In April 2017, a 16-year-old Yupik boy harpooned his first whale, an event that would normally be met with excitement as a major rite of passage in his community of Gambell, Alaska. Instead, the success of his hunt was posted on Facebook, where he was called a “murdering little bastard” by the founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and subsequently received death threats and online abuse for months (O'Malley 2017). Six months before and across the Pacific in eastern Indonesia, another community of marine hunters was thrown into turmoil, online and in person, when a hunter was arrested for selling marine animal products that he had hunted. I came to do fieldwork in that community, Lamalera, a month after the incident and witnessed how it reignited a smoldering debate internally and more broadly about tradition, power, and the conservation of large marine prey, including cetaceans.1 Since 2010, the community of Lamalera has been engaged in what has become a regional, national, and ultimately international struggle about their hunting practices. Both the Alaska and the Indonesia incidents are emblematic of a struggle over discourse and practice between traditional hunters and anti-whaling stakeholders that has been unfolding since the 1970s and 1980s, a period that saw the implementation of a global moratorium on cetacean hunting from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in response to crashing cetacean populations.
The practice of hunting large marine mammals, including cetaceans, is a global phenomenon that has tied coastal communities to ocean ecosystems for millennia (Savelle and Kishigami 2013). For most of human history, excluding a period of extreme overexploitation of large cetaceans motivated by Western demand for whale oil between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, marine hunting for cetaceans has been a subsistence strategy. Today, a significant portion of cetacean hunting is done by indigenous and traditional communities for subsistence use.2 These communities, however, have faced intense pressure to stop hunting from other stakeholders. These include national governments, primarily through their delegates at the IWC; conservation organizations; and animal rights groups. Informed by my own ethnographic research with traditional marine hunters in Indonesia,3 this article explores a set of recurring arguments that have arisen from the interactions between hunting communities, management and conservation bodies, and publics. To do so, it brings together scholarship on traditional and indigenous cetacean hunting groups across the globe with topical contributions from anthropology, philosophy, biology, policy, and law. First, I examine the influence of charismatic species and how their place in Western imagination drives resource management and conservation policy, with cetaceans as the case study. I then address the debate about animal sentience and its role in determining what constitutes acceptable prey versus non-prey animals, including the specific place that cetaceans have in this debate. Next, I explore disputes about the authenticity of and constituent control over traditional hunting practices, breaking the analysis into disputes about both practice (e.g., allowable forms of hunting technologies) and cosmological centrality (e.g., how critical hunting marine animals is to any given cultural group). This leads into the discussion of sovereignty, both legal and cultural, and how it is entangled with marine hunting groups’ struggles for rights to resources. Bringing these four specific bodies of argument together allows both for an examination of how the dominant global discourse about marine hunting is shaped and for an examination of how this discourse affects extant hunting communities.
This article examines data from many indigenous cetacean-hunting communities but draws most, in terms of volume, from my own research with the community of Lamalera in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, as well as from literature on the Makah Tribe in the US state of Washington. Beyond the presentation of novel research on Lamalera, the reason for this is as follows: neither of these two groups is currently hunting under the IWC's Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) exception, despite identifying as traditional or indigenous cetacean hunting communities. The Makah have been engaged in a multi-decade legal struggle to resume hunting for gray whales in their ancestral waters off the coast of Washington under this designation (Reid 2015). In the case of Lamalera, while Indonesia also banned commercial whaling in the 1980s, it is not a member of the IWC and thus not subject to its regulations. Despite this, Lamalera has been presented with many of the same arguments and pressures that both the Makah and ASW communities face in relation to their way of life. Hunters in Lamalera cooperatively hunt for a number of cetaceans, most notably sperm whales, as well as large pelagic fish, sharks, and rays. Comparing these two cases with those groups that do currently sit under the ASW umbrella brings to the fore the most pressing points of the discourse on traditional and indigenous cetacean hunting globally and forcefully illustrates their impact on communities.
This article focuses on the hunting of cetaceans specifically. It should be noted however, that many traditional and indigenous communities that hunt cetaceans also hunt marine species that are more regionally bounded (e.g., seals in the Arctic) and thus are facing a broader struggle in relation to their lifeways as hunters.4 First, I give a brief historical overview of cetacean hunting and of the IWC before pivoting to examine the four aforementioned areas of discourse.
