In the twinkling starlight of a winter night, the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest coast looked up at the sky and saw an eruption of colour undulating across that starry expanse. They gazed in awe at the waves of green and purple light, knowing that the mountain dwarves couldn’t be far away. After all, it was common knowledge that these dangerous spirits were responsible for the lights in the sky, which rose from the fires where they burned the blubber of whales they’d caught with their own hands.
Perhaps there is no nation in the world to whom whales are more central than the Makah. Known in their own language as Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌ or “the people who live among the rocks and seagulls”, the Makah have been hunting whales in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. Today, they are the only Native American nation in the United States with the right to hunt whales. They had to fight the US government to honour their 1855 treaty in which Makah leaders ceded over half a million acres of their homeland in exchange for the right to hunt whales and seals as they had for millennia. Their entire ethnic identity revolves around an intense spiritual relationship with the whales they hunt. When commercial European whaling devastated the local population of grey and humpback whales, the Makah of the 1920s voluntarily sacrificed the whale hunt in order to help preserve the remaining whales, but it came at a steep cultural cost.
Once the grey whale was taken off the endangered species list seventy years later, the Makah revived the whale hunt. They faced opposition from environmental activists who sent death threats to tribal members and legal roadblocks from the US government that violated their international treaty. In spite of the opposition they faced, several Makah men underwent months of intense prayer, fasting, and other spiritual purification, and then in May 1999 brought the entire community together around the core activity that had given their ancestors their identity. The Makah kill only one whale a year and use every part of the animal, and since that first fateful whale hunt they have seen a revival of interest in their culture and nearly extinct language among their young people.
There is plenty more to say about the people of rocks and seagulls and their relationship with whales, but today I’d like to focus back on the story I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The profound influence of whales is felt in almost every aspect of Makah art and culture, and their interpretation of the aurora’s spectacular display is no exception. An unknown member of the Makah tribe from the Strait of San Juan de Faca, the northernmost tip of Washington state, recalled this story about the Northern Lights:
The northern lights come from the fires of a tribe of dwarf Indians who live many moons journey to the north. These dwarfs are no taller than half the length of a canoe paddle. They live on the ice, and they eat seals and whales. Although they are small, they are so strong and hardy that they can dive into cold water and catch whales with their hands. Then they boil out the blubber in fires built on the ice. The lights we sometimes see, are from the fires of those little people boiling whale blubber. The dwarfs are evil spirits, or shookums, and so we dare not speak their names.
The Makah are not the only people of the Pacific Northwest to tell stories about mysterious little people who live in the mountains and should be avoided as bad omens. Nor are they the only people in the world to associate whales with the northern lights, a topic I’ll explore in future posts. And yet, it should probably come as no surprise that they are the only ones to have recorded a story about furtive dwarves burning whale blubber to send mystical fires into the night sky. In the story of these shookums with a taste for whale, you can see a little of the Makah themselves reflected in the light of the marvellous aurora borealis.