Makah whaling gear

Parts of a Makah whaling canoe. Source: Waterman, 1920.

I posted a couple of days ago about a historic photo of members of the Quinalt Tribe making canoes in the Queets watershed.  Immediately to the north, the Makah tribe at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula are well known for their succesful whale hunting practices, carried out from canoes similar to those being carved.

As it happens, in 1920 the Anthropologist T.T. Waterman wrote a detailed account of Makah whaling technology, which you can download in full here (PDF).   Above, I illustrate the nomenclature of the Makah whaling canoe – I like how the small bump on the lower bow is called the uvula.  Below, you can see the seating plan when geared up and loaded for whale.  As you might expect for such a dangerous undertaking as killing whales from a canoe, the division of labour is quite precise:  “float-tender”, “harpoon line tender”, “float inflator” .  The “diver” had the task of swimming to the lower jaw of the dead whale, piercing the skin and flesh, and sewing the mouth shut to prevent the whale sinking on the long tow home.  You can see a vivid picture of some of these people further below.  Descriptions of these tasks and the associated gear is given in Waterman, which contains huge insight into traditional Northwest Coast technology and social practice.   I’ll most likely post more snippets from this book in due course.  The Makah have, of course, recently re-asserted their traditional right to hunt whales which I fully support.

Seating positions within a Makah whaling canoe. Source: Waterman, 1920.

Makah Whaling: the 2nd harpoon strike. Line tender in action behind the harpooner. Source: Makah Tribe.

3 responses to “Makah whaling gear

  1. Speaking of Makah whaling, I am wondering exactly where the famous whale dorsal fin effigy (with inlaid sea otter teeth) was found. It is one of the most famous Ozette artifacts, but I don’t know its provenience! It may be specified in one of the Ph.D. dissertations written about the site, but I have not checked them all. Anyone know offhand?


  2. Hi Madonna,

    I don’t know the answer offhand but fairly recently I came across a picture of it in situ, which might give a clue. Also I emailed a recent graduate from here who worked a lot with the Ozette material for his MA and he may be able to point us in the right direction. So I’ll post something here if I find it out.



  3. Hi again Madonna

    I just posted a link to the white cover Ozette site reports which are now available as searchable PDFs. I searched through all three for “saddle” since that seems to be what they call the whale fin effigy, but lots of hits and no provenience. So, one down.

    The new post is here:

    The graduate student focused on fauna and didn’t know off the top of his head but I linked to his thesis anyway.



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