling people.