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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Northwest coast whaling : a new perspective Cavanagh, Deborah Mary


Marine mammal hunting developed to its peak on the Northwest Coast, among the only whaling people in this area: the Nootka, Makah and their immediately adjacent neighbours. While previous anthropological work has emphasized whaling ritual and technology, this thesis examines the economic importance of the whale resource for the Nootka and Makah. Settlement patterns were well-suited to the exploitation of the seasonally abundant whale resource. People moved to the outer coast at the same time as northerly migrating grays and humpbacks arrived on the Northwest Coast. Occupation of summer villages ensured a sizeable labour force to assist in the hunt and render the considerable quantity of oil obtained from a single whale. At a time when winter food stocks were depleted the Nootka and Makah exploited as many resources as possible. While most of the labour force was harvesting spring fish runs, chiefs and nobles hunted whales. These elite whaling crews were trained since childhood in the ritual and technological intricacies of the whale hunt. A chief's success on the whaling grounds brought him considerable prestige. His favourable relationships with supernatural powers were proven, as were his leadership abilities. Political advantages were gained by redistributing whale products among his own people as well as neighbouring villages and tribes. A seemingly small annual kill of only 2.5 whales per village could have contributed a significant amount of fat to the Nootka and Makah diets. The annual whale harvest of all Nootka tribes was estimated to be between 20 and 82.5 animals, with an additional 52 to 214 struck but lost each year. Using the average oil yield of both gray and humpback whales, the annual oil harvest per village ranged between 1,890 and 3,905 gallons. Each Nootka could have received between 6.6 and 56.8 kilograms of whale oil annually. This compares favourably with the annual fat intake of Britons in 1880. The combined use of ethnographic, archaeological, biological and historical sources suggests that the whale resource, although not the single most important resource for the Nootka and Makah, contributed significantly to the economy of people inhabiting the west coast of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery.

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