Battle on the edge

Posted by Ken Campbell June 28, 2008 0 Comment 521 views

The Makah reservation occupies the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and includes Tatoosh Island. There are stories, however, that say this was not always the case.

Back then, when humans sang songs to whales as they hunted them and spirits roamed the dark green forests, the area was the home of the Nittinat tribe. The Makah lived further to the south, on the banks of the Ozette River. Conflict between the tribes was never far from the surface and at one point, the conflict turned into open warfare.

The Makah fought first to evict the Nittinat from Tatoosh Island. The battles were fierce and many combatants on both sides were killed. After driving the Nittinat from the island, the Makah took the battle to them once more in Neah Bay. Only two Nittinat chiefs remained. One of them, seeking to stop the slaughter, offered to marry the daughter of one of the Makah chiefs. Détente, sort of.

The Makah elders had a different idea. Rather than sending the maiden that had been requested, they sent her brother, in drag. The two kids were twins and apparently the family resemblance was enough to get the “bride” through the door. With a knife hidden in his skirts, the young man surprised the Nittinat chief (if “surprised” is really the right word), separated his head from his body, and brought the bloody trophy back to his own people.

The last Nittinat chief was ambushed and killed when he was returning from fishing. Leaderless and with understandably low morale, the remaining Nittinat piled into their dugouts and paddled north. The Nitinat First Nation currently makes its home on the west coast of Vancouver Island, just across the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Neah Bay.

The Makah have lived at the corner of the country ever since. They built a culture centered around whaling and thrived for centuries before being laid low by diseases against which they could not fight back. Even today, the population is a fraction of what it used to be.

It can be difficult, no matter who you are, living on the edge.

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