Photo: Makah Indians on the beach after a whale hunt, 1910; Photo by Asahel Curtis/Seattle Public Library
Note: This article has been modified since its original newsletter form to include some clarifications on my opinions about the undercurrent of white supremacy inherent in this issue—thank you, readers!
The Makah Native American tribe, an indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau of Washington, may soon be granted permission to resume their 2,000 year old whaling tradition—a practice that had been halted by court rulings over environmental concerns.
Here's where liberalism comes to a screeching, identity-confusing halt. Oooh, lord! Which side is a good liberal to take in the intersection of animal-protective environmentalism and native peoples' rights, in a conflict where there is an undercurrent of historically racist policies? Which are you—an imperialist or a whale murderer?
When I've talked about veganism with, say, meat-eating Hawaiian, Filipino, Native American, Japanese people (really anyone who identifies with an ethnic/cultural/social/national group—people from the U.S. South, Italians, Latinos, etc.) a common response is, "My ancestors ate [insert animal here]. Our people need that food to be healthy, we can't give it up, it's part of our blood and tradition."
This is exactly what T.J. Greene, chairman of the Makah tribal council, is stating about the potential whaling reinstatment: "The tribe hopes it leads to being able to practice our traditions, our culture...[whaling] is something that is strongly connected to our spiritual existence. We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come."
(No regard for the fact that every whale killed in its tracks was on a trajectory of its own, in a tradition of its own, in a nation of its own.)
As a student of American history and its historically racist and white supremacist policies, and as the relative of Holocaust victims and survivors, I tend to side with minority, oppressed, and colonialized parties in all political matters. Not because of white guilt, as many lazy thinkers would accuse (I'm an equal-opportunity critic), but as a result of historical and contextual examination and because thier side is more often seeking justice, not power and control.
By that same measure, I call bunk on the native peoples' excuse to hunt. The last (illegal) whaling kill the Makah made was carried out using a high-powered rifle (how's that for tradition?). The whale bled out for hours before it died.
No political alliance that I make goes unchecked. Today, hunting whales can not be considered ethical or moral by any measure. Allowing it does not bring justice to any party, does not change the political or economic standing of the tribe. It may signify a right to self-determination, but when that comes at the cost of another species, especially one in peril, it feels like a power play parallel to the status quo models of domination and oppression. I think we can all do better with our politics and with seeking true justice for all.
A ban on traditional whaling is not a zero-sum game, where the environmentalist's win requires the native's loss. This particular conflict affords all parties an opportunity to honor native ancestors by rethinking and re-creating their values in the context of a new world.
Ancient Hawaiians lived and ate by the concept of ahupua'a, a system of land division which ensured sustainability and the efficient use of natural resources. The entire concept was interwoven with their spiritual beliefs about the interconnectedness of nature's elements and living beings, of daily and seasonal life. It is an idea coming back into popularity as organizations look for sustainable solutions on the islands.
Native Americans, in a million ways, self-monitored their use of natural resources in the context of respect for and interconnection with the Earth.
The list goes on with every native culture.
None of our ancestors would sanction a modern practice that destroys our health, or the last remaining animals of a species, the environment, or our connection to the Earth.
The Makah don't have to lose their connection to the whale. If the ban on whaling is upheld, and it should be, I hope the Makah will redefine the ceremonies and practices that involve the whale so important to their culture (if you ask me, I think a ritual blessing ceremony would do beautifully).
But it is up to all of us to protect the wisdom of our ancestors, beyond their ancient practices, and forge new traditions that honor the old world.
Contact the Washington region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here to ask them to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act (phone number is 206-526-6150). Or leave them a Facebook comment.
Please leave your comments below so everyone can take part in the discussion!
First of all, I acknowledge that I've sucked at keeping up my newsletter lately—but for good reason! I've been busting booty on a new project I'm hoping to announce very soon, so don't go away—stay tuned!
Speaking of delays, my topic today started with something I spotted last November 2014. I had come across a heartwarming article in Fortune magazine, "Can McDonald's Get Its Mojo Back?", about the once-dominant fast food chain's decline—today, McD's is losing its market share, losing sales, and suffering a corporate identity crisis. Warm and fuzzies!
Don't get it twisted, they're still serving the dregs of animal flesh to millions a a day. But the news represents a hairline fracture that could potentially crumble the empire. Anyway, that's the scene I imagine in my head.
The factor for McDonald's decline that I'm most interested in is the shift in market interests. The old "fast and convenient" selling point is losing appeal to a growing market (us, and the public we influence!) who are looking for "fresh and healthy." That's a major effing fundamental problem for them that I'm very excited about.
None of their campaign overhauls are working because no matter what McDonald's says in an ad, they can't overcome the fact that they sell garbage. McDonald's has become synonymous with "junk food," and associated with obesity, "pink slime," lawsuits, expired meat, and animal abuse, all while the mainstream food market is moving toward unprocessed "slow food," healthy kids, and Meatless Mondays.
What's a company to do?
When a public relations department can't distract the masses by throwing sand in their eyes, they often engage another tactic—embracing the negative and spinning it as a positive.
Last night, my confidence in: a) McDonald's decline and b) our vegan influence on the public, was confirmed when I saw this McDonald's commercial on TV:
WOW, a little butt-hurt, are we??? I think we've insulted them.
It reeks of the insecurity unique to a bully that doesn't get his way and suddenly senses a loss of power (or an angry world-destroying monster robot right before it dies). You can almost feel the McDonald's executives raging like mad kings behind the scenes, "Take that, you vegetarian f*cks!"
Except it feels really, really out of date, and even for McDonald's own sake, it's a bad ad. Who even says "deconstructed?!" Did they mean "unprocessed?" Of course, they couldn't say that. I think the ad is so icky that it will only further isolate people—moms, especially—who are trying to be healthier, trying to do better for their kids.
In any case, the ad sounds like a death knell more than a war chant. The people it will fire up are the dumbest of the dumb, who weren't going to stop eating fast food anyway, and vegans. And at this moment, it's our "campaign" that's winning.
Now, we just have to get people off Greek Yogurt and onto the coconut milk kind.
Keep on fighting. It's working.
I just saw a freakin' Applebee's commercial advertising QUINOA on the menu...WTH?!
Of course Applebee's is far from vegan, but would you ever have imagined?!
It just goes to show that despite the haters and the flack everyone gives us about being veg, they're listening and watching and changing. You don't always need to deal with haters directly. Indirect action is working, too.
Vegans are driving a big change in the market. We demand, the grocers and restaurants supply, and all the laggards give in to new, normalized choices (a decision they think they arrived at by themselves, haha!)
The point...to wield your power faster, make friends with your local restraunteurs and grocers so you can request more vegan products for the masses. It actually works. Here's a start:
If you're in L.A. (and if not, please share with all your L.A. friends), come hang out with me (and other cool vendors) this Saturday, January 24th, at the grand opening of Lassen's health food store in Echo Park (1631 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90026; phone: 213-542-6535).
Vegans unite and the masses will follow! Think that to yourself next time you're dealing with haters.