Archeological dating of the earliest evidence of cetacean hunting is currently in flux, with strong evidence tied to sites in California (6300–5300 YBP), Japan (5000 YBP), and Greenland (4000 YBP) (Glassow 2005b; Savelle and Kishigami 2013; Seersholm et al. 2016). Beyond this, archaeological and historical evidence has been found at sites across the world's oceans from the Arctic to the Indo Pacific, suggesting that cetacean hunting has been present as a subsistence pattern for many thousands of years (see Barnes 1996; Bockstoce 1986; Krupnik 1993; McCartney and Savelle 1985; Savelle and Kishigami 2013; Steadman et al. 1994).
History of Commercial Whaling
There is a comparatively small but rich body of literature focusing on the commercial history of whaling (see, e.g., Bockstoce 1986; Burnett 2015; Francis 1990; Starbuck 1989; Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982; Webb 1988). One of the most comprehensive and cited works is Richard Ellis's (1991) history Men and Whales. Ellis notes that while antecedent operations were visible across Europe beginning in the 1000s, most European nations began to maintain large-scale competitive whaling operations in the Arctic in the sixteenth century. American whaling operations launched by the mid-1800s and came to dominate the industry, which then spread globally, as more species were targeted. In the Pacific, Western operations met with whaling ships from Japan, which had developed a commercial industry beginning in the 1600s (Watanabe 2009).
Before the development of the harpoon gun in the 1800s, the industry targeted right and bowhead whales. With guns, sperm whales became a major focus, although other species were also hunted, including humpback, gray, and more as populations crashed (Coté 2010). Throughout history, commercial whaling was primarily conducted not for meat but for whale oil, which was used for lighting, as well as in soaps, paints, and lubricants (Dolin 2007; Ellis 1991). Most of the whaling industry crumpled at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries because of crashing whale stocks and decreased demand for whale oil as it was replaced by petroleum-based products (Dolin 2007; Tonnessen and Johnsen 1982). Notable exceptions have been Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, and Japan, where small-scale commercial whaling has continued at various points, in dialogue, and sometimes in conflict with, the IWC policy.
It is important to note that a great deal of the literature on the history of cetacean hunting synonymized commercial with Western, and left that categorization uninterrogated. More recent scholars, including Nancy Shoemaker (2014) and Bathsheba Demuth (2018), have worked toward a reexamination of the commercial category documenting the engagement of indigenous peoples in the commercial sector. Others, such as Katja Neves (2010), have questioned the assumption that the commercial exploitation of cetaceans is limited to whaling, pointing out the similar capitalist logics employed in both the whaling and whale-watching industries, and raising the issues that this presents for anti-whaling advocates’ support of whale watching.
Imperialism, Commercial Whaling, and the Power of Historical Narratives in Global Discourse
Multiple scholars have noted the connection between the intensification of commercial whaling and Western empire building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, arguing that whaling served as a significant economic contributor to expansionary efforts (Dolin 2007; Ellis 1991; Huggan 2018). This linkage between intensive whaling and imperial expansion is important for our purposes here because it came to have a very specific pattern of impact within the twentieth- and twenty-first-century discourse about human-cetacean relations. Mainly, it allowed for the creation of a kind of parable or narrative about greed in relation to the environment, and in doing so, created the counter need for some sort of atonement or reparation. Citing Ellis, Graham Huggan (2018) notes: “The story of commercial whaling … is now almost universally looked upon as one of ‘unrelieved greed and insensitivity. In no other activity has our species practiced such a relentless pursuit of wild animals, and if no whale species has become extinct at the hands of the whalers, it is not for the want of trying.’” This narrative of gross greed has subsequently come into play in the arguments of anti-whaling advocates. In this discourse, whales become a placeholder or symbolic site for human redemption, mirroring a longer held pattern in Western conservation narratives about the redeeming role of nature for man (Cronan 1995; Merchant 2003).5 In a chapter comparing worldviews of Iceland's pro versus anti-whaling groups, Niels Einarsson isolates a clear example of this symbolism from a 1990 Greenpeace calendar that states: “Save the whales. Whales and humans share a common enemy—humankind itself. Our blind greed has pushed the whale to the brink of extinction. We are arguably not far behind … We must save the whales, not only for their sake, but for ours” (1993: 79). This historical transformation from resource to special category of victim, whose salvation can in turn redeem humanity, is visible in how cetaceans and our consumption of them have come to be managed globally through the IWC.
