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The Makah Tribe: People of the Sea and the Forest

Essay by Ann M. Renker, Ph.D.


Like all living cultures, the Makah Tribe has undergone many changes since ancient times. Contemporary Makah children attend public school, wear blue jeans and Nikes, watch television, and play video games. Today, Makah adults are just like other American adults in many respects. They attend college, surf the net, and make decisions that affect their families, health, and education. But unlike most other Americans, Makah people also attend potlatches, join ancient secret societies, and hunt gray whales. This study essay presents information about Makah people, history, and culture so that K-12 teachers, students, and other interested visitors can learn about Makah life through the millennia.


The Makah people live on a reservation that sits on the most northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The northern boundary of the reservation is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The western boundary is the Pacific Ocean (See also: "History of Tatoosh Island".) The remaining two land borders can expand if the Tribe purchases additional parcels of real estate. The current reservation is approximately 27,000 acres, a small portion of the territory controlled by the Tribe before the Treaty of Neah Bay was signed in 1855 (See also: Makah Treaty.)

In addition to its land territories, the Makah tribe reserved numerous ocean fishing banks and sea mammal hunting areas when the treaty was signed. Each of these areas has a name in the Makah language, and are not necessarily close to the coast. Makah seafarers have had the ability to navigate out of sight of land since ancient times, so some of these fishing and sea mammal hunting areas can be as far as a hundred miles from shore.

The bounty of the reservation is not limited to the natural resources of the rivers, lakes, tidelands, and ocean areas in Makah territory. Makah forests provide many types of wood for carvers, many species of land animals for hunters, and a wide variety of plants that can be used for food, medicine, or raw materials.

While the contemporary reservation has modern facilities and services such as a world-class museum, a general store, a public school, an Indian Health Service clinic, a gas station and several restaurants, the area is still remote by most standards. State road 112, the only paved road that connects the Makah reservation with the rest of the Olympic Peninsula, is prone to mudslides and washouts. The journey to the county seat, Port Angeles, is about seventy miles distant; this trip becomes more dangerous when roads are icy, or when the reservation is enduring one of the many rains and wind storms that plague the area from October through April. Rainfall often averages over 100 inches annually, and peak gusts of 50 mph or more commonly accompany fall and winter weather.

Ancient Culture

Before non-Indian people came to Makah territory, Makahs lived in five villages that were occupied all year long (Neah Bay, Ozette, Biheda, Tsoo-yess, and Why-atch). Temporary residences were at locations that attracted people seasonally. These places allowed Makahs to harvest and process special food resources, like spring halibut or summer salmon.

Makahs had a type of lifestyle that made use of the abundant resources of the ocean, the tidelands, the forests, and the rivers. Many descriptions of this lifestyle are available in the anthropological literature (1). The Makah language used the name qwi-dich-cha-at (2) for itself, which roughly translates to "The People who live near the Rocks and the Seagulls."

Makah fisherman and sea mammal hunters harvested the bounty of the ocean, and used a fixed referent navigation system to travel far from the sight of land in great, cedar canoes. The most astounding of these marine practices was hunting whales on the open ocean. (3) Makah people hunted mostly gray and humpback whales, though archaeological evidence indicates that other varieties of whales were used as well. (4) Archeological data also indicate that the Makah people have hunted whales for some 2,000 years before the present (See also: "The whaling equipment of the Makah Indians".)

Whales provided ancient Makah people with food, raw materials, a source of spiritual and ceremonial strength, and valuable trade goods. Whale oil was rendered from the blubber, and was an important food product, like butter and olive oil today. Meat could be used, but only if it hadn't spoiled. Whale meat often spoiled before the animal could be towed from the ocean to one of the villages. Once the whale reached the shore, it was ceremonially thanked and blessed, then processed for food and raw materials, like bone. Whales that died at sea and drifted to shore were also used by the Tribe, but this practice did not carry the same ceremonial, spiritual, or subsistence value as whale hunting. In the case of drift whales, one could almost guarantee that the meat would be useless; only the oil and raw materials could be used.

Other sea mammals were important to Makahs in ancient times. In addition to hunting whales, Makahs pursued a variety of seals, as well as sea otters. The former could be used for food, oil, and skins, while the latter were used for skin and teeth.

Ancient Makah people based much of their material culture on western red cedar, which provided homes, tools for carving and cooking, great ocean-going canoes, clothing, and ceremonial gear. Other plants, shells from intertidal creatures, bones from land and sea mammals and birds, and skins from bear, deer, elk, and domesticated dogs provided other essential materials which contributed to the ancient way of life.

