By Phoebe Wray

There is a claim by an increasing number of small groups of North American indigenous people, by Japan, by Norway, and most recently by Iceland, that they have a right to kill whales based on their history as a group. These people are doing so, despite a widely-held global view that whales ought to be protected, and despite the fact that, with the possible exception of the Inuit peoples of Alaska and Siberia, no one needs to kill whales to live.

Conundrum is one of those wonderful words which we think we understand in context but are generally at a loss to define. The OED notes that it is a rhetorical term, meaning "a riddle solved by a pun." In more general usage, a conundrum is a baffling problem, a convoluted problem, a problem difficult to solve.

In its first sense, I wrote what I thought was a perfect conundrum for ECO, the daily magazine of the conservation community at International Whaling Commission meetings. It never was printed because there were more important things to be said, but it was this. You have to use your imagination a little. The riddle of the conundrum was: When is a sanctuary not a sanctuary? And the answer was: When it is a – and the word "sanctuary" was to be printed in Japanese. That is a conundrum. It is, of course, also a sad fact.

For our purposes here, I use the less arcane version. The issue of the tradition of whaling as a right is, indeed, a conundrum.

In my abstract for the organizers of the 2nd Annual International Wildlife Law Conference at Georgetown University School of Law in 1997, I wrote:

Multi-cultural understanding ought to be a loop: I understand your position, you understand mine, and we find a way to reconcile our differences. In the issue of marine mammal consumption and conservation, indigenous peoples express their views as a "right" which they assume has presumptive status. The claim that they are owed cultural exceptions, ignoring or bypassing significant changes in social attitudes by broad constituencies of people, has led to an impasse in environmental ethics and an increasingly hostile discussion space. This presentation examines the conundrum and presents a scenario for an approach to détente.

I came to realize that my first assumption, "I understand your position, you understand mine" is simply false. I am a card-carrying whale conservationist. I do not believe that the whalers in Taiji, Japan, or a few members of the Makah Nation in Washington State or some Norwegian entrepreneurs understand me at all. I don't think they are particularly interested in doing so.

I have been involved in whale conservation work for over twenty-five years. I've been asked to do a lot of understanding and soul-searching about so-called aboriginal whaling, from the Inuits in Alaska to that old man who tries to kill whales (and occasionally does, generally female humpbacks and their calves) down in Bequia. I can only recall one time, in all that time, when someone from a whaling community asked me about what I wanted and believed about whales.

There was a time, twenty-five years ago, when schoolchildren in my state, Massachusetts, knew more about whaling than they did about whales. I think the same may be true for indigenous and small-type whaling communities everywhere. This has totally reversed in Massachusetts, and in many places throughout the world, through educational efforts.

Do I understand the indigenous people who want to go kill whales? Do I understand their words? Yes. Do I honor their traditions? Yes. Do I understand that some whaling communities believe that killing whales for money is acceptable? Yes. Do I agree with it? No. Do I have heart knowledge of their desire to kill whales? No.

In the past two decades, as the aboriginal whaling debate has flowered, it has, I think, taken a path that has led to the impasse if not the abyss. If we look at the history of whale conservation and the aboriginal whaling issue, we will see that increasingly all decisions were to be based on Science. Capital S. Science was to save the day, and the whales, and the people. There is a great crunching of numbers, quibbling about "stocks." This reliance on Science as the solver of all problems has often faltered in the history of our species. In fact, generally, the pattern is, if we rely on Science to save us, we often suddenly realize that She cannot. At which point, Science throws up her hands and yells "uncle"—well, actually, yells "Mother!"—and in steps Philosophy in one of her many avatars.

Thus it is that Ethics, one of the children of Mother Philosophy, became and becomes involved in the debate on aboriginal whaling. But even She is not of much help. Unfortunately. That is when the great clumsy step-child, Politics, rumbles through the door.

The problem is this: we are trying to apply the disciplines of logic, of science, to what is essentially a passionate human event: a perceived need to go killing. In this case, killing whales. This human need is not provable by science, not even by logic.

Further, to say, as the Makah Tribe whalers in Washington State do, that they have always kept whaling in their hearts, is no doubt their truth, but one without scientific proof. Indeed, as it is a thought, what scientific proofs could be offered? or demanded? Yet, there is a proof. They have translated their tradition, as groups of people everywhere on the planet have done with their significant acts, into its eternal form—their arts: their dances, their songs, their stories, their paintings. This is proof indeed that whaling is in their hearts. But the killing act had disappeared, until the last few years. And now as it returns, it is very much corrupted by commercialism and by a loss of significant traditional mechanisms and activities.