The International Whaling Commission
Formed in 1946 in the wake of World War II, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling replaced the 1931 Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, and established the International Whaling Commission (Firestone and Lilley 2005). As of 2019, 88 member nations convene annually, a considerable expansion from the founding cohort of 15. From its outset, the commission's self-identified mandate has been to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry” (IWC 2020b). Because many cetacean species were so severely depleted by the commercial whaling industry, the IWC began deliberations for a global moratorium on whaling in the 1970s. This was supported by the strengthening environmental conservation movement in combination with the emerging animal rights and welfare movements. In 1982, the IWC resolved that it would instate an indefinite ban on all commercial whaling, starting with the 1985/1986 season, to allow stocks to recover (see Birnie 1985). This moratorium has remained in place ever since.
There was significant opposition to a total moratorium by countries who still had small-scale commercial whaling fleets, notably Norway and Japan. To this day, Norway has not agreed to the moratorium. Japan continued, through various mechanisms, to try to negotiate alternatives for itself until 2019, when it withdrew from the IWC. These alternatives include the exception of “scientific research whaling,” which allows signatories to self-regulate the killing of whales for research under Article 8 of the 1982 convention (Bradford 2000). It also includes an attempted exception for “small type coastal whaling” (STCW), initially introduced to the IWC by Japan in 1986, which was rejected (Fisher 2016). Both exceptions created large controversies at the IWC meetings and more broadly. Japan's scientific whaling programs have been continually criticized by IWC member states and conservation organizations as a ruse to cover ongoing commercial whaling, and have been successfully challenged as such at the UN International Court of Justice (see Anton 2010; Fisher 2016). The unsuccessful negotiation if STCW hinged on the fact that this kind of whaling cannot be defined as noncommercial, but the conflict has had major implications for traditional and indigenous cetacean hunters.
Over the years, the lack of change in status of the IWC moratorium has created its own highly charged fallout. While there is some debate about global models of cetacean stocks, according to the IWC's scientific advisory body, the need for the total moratorium from a conservation perspective has ended, as some cetacean species have recovered to a degree that would allow for some level of hunting to resume (Kalland 1993, 2009). The IWC's inability to act on its own data, as well as external scientific research, has led some scholars to conclude that the commission has now moved away from the original resource management mandate and toward a conservation mandate underpinned by evolving ethical norms related to a growing consensus on the exceptional status of cetaceans (Bradford 2000; Coté 2010; Einarsson 1993; Kalland 2009; Mence 2015).
Creating a Category: Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling
In 1981, in response to pressure from interest groups and member states representing indigenous cetacean hunters worried about the advancing moratorium plans, the IWC passed a resolution to allow for “Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling”, defined as “whaling for purposes of local aboriginal consumption carried out by or on behalf of aboriginal, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, familial, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and use of whales” (Donovan 1982: 83). While re-cemented in 1981, the ASW designation was part of a much longer history of exception to international conventions for aboriginal marine hunters (Firestone and Lilley 2005; Gillespie 2001).
The IWC (2020a) currently describes its position on ASW thusly:
From the outset, the IWC recognised that indigenous or aboriginal subsistence whaling is not the same as commercial whaling. Aboriginal whaling does not seek to maximise catches or profit. It is categorised differently … and is not subject to the moratorium … the IWC objectives for management of aboriginal subsistence whaling are to ensure that hunted whale populations are maintained at (or brought back to) healthy levels, and to enable native people to hunt whales at levels that are appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements in the long term.
