American Indians and whales collide in this resounding work of environmental and ethnographic reportage by the author of the quirky travel book Meadowlands (1998).
When Sullivan learned that Washington State’s Makah Indians planned to revive their long-dead tradition of whale hunting, this self-effacing “filer of facts for hire” figured he could churn out enough copy to pay for a trip and get in a little sightseeing. He did not reckon with the depth of this complex story, which occupied the next two years of his life and involved a vast dramatis personae including antiwhaling activists, Indian traditionalists, federal and state government officials, and a few assorted hippies. Prominent among all of these, too, is the ghost of Herman Melville; Sullivan constantly refers and alludes to Moby-Dick, even borrowing a chapter title or two, but insists that the Makah whale hunt was the opposite of Captain Ahab’s quest. “Moby-Dick is a book that builds to a symphonic climax of symbols after a long accumulation of steadily juiced-up details,” he writes. “The Makah had their symbols—the whale hunt and the whale—and they worked toward their earthly goal, the death of a whale, and an accompanying acceptance of death.” The impending demise of a gray whale, once endangered and now a talisman of the world conservation movement, looms over the narrative like a black shadow, and Sullivan's description of the hunt fairly sighs with tragic inevitability. But not with condemnation: he convincingly explains why the Makah people had come to view the restored whale hunt as a vehicle for asserting and maintaining their vanishing traditions. His book is filled with the voices of the Makah, allowed to speak for themselves against a chorus of disapproving outsiders who, the author admits, also have a point.
Digging deep beneath the headlines, Sullivan unfolds a complicated, politically charged story that will engage any reader concerned with the environment and indigenous peoples.