The abundance of natural resources allowed ancient Makah people to develop a complex society which had many rigid rules that affected each individual. Each individual belonged to a family, which had specific rules that governed the behavior of each member. In addition, each person had a ranking in his family, just like in the English royal family today. There was one individual, most likely a man, who governed each family, and all other members were ranked relative to him. Only one person could occupy each numbered place of status, and places would shift if someone died, did something terrible, or decided to shift his alliance to another family. (5) Unlike other northwest coast tribes, the Makah people could choose to associate themselves with either the mother's or the father's family, whichever would provide the highest status.

The abundance of food allowed the Makah people to develop a few traits that are similar to other Northwest Coast Tribes. Because there was so much available food, some people did not have to gather their own food in order to eat. These people could perform specialized tasks and trade their products and services for food and the other things they needed. This situation allowed the Makah people to develop a highly distinctive art style, the concept of personal wealth, and a system of owning songs, dances, and resource areas long before European economies influenced the culture.

Food, personal wealth, and family status all came together at potlatches, large feasts with huge attendance. These events provided the means for the ancient Makah culture to standardize important information about marriages, deaths, and the ownership of names, songs, dances, and other ceremonial and economic privileges. Business that affected the ownership or use of these items was conducted publicly; witnesses were paid to remember a transaction and provide reports in the future. The potlatch provided ancient Makahs with a means to publicly document and recount important events to succeeding generations in absence of a writing system.

How do we know things about a way of life that archaeologists say began some 4,000 years ago? How do we know these things when the Makah people did not have a system of writing for their language? We know most of our information about the ancient Makah culture from a numbers of sources: 1) oral history, that is, information passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, 2) archaeology, 3) linguistics, and 4) written documents prepared by first-person observers, like the earliest traders and explorers.

In the case of the Makah Tribe, one particular archaeological site provided the opportunity for all four of these sources to blend together to provide the most complete picture of ancient northwest coastal native life anywhere on the planet. Several hundred years ago, one of the ancient Makah villages, Ozette, was buried by a catastrophic mudslide. The blue-gray clay that tumbled down the hillside entombed the village and locked out the decomposition that usually happens in warm, wet areas. Working with archaeologists from Washington State University, the Makah Tribe uncovered 55,000 artifacts, 40,000 structural remains, and over one million faunal remains. (6)

The eleven year excavation produced over 90% of all of the world's ancient, organic, northwest coast artifacts. But guess what? Written information that was available about the ancient material culture of the Makahs did not give the archaeologists all the information they needed to identify some of the artifacts that came from the site. Only oral history, the knowledge of the elders, could fill in the gaps that the written sources could not address. For example, archaeologists thought that a flat, rounded object with a handle was used to serve hot food. Imagine the surprise when elders easily identified the object as a game paddle for an ancient game!

The artifacts from the Ozette village site are now exhibited, conserved, and stored in a modern facility on the reservation, the Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC). This tribal museum interprets and preserves Makah history, culture, and language , and operates an educational department. Teaching Makahs and non-Makahs about the many facets of Makah life are an important part of preserving culture and fostering understanding.

Historic Culture

One common misunderstanding about Makah people is that the culture has stayed exactly the same for thousands of years. The ancient way of life for Makah people really ended when the first non-Indians came into contact with the tribe in 1788. (7) This period of time is called the historic period because there are written documents that provide us with information regarding life at this time. Why did the onset of contact with non-Indians herald the end of the ancient way of life? There are many reasons. Non-Indian people brought foreign goods, like guns and alcohol, to Makah people. They also wanted goods from Makah territory, often in amounts that the environment could not sustain. For example, European trade demands for sea otter and northern fur seal pelts upset the natural balance of the Makah coast, and both of these species were almost hunted to extinction. Much later, commercial European and American whaling ships harvested far more whales than the ecosystem could support, placing the gray and humpback populations in grave danger. By the 1920s, Makahs voluntarily stopped whale hunting because there were virtually no whales left in their waters.

Not all of the changes to the ancient Makah way of life were related to natural resources (See also: "Subsistence and survival: The Makah Indian Reservation, 1855-1933".) Religion, family life, politics, and art were affected as well. Diseases that were unknown to the Makah population, like smallpox and measles, caused epidemics that devastated the tribe. Missionaries tried to wipe out ancient Makah ceremonies like potlatches, and replace these events with Christian practices. Makah families were forced to leave their traditional longhouses, where many related families lived and worked together, in order to live in single family houses. This change disrupted the way families interacted with each other and raised their children.

