It’s Complicated 

“It’s Complicated.”

This was how Interpretive Specialist, Kirk Wachendorf, ended most of his statements during our conversation at the Makah Museum in Neah Bay earlier this week.

Kirk Wachendorf, member of the Makah Nation

What’s complicated for Kirk is explaining the current state in which the Makah Tribe finds itself after two hundred years of intertwining the cultures of the native Makah and relative newcomer Americans. The Makah Nation makes up about 28,000 acres on the Olympic Peninsula in the northwesternmost corner of Washington state. Before the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed by the U.S. government and Makah Tribe in 1855, the traditional Makah homeland was as large as 700,000 acres.  That treaty represented the first of many agreements between the Makah and the U.S. that have massively impacted this Tribe’s way of life.

The Makah, more than any other Native American tribe, has relied on the sea for its survival. Traditionally, the Makah were known for whale and seal hunting and salmon fishing, which they practiced sustainably for thousands of years. That has all but come to an end as countless marine animals have become endangered and salmon populations have dwindled.

In 1974, to help address salmon habitat loss due to logging, pollution, dams and overharvesting, the U.S. federal court’s Boldt Decision helped reaffirm the Makah right to fish in their “usual and accustomed places and stations” while restricting the amount of salmon caught by non-natives.  The years following the decision were filled with conflict, as non-native fisherman resented their Native American counterparts for the impact this had on commercial and recreational fishing.

Fishing boats moored in Neah Bay

Yet, as Kirk says, “it’s complicated.” The Boldt Decision, intended to both protect salmon populations and the Makah way of life, ended up drastically affecting the economy around Neah Bay.

Kirk remembers when celebrities like Bob Hope and John Wayne would flock to Neah Bay by yacht to enjoy the area’s fishing and related offerings. It’s hard to imagine such a scene today. “There used to be ten different fishing resorts,” said Kirk when reminiscing about the peak of Neah Bay’s fishing industry. “Today, there’s one.”

According to Kirk, Neah Bay’s unemployment rate now ranges between 50 and 80 percent, depending on the season. Before he graduated from high school, it never reached higher than ten percent.

“The demographics have totally changed,” explained Kirk.  Before the decline of the area’s fishing industry, the population was pretty evenly distributed by age. Today, according to Kirk, the average age is 23. “The older generation has mostly moved away… [and] the younger people that stuck around are waiting for something to happen.”

What happened for Kirk was the discovery of the Makah Indian coastal village of Ozette in 1970 – a year after Kirk graduated from Neah Bay High School – when tidal erosion exposed a group of 500-year-old Ozette homes that had been perfectly preserved in an ancient mudslide. Led by a group of W.S.U. archaeologists, the now famous Ozette Dig 15 miles south of Neah Bay is perhaps the most significant archaeological find in North America. In 1973, Kirk helped establish the Makah Museum, which is the sole repository for the artifacts found at Ozette.

The Makah Museum in Neah Bay

The museum, where I spent the better part of a morning this week, does a great job of telling the story of the Makah – and by extension – the story of most Native Americans. Upon entering the exhibit area of the building, one is confronted by a poster laying out historical facts we all should know. For instance, in exchange for retaining their fishing and whaling rights, the Makah ceded 300,000 acres of tribal land to the United States. In the years that followed, government representatives – Indian agents, missionaries and school teachers – worked to assimilate the Makah through laws against potlatches, ceremonies and speaking the native Makah language.

After the Indian Treaties of the 1850s, in order to retain their tribal affiliation, individuals would have to prove to the U.S. government that they were at least one-quarter Makah. With only 2200 members of the Makah Tribe left, this has become increasingly hard to do. Kirk, who was born one-quarter Makah, decided to marry his second cousin so that his children would be recognized as members of the tribe. Because, by federal law, one can only be a member of one tribe, marrying individuals from other tribes doesn’t count towards one’s tribal affiliation.

These are among the “complicated” facts one learns at the Makah Museum. Anybody remotely interested in Washington state history should make the museum – and others like it around the state – a must stop. The story of the Makah provides important context for all the other stories of the past two hundred years since Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition.

Beyond its excellent museum, the Makah Reservation has a lot to offer anybody who visits. Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the continental U.S., has some of the most beautiful scenery in the state, if not the country. The Makah maintain a raised wooden trail that winds through old growth forest on its way to the cliff that overlooks the Pacific – where Makah first saw “houses on the water people” approaching their land. The trails around Lake Ozette are just as picturesque. And the beaches are perfect for everything from sand dollar collecting to surfing.

Before I left the Makah Museum I asked Kirk what he thinks the prospects are for the Makah Nation now that its traditional way of life has been curtailed. He didn’t have many answers. The future, just like the past, he said, “is complicated.”

Cape Flattery, Makah land and the northwesternmost point of the continental U.S.


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