In my abstract I note that many indigenous people claim a right to whales, a right to kill whales which is perceived as a first right, a claim that they have more rights than any other humans. In the case of the Makah, there is the 1855 Treaty which they say guarantees their right to whale forever. 1855 was not necessarily a bad year, although it was the year that Charlotte Brnte and Kierkegaard died, also the year that rayon was patented, and that Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass had its first printing. Not exactly "ancient history," but most of what we think about and use and handle every day was non-existent.

What I mean is, the world has changed greatly and is changing since the treaty was signed. Living documents grow. The US Constitution, for example. Wherever would we be as a nation if it had not altered to serve each new generation? I wouldn't be voting, or probably writing this essay, for one thing.

We must of course honor our human traditions and especially our laws, but we must also recognize—all of us—that traditions are and ought to be changeable. Laws which hold us hostage to our ignorance are being and ought to be examined.

I, too, am a member of a tribe. My tribe is a sort of Gideon's band of people who have bonded together, some over decades now, in a common passion and with a common goal: the conservation of cetaceans. This tribe has rituals, meetings, ceremonies, hierarchies. We have elders. I think of Victor Scheffer, and Bill Schevill, and Peter Scott, and Pat Birnie, and Howard Winn, and Sylvia Earle, and Sidney Holt, and Alexei Yablokov. That's just a few; there are many more.

Moreover, my tribe has bonded with another species—with the whales—in a tradition more ancient than writing. Thus we of my tribe have a totem animal. In many many hearts, that totem is also a sacred animal. Sacred in this sense: we believe that the whale should not be killed, and to do so violates the honor of the tribe, diminishes the earth.

Are whales sacred animals? Dare we admit it? That adds to our conundrum, a bright flashing color into the knot, in fact it pitches it into a totally different and more difficult realm.

Several years ago, in a phone conversation with one of the then would-be whalers of the Makah Nation, he commented to me that he did not understand why the whale conservation people seem to feel the whales were so special. I retorted that so did he. The elaborate ancient rituals surrounding the taking of the whale in the Makah past were evidence that it was looked upon as "special" and "different." It spoke to them, it "gave itself" to them. The inter-species loop had to be completed for a whale to be taken. So, we had a common ground, but he did not accept it. That does not mean we should not continue the dialogue.

I must be mad to say it. But to thousands—would you guess?—hundreds of thousands of people—is it possible?—millions, of people in the world, the whales are sacred animals. They might not just say off-hand to a fellow worker, "whales are sacred." But they might feel it just the same. They are the ones who have delivered millions and millions of dollars to whale conservation efforts.

Forget Science. It will not save us in the dilemma. It will not save the whales.

Is this acceptable in the debate? For people to admit that whales are sacred to them? And can they then say to the people of Taiji or Neah Bay or the Nuu-cha-nulth peoples in Canada: if you kill a whale, you are killing something sacred to me. Can we demand that they listen? Yes. I believe we should. They ask me to listen. Now I ask them to listen.

I suggest this: We have all been wronged and we have wronged each other. Now let's talk.

We cannot stop men from killing whales because they see them as cows. We cannot stop men from killing whales because they wish to assert their rights. If I cannot demand that the Maori or the Makah accept my belief that the whales ought not to be killed, how can they demand of me that I accept their belief that the whales ought to be killed, not for food, which is a strong argument, but for the honoring of the past. But we must at least listen to each other.

Once again the whales are a catalyst to the re-examination of the place of humans in the natural world. Of course we belong here. We are as natural on the planet as whales, and we have a right to exist. It was nearly three decades ago, at the Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, that the first part of a conundrum was posed: "If we can't save the whales, what can we save?" We're still waiting for the answer.

This is the scenario I offer: We ought to stop talking in code and say real things. In that sense, the ghost of Science will be with us, and the blessing of Philosophy will descend upon us, and maybe, just maybe if we all tell the truth—all of it: the bribes, the deals, the falsified documents, the angers, the anguish, the poaching, the intense personal involvement with the dolphin smile, the perception by many of the sacredness of the cetacean nation—maybe we can find flat water—a place to come together and at least recognize what it is we do to each other over this issue. All of us must do this. Now.



The essay has been modified from a paper delivered at the 2nd Annual International Wildlife Law Conference, Georgetown University School of Law, 8 April 1997, on behalf of The Center for Action on Endangered Species, Ayer, Massachusetts, USA. Phoebe Wray was the founder and for many years the Executive Director of the Center. She lives and teaches in Massachusetts.


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Strange Seas pages updated 31 May 2005