The culture of the Makah tribe was similar to that of other Northwest Coast Indians. They were expert woodcarvers. The people lived in cedar-plank houses in large, multifamily villages. The Native Americans carved large oceangoing dugout canoes, totem poles, chests, and other products from wood. Raincoats and hats were worn by them, which are made of cedar bark. The blankets they woven were made of dog hair woven on a loom. A potlatch is a tradition in which wealth is demonstrated by giving away possessions. Trading was a part of their daily lives.
It is believed that the Makah tribe occupied a territory in northwestern Washington known as Cape Flattery as their ancestral homeland. As the international boundary between the United States and Canada, the Juan de Fuca Strait divides Cape Flattery from Vancouver Island. The Wakashan languages were spoken by the Makah in the south. The Wakashan language calls them “cape people”, sometimes spelled Macaw and pronounced mah-KAW.
In terms of subsistence, the Makah tribe ate food from the sea, especially salmon. Additionally, they consumed deer, elk, and bear meat from the forests, as well as wild greens, roots, and berries. They were also among the most skilled whalers in North America, respected by both Indians and non-Indians. It was common for Pacific Northwest natives to wait for whales that had beached themselves. Like the NOOTKA on Vancouver Island, the Makah actively hunted them. Makah whalers hunted with 18-foot wooden harpoons tipped with sharp mussel-shell blades and protruding bone spurs. Once the blade penetrated the tough skin of the whale, the spurs would keep the weapon hooked inside.
A number of sealskin floats were tied to the harpoon with ropes of sinew. After the whale died, the floats kept it afloat after it was tired out by being dragged. Usually, six paddlers and a helmsman followed the chief harpooner in the dugout, an honorable position in the tribe. During the pursuit, the harpooner sang to the whale, promising to sing and dance for it if it let itself be killed. There was obviously a great deal of danger involved in whale hunting. Dugouts might be flipped by whales swimming under them. With their enormous tails, they might smash it.
For the large sea mammals to be killed, harpoons with floats were initially used to weaken them, and spearmen in other dugouts carried harpoons to kill them. The catch was towed back to the village, where the men and women butchered it. The chief harpooner was presented with the best piece of blubber taken from the back of the animal.
Whale parts were used by the villagers in every day of life. It ate both meat and skin; its intestines were formed into containers; its tendons were braided into rope; and its blubber was used to extract oil. After a storm exposed part of the village in 1970, excavations at Ozette at the tip of Cape Flattery provided much information about early Makah.
A mudslide from a steep cliff buried this prehistoric village at least five centuries ago, preserving skeletons, houses, and artifacts. The site contains 55,000 artifacts, including sculptures, harpoons, baskets, and household items. The Makah Museum at Neah Bay, Washington, on the Makah Reservation, displays these artifacts. The Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC) has been running the museum and a language preservation program since 1978.
In May 1999, the Makah tribe resumed whaling for the first time in 70 years, despite protests from environmental groups. Modern Makah whalers use both harpoons and riflemen in their canoes, unlike traditional whaling involving harpoons and a “killing lance”. The Makah have been requesting the right to conduct annual whaling expeditions since 1999. Makah tribe whaling has been the subject of an environmental study by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The scope of public comment was expanded in March 2006.