Several researchers have examined the difficulties for different hunting stakeholders that have flowed from this effort to define and separate the category of ASW, however crucial or well intentioned (Coté 2010; Firestone and Lilley 2005; Freeman 1993; Kalland 2009). Prominent in this discussion is the point that the act of externally defining what constitutes human-cetacean relations for traditional and indigenous groups, and then imposing this definition on them, resembles the neocolonial positions on authenticity that arise in the discourse on indigenous identity and practice globally. The classification of aboriginal as inherently not-for-profit, and the attenuated struggle created over methods and technologies used for hunting, shade dangerously into both the “ecologically noble savage” and the “no modern Indian” tropes (Francis 1992; Hames 2007).
Stakeholders on the other side of the commercial definition also find it problematic. In the lead-up to Japan's resumption of whaling in 2019, for example, Japan's commissioner to the IWC said the implied logic that whalers not covered by the ASW definition somehow had a less meaningful or less historic connection with hunting was inaccurate, and seemed to support a position of “eco-imperialism” (Lies 2014). Japan's arguments for a continued right to whale based on scale, history, and cultural importance—now codified most clearly in its efforts to get STCW accepted by the IWC—are crucial to note here because they have the effect of destabilizing the conceptual framework of ASW. They both problematize the prioritization of aboriginality or indigeneity, as well as the IWC's linking of this concept with subsistence (Kalland 2009; Morikawa 2009). While important, a detailed analysis of Japan's role in the whaling debate lies beyond my scope here (see instead Morikawa 2009; Watanabe 2009). Instead, the cases discussed in the rest of this article focus on groups that either already operate under the ASW designation, or who may fit the definition as it currently stands. However, it is vital to keep in mind this boundary-making and definitional battle because it has large consequences for groups that have been placed on either side.
Charismatic Cetaceans and Policy Making
Cetaceans are not alone in their designation as special, and thus as deserving of exceptional treatment by humans. There is a significant and growing body of literature in the environmental social sciences about the role of so-called charismatic species (especially megafauna) in the Western imagination, and the role they play in resource management and conservation practice (Boykoff et al. 2010; Brockington 2009; Krause and Robinson 2017). The term charismatic species encapsulates the concept of animals that appeal to humans due to specific physical and/or behavioral traits and that have therefore been the recipients of intensive focus surrounding their conservation. Such species are now used as flagships or surrogates and are deployed deliberately across medias to collect funding, political will, and momentum for larger, more species-diverse conservation efforts (Caro and O'Doherty 1999; Di Minin and Moilanen 2014; Verissimo et al. 2011). How such animals, and the environment more broadly, have come to intersect with media, with celebrity culture, and with constituent consuming publics, has been characterized as a kind of “spectacular environmentalism” (Goodman et al. 2016).
Many consider cetaceans, as a group, one of the original flagship species and a prime example of spectacular and charismatic megafauna (Burnett 2012). Beyond their sheer scale, cetaceans may have specific psychological traction: many species have large eyes and soft facial and anatomical features, for which humans show preference (Kalland 2009). Cetaceans are also homologous to humans, something argued to affect the prioritization of species in conservation: they are also mammals, bear live young, and often live socially (Barney et al. 2005). Some scholars also argue that the ocean has its own separate but attached charisma as the home of cetaceans (Huggan 2018; Kalland 2009). It is thought to be cleansing across many cultures, but it is also unknown, mysterious, and easily incorporated into mythic thinking and imagination.
In one of the main arguments of his examination of the whaling debate, Unveiling the Whale, anthropologist Arne Kalland (2009:29) argues that cetaceans’ charisma is also boosted by a specific way of thinking and speaking about them that he terms “the superwhale.” The superwhale is a fictive, but powerful, concept found predominantly in the discourse of anti-whaling advocates and media-consuming publics that conflates the perceived positive traits of many different species of cetaceans to create a super image, or collage. Traits or observed behaviors like family groups, food sharing, care of offspring, playfulness, gentleness, high intelligence, and curiosity about humans are all combined into the concept “whale.” This image works symbolically to positively represent cetaceans but further works to present whales as persons or near persons. In actuality, many of the chosen traits are spread out through different species, and some don't exhibit any of them. Moreover, traits like “gentleness” are situationally and anthropomorphically defined, making them difficult to map onto species. This discourse, Kalland notes, also shies away from descriptions of cetaceans that don't fit the benevolent mold, such as many dolphins’ tendency to play with prey, or orca whales’ intensity and creativity in predation behaviors.