These changes did not happen overnight. The Spanish established the first European settlement on Makah land in 1792, but this fort lasted only a few months before the Makahs forced the occupants to abandon their efforts. From this time till the 1850s, there are not many documents that provide us with information about the Makahs. We can assume that the bulk of the cultural changes up to this point had to do with trade goods and natural resources, and the affects that these changes had on the ancient status system. For example, a man who never had access to status or wealth in ancient times because of family restrictions, might have the opportunity to change his place in life during the historic period. The introduction of new trade goods and networks allowed some people to accumulate the wealth necessary to hold potlatches, without being the head of a family. This change caused a number of problems in the old system of social and family status.

During the historic period, the most drastic changes in Makah life began in the 1850s. A smallpox epidemic in 1852 (8) decimated the Makah population and caused one of the five ancient villages, Biheda, to be abandoned. This loss was not the only problem. The extreme number of fatalities further disrupted the line of authority in most families. In addition, knowledge of the critical components of some ceremonies and rituals were suddenly lost. People also died without transmitting ceremonial rights or privileges through a potlatch. The complicated social and ritual life that had existed for thousands of years began to fall apart. Three years later, Makah life would change forever.

On January 31, select Makahs representing villages and families signed the Treaty of Neah Bay with the United States government. In this treaty, Makahs gave up territory while maintaining particular rights, like whale and seal hunting, and fishing in usual and accustomed areas. In exchange, the United States government agreed to provide education and health care, among other things. The Treaty of Neah Bay created the Makah Reservation, and guaranteed the daily presence of the American government in Makah life.

The Treaty of Neah Bay also gave the name, Makah, to the "People who live near the Rocks and the Seagulls". The Makah language was not used when the treaty was negotiated, so the government used the Salish language name for the tribe. The current name is really an incorrect pronunciation of a Salish term that means "generous with food". So, from this time on, the tribe has been known by this name instead of the one from their own language.

In order to make sure that the government's orders were carried out, a succession of federal officials were assigned to the reservation. The man in charge of the reservation was called an Indian Agent, and some stayed at the Makah post longer than others. Some agents were also crueler than others. The federal correspondence and annual reports of each agent provide valuable information about this part of the historic period.

A good example has to do with the American government's decision to destroy the Makah language and culture. The school that was established on the reservation in 1862 was actually a tool to reduce the influence of Makah families on their own children, while increasing the influence of the American way of life. It is ironic to note that the first school teacher on the reservation, James Swan (See also: "James Swan Among the Indians: The Influence of a Pioneer from New England on Coastal Indian Art",) wrote the first ethnography of the Makah people; this document would play a large role in modern efforts to restore the culture during the 1970s. (9)

Another way to upset the Makah culture was to actually outlaw potlatches. Even though potlatches were illegal by the 1870s, Makah people still recognized the value of this cultural institution, and held these gatherings in inaccessible places like Tatoosh Island, an island off the tip of Cape Flattery. Other Makahs pretended to adopt American cultural patterns, and told agents that they were holding birthday or other acceptable American parties. In these cases, agents were agreeable, and even pleased, to believe Makahs were adapting so well, but were generally disappointed that the potlatch was so difficult to eliminate. By 1890, Agent McGlinn was still trying to eradicate the potlatch, with little success.

The American government continued to control the fate of the Makah Tribe into the twentieth century, and encouraged more contact between the Makah people and other Americans. The United States granted all American Indian people citizenship and the right to vote in 1924, an event that is still commemorated by the Makah Tribe in its annual Makah Days celebration. State Road 112 connected the reservation to the rest of the Olympic Peninsula in 1931, increasing access between the Makah people and the rest of American society. In spite of these things, Makah people still wanted to have a more significant voice in their affairs. The opportunity to have local Makah control over the reservation came in 1934, and marks the beginning of the modern culture of the Tribe (See also: "Neah Bay: The Makah in Transition".)

Contemporary Culture

In 1934, Congress passed a law that came to be known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). This act gave tribes the option to develop a tribal constitution, and have an elected government on their reservations. The Makah Tribe accepted the IRA and signed the Makah Constitution in 1936, bringing reservation control back to the Tribe for the first time since 1855. The constitution provided for an elected, five member Tribal Council; each member serves a three year term. No more than two seats are voted upon in any given year, and a new Tribal Chairperson is elected by the five council members each year.

