NEA Literature Fellowships

Robert Sullivan

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(2002 - Prose)

From A Whale Hunt

The Museum

On my first visit to Neah Bay, I walked around a lot and tried to figure out how whale hunting fit in to this place, which eventually landed me in the Makah museum, which is not just a museum but a kind of shrine to the ancient Makah way of life: it is a repository for all the artifacts dug up in the late seventies at the site of an ancient whaling village that operated for centuries on the southern tip of the reservation, the place where the symbolic tools and daily-life equipment of an entire culture are displayed in a dim, church-like light. Over the course of my time in Neah Bay, I spent a lot of hours in the museum, buying postcards and pricing the locally carved cedar paddles and the phantasmagoric cedar masks, and, of course, pondering all the displays and exhibits, often in the company of tourists: for few are the Olympic Peninsula-touring visitors to Cape Flattery who fail to visit the spot.

Read the brochure, I would say to myself, as I began my self-guided tour. Read the brochure which says, "Our exhibits will give you a chance to look back in time and see how our people lived,'' and then goes on to add, "Perhaps you will be able to experience a portion of our appreciation of the One Above who taught our ancestors how to live in this place. The items you will see and the ingenuity behind them were inspired through prayer.''

See the cedar boxes, made from cedar planks that are ingeniously carved with creases and then folded and nearly welded, like a state-of-the-art alloy. See how the boxes are smoothed not with sandpaper but with the dried skin of a dogfish, which is a kind of shark. See how they are decorated with the characteristically oval-shaped rectangles, the incredibly stylized drawings that are based on creatures that actually live in the Olympic peninsula's woods and forests but end up looking like they would make the perfect trademarked logo for all nature in the Northwest, if the Northwest's nature were a band-name corporation, that is.

See the cedar baskets woven tight enough to hold water.

See the wooden halibut hooks that were taken away from the Makah, who were not farmers but who had farm tools forced upon them anyway, who took the steel in the farm tools and bent it and made the same upper case 'U'-shaped halibut hooks with steel that are now what even the non-Indian fishermen use. See the sealing harpoons, which are long and thin and two-pronged.

See the whale fin carved from cedar and decorated with 700 otter teeth, a constellation's worth.

See the donut-shaped rock that the sealer tosses from the boat when a shark follows - so that the shark will follow the rock down, down, down and away from the canoe.

See the huge dugout cedar canoes, which were for sealing and whaling and traveling far along the Strait and the Coast, out into the high seas, out in the evening not to return for several days, until the halibut were hooked, the seals were caught, until the whale gave itself up to the whalers.

See the muscle-shell pointed, cedar-roped, yew-shafted whaling harpoon.

See the tools, the art, the remnants of a village where life was simultaneously productive and artful, where life faced towards the sea and the greatest creatures were the whales and the highest ranked and most esteemed villagers the men who caught the whalesãespecially the whaling captain.

And see in the museum, in the place that celebrates the Makah-ness of the Cape - see over and over, a picture of a bird that you see in the motels and on the business card of the elected tribal representatives and on the flag and the web site of the Makah Nation, a bird that is not just any bird but is Thunderbird, the great bird-like god, who lives in the far off icy peaks of the Olympics, the being who, when he is hungry, flies out into the ocean and, with his huge claws and weapon-like lightning fish that he uses like great electrical harpoons, captures a whale. See this, the symbol of the Makah: for it was Thunderbird, according to the stories, according to what people still to this day say, who - in a time of great famine, when the community needed food if not hope - first brought the whale here.

After a while, staring at the museum's displays, touching the whaling canoe and pondering the whale floats and harpoon like Stations of the Cross I didn't understand, I saw that these were the symbols of the Makah whaling quest. Now, all the tribe had to do was flesh out the details.

Robert Sullivan is the author of The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City (Anchor), and of A Whale Hunt: Two Years with the Makah and their Canoe (Scribner). He has written for various magazines, including, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveler and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He is currently at work on a book about rats in general and rats in New York City in particular. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two children.

Author's Statement

For me writing a book is an adventure, even if the book is not actually about an adventure (which it sometimes is), even if you are just sitting there in a library reading room, hiking through some thick historical passage when suddenly, unexpectedly you stumble on a tiny flower of surprising detail. I especially love researching the history of people, places and things that are situated in close proximity to swamps, dumps, alleys, tidal areas, brackish waters, or really water of any kind. Alongside a river, for instance, especially a river near a city, you can get a good idea of what people have done in the past and what they are currently up to.