The Makah Tribal Council is the governmental body that develops and passes laws that operate on the Makah Reservation. In addition, the Council oversees the administration of the departments that provide necessary services to the reservation population, like the police force and the courts, road maintenance, and the departments that manage natural resources like forestry and fisheries.

July 1999 tribal census data show that the Makah Tribe has 1214 enrolled members, although only 1079 members currently live on the reservation. Most residents live in Neah Bay, the only centralized village on the reservation, though a growing population and housing shortage have encouraged members to live in more remote locations in Makah territory. The average unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 51% , a figure which drops slightly in the summer because of tourism and other seasonal occupations. Almost 49% of the reservation households have incomes classified below the federal poverty level, and 59% of the housing units are considered to be substandard. (10)

In spite of this bleak description, the Makah reservation is still home to the "People who live near the Rocks and the Seagulls". Many Makahs who graduate from college come back to the reservation to work for the Makah Tribe, the local clinic, and the public school.

While there is a great deal of contemporary Makah history that is important, nothing has captured the attention of the world more than the Tribe's restored whale hunt. When the gray whale was taken from the endangered species list because its population was higher than it had been since commercial whaling times, the Makahs decided to exercise the treaty right to hunt again. After receiving the support of the American government and the International Whaling Commission (11) , the Makah successfully hunted a gray whale on May 17, 1999.

Many people believe that the Makah whale hunt will cause other native people in the United States to hunt whales, too. In fact, the Makah Tribe is the only tribe in the country with a treaty right to hunt whale; the United States will not support any other tribe's request for support for this reason.

Other people are afraid that the Makah hunt will cause commercial whaling of the Pacific gray population again, and that the tribe plans to sell whale products overseas. In fact, the Makahs signed an agreement with the government that the hunt will be for "ceremonial and subsistence purposes only".

Restoring the whale hunt is perhaps the best example of the contemporary Tribe's control over its own affairs. The hunt is also a prime example of the benefit of years of hard work and sacrifice that have been invested in bringing the old ways back to modern life.


  1. For a comprehensive discussion, see Ann Renker and Erna Gunther, "The Makah", Handbook of the North American Indian, Volume 7 (1990): 422-430.

  2. Web site and printer limitation prevent the use of the correct Makah orthography. Contact the Makah Cultural and Research Center for current Makah spellings.

  3. See T.T. Waterman, Whaling Equipment of the Makah Indians (Seattle: University of Washington Press), 1920.

  4. See David Huelsbeck, "Whaling in the Precontact Economy of the Central Northwest Coast", Arctic Anthropology 25 (1988) 1-15.

  5. An excellent description of these social complexities is available in Philip Drucker, "Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes", Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 144 (Washington, D.C.:GPO, 1951).

  6. See Gary Wessen, "Shell Midden as Cultural Deposits: A Case Study from Ozette", Ph.D. dissertation, (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms).

  7. Erna Gunther, Indian Life on the Northwest Coast of America as Seen by Early Explorers and Fur Traders during the Last Decades of the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 56.

  8. Samuel Hancock, The Narrative of Samuel Hancock, 1945-1860 (New York: Robert McBride), 182.

  9. James Swan, "Indians of Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington Territory", Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge 16 (1870): 1-106.

  10. Makah Planning Office, "1992 Demographic Profile", Neah Bay, Washington.

  11. Ann Renker, "Whale Hunting and the Makah Tribe: A Needs Statement", International Whaling Commission Report 49-AS5, 1997.

Educational Resources

Teachers who wish more detailed information, as well as educational kits and lesson plan suggestions, can contact the education department of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. All materials and activities are culturally appropriate and have been developed by Makah staff ; many lessons have been pilot tested in the classroom by Makah teachers. The Makah Cultural and Research Center can be reached at, or at Box 160, Neah Bay, WA 98357. Phone contact can be made at 360-645-2711.


This list presents a few sources that can help provide additional information about the Makah tribe.

Arima, Eugene. The West Coast People: The Nootka of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1983.

Colson, Elizabeth. The Makah Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe in Modern American Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1953.

Densmore, Frances. Nootka and Quileute Music. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 124, 1939.

Drucker, Philip. The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 144, 1951.

Ernst, Alice Henson. The Wolf Ritual of the Northwest Coast. Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 1952.

Gibbs, George. Treaty of Neah Bay and transcript of proceedings. Washington: U.S. National Archives, Records relating to the Negotiation of Ratified and Unratified Treaties with Various Tribes of Indians, 1801-1869; microcopy No. T-494, roll 5.

Gillis, Alix J. "The History of the Neah Bay Agency." In Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians III. New York: Garland, 1974.

Gunther, Erna. "Reminiscences of a Whaler's Wife." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1942): 65-69.

Gunther, Erna. Indian Life on the Northwest Coast of North America as seen by the Early Traders and Explorers during the Last Decades of the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Hancock, Samuel. The Narrative of Samuel Hancock, 1845-1860. New York: Robert McBride, 1927.

Huelsbeck, David. "Whaling in the Precontact Economy of the Central Northwest Coast". Arctic Anthropology 25 (1988): 1-15.

Jewitt, John R. A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt. Middletown, CT: Seth Richards, 1812.

Marr, Carolyn. Portrait in Time: Photographs of the Makah by Samuel G. Morse, 1896-1903. Seattle: Allied Printers, 1987.

Makah Tribal Council Planning Office. 1992 and 1999 demographic data. Neah Bay: Washington.

Marino, Ceasare. "The History of Western Washington since 1846". In The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Miller, Beatrice. "The Makah in Transition". Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 43, no. 4 (1952) 262-272.

Pascua, Maria. "Ozette". National Geographic 180, no 4 (1991) 38-53.

Reagan, Albert. "Whaling of the Olympic Peninsula Indians of Washington". Natural History 25 (1925): 24-32.

Renker, Ann. "The Makah". In the Reference Encyclopedia of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. New York: Garland, 1994.

Renker, Ann. "Whale Hunting and the Makah Tribe: A Needs Statement". International Whaling Commission Exhibit 49-AS5. Aberdeen: Scotland, 1997.

Renker, Ann and Greig Arnold. "Exploring the Role of Cultural Resource Management: The Makah Cultural and Research Center Example". Human Organization 47, no. 4 (1988): 302-307.

Renker Ann and Erna Gunther. "The Makah". In The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Swan, James. The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the Entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Washington Territory. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge 16, no. 1 (1870) 1-106.

Taylor, Herbert C. "Anthropological Investigation of the Makah Indians; Relative to Tribal Identity and Aboriginal Possession of Lands." In Coast Salish and Western Washington Indians III. New York: Garland, 1974.

Waterman, T.T. Whaling Equipment of the Makah Indians. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology 1, no. 2. Seattle: University of Washington, 1920.

Webb, Robert Lloyd. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest from 1790-1967. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.

Wessen, Gary. "The Archaeology of the Ocean Coast of Washington". In the Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Study Questions

These questions are developed to help educators use the information in this Web site, and plan research that will take students to other sources in the literature. All questions are geared to middle school students, and can be adapted to lower or higher grade levels by modifying language and scope. Some questions call for factual answers, while others ask for opinions. Since the Washington State Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs) expect that all Washington state students can determine the difference between fact and opinion by the end of the fourth grade, these questions challenge teachers and students to use the data appropriately in presenting both objective and subjective answers.

  1. How are Makah people similar to other tribes that are classified as Northwest Coast people by anthropologists? How do they differ from the Plateau people, even though some Plateau tribes are closer geographically than other Northwest Coast tribes? Developing a chart of similarities and differences might help to clarify this answer.
  2. How might the Makah tribe's cultural restoration efforts have been different if the Ozette archaeological site had not been discovered? Are there any other examples that demonstrate the impact that a catastrophic accident has had on the historical interpretation of an ancient culture?
  3. Why does the Makah tribe's contemporary whale hunt cause such a difference of opinion among people? Does racism have any bearing on this matter?
  4. Pretend that you are an explorer coming to Makah territory in 1780. How would you react to the people you see? Now pretend that you are a tourist coming to Makah territory in 1990. How would you react to the people you see? Now pretend that you are an ancient Makah coming to the east coast of the United States in 1780. How do you think an ancient Makah would react to the people and customs of this time?
  5. What do you think changed ancient Makah life the most? Why?
  6. Why did non-Indians in the late 1800s think that their way of life was better than the Makah culture? Is this a valid point of view? Why?
  7. How can a museum help a tribe to preserve its ancient and historic culture? Design an exhibit that might help to preserve one of the cultures that is in your family history.

About the Author

Ann M. Renker received her Ph.D. in anthropology from The American University in Washington, D.C in 1987. She has worked for the Makah Cultural and Research Center as Director of the Makah Language Program, and later, as the Executive Director of the facility. Since 1993, she has worked for the Cape Flattery School District, which supplies the public education services for the Makah Reservation. Initially Dr. Renker was the ESL teacher and coordinator of the bilingual education program till she moved into administration in 2002. She has been the Markishtum Middle School and Neah Bay High School principal since 2005.

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