Other scholars have also documented this specific elision between whale and human. Einarsson, for example, argues that in the current Western imagination of cetaceans, whales “straddle the Cartesian divide between animals and humans occupying a Pan-like role in these relations.” The anthropomorphism of cetaceans has the profound consequence of transforming them “from being potential natural resources into a very different category of animals; they become ‘uniquely special’” (1993: 79). Cognitive scientist and theorist George Lakoff's description of mental “framing” on environmental issues can be useful for summing up how the charismatic whale is functioning. Lakoff argues that humans think using unconscious constructs, or frames:
Frames include semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames. A hospital frame, for example, includes the roles: Doctor … Patient … Operating Room … Among the relations are specifications of what happens in a hospital, e.g., Doctors operate on Patients in Operating Rooms … These structures are physically realized in neural circuits in the brain … All thinking and talking involves “framing.” And since frames come in systems, a single word typically activates not only its defining frame, but also much of the system its defining frame is in. (2010: 71)
Following Lakoff, I argue that Kalland's superwhale and Einarsson's uniquely special whale are examples of a frame about whales at work in the discourse. For anti-whaling advocates— and increasingly for the public with the rise in the volume and distribution of anti-whaling rhetoric—the word whale activates a series of other concepts, such as intelligence, gentleness, and family-oriented, and then, critically, a series of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors toward them. This frame then filters into normative and then legal contexts.
Sentient Resources: The Role of Sentience in the ASW Debate
How people determine what animals constitute appropriate food has long been a topic in anthropology (Douglas 1966; Harris 1975). In the current discourse about the hunting and consumption of cetaceans, the concept of animal sentience has come to be hugely influential in this determination process. Both the philosophic and scientific data on animal sentience flows into an already highly divided conflict, where it is then subject to interpretation and redeployment by pro- and anti-whaling stakeholders. The term sentience is used by different stakeholders in different ways, and it depends in part on how one defines it; for example, as just the ability to feel sensation within the body, or to feel pain and pleasure, or as a level of intelligence that would allow for a whole suite of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors (Duncan 2006). Some animal welfare advocates argue that a baseline of pleasure/pain sentience should be accorded to all animals, and that with that accordance animals must be granted a baseline of rights, mainly protection from unnecessary or prolonged suffering. In the ASW debate, this has manifested as a push for more humane ways of killing. Animal rights activists often argue for a broader definition of sentience and for an expanded accordance of rights, including the right to individual life (see Regan 1983; Rollin 1981). For such groups, there are no appropriate targets (see Singer 1977). Ultimately, both groups argue that cetaceans’ high level of sentience makes them unique or special and therefore deserving of specific ethical and legal consideration (Kalland 2009; Tester 1991; Wenzel 1991).
Animal rights and welfare groups base their positions on philosophical arguments about sentience but also on interpretations of more recent research from biology and neuroscience. As one animal welfare scientist at the World Society for the Protection of Animals has argued, “The science of animal sentience underpins the entire animal welfare movement. Demonstrating objectively what animals are capable of is key to achieving a positive change” (Proctor 2012: 629). Two major foci of sentience research are the perception of pain, and determination of higher cognition. There is active work and discussion in the examination of pain in animals from a neurological perspective, from how to determine what constitutes pain and how to reliably test for it, to determining the relationship between, pain, suffering, and stress (see Dawkins 2008, Lien 2015). Higher cognition is usually categorized via a series of traits such as self-awareness, memory, desire, and belief. Here too, there is active experimentation and debate regarding both methods and results interpretation (Jones 2012).
The subfields of biology and neuroscience that focus on sentience and animal intelligence more broadly have long engaged with cetaceans, and they remain an ongoing subject of research. In the 1970s, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a lengthy, and later much critiqued, program that examined the intelligence and communication abilities of dolphins. Moving forward in time, bottlenose dolphins have clearly demonstrated mirror self-recognition—a prized but contested standard of sentience—in multiple experiments (Reiss and Marino 2001). Orca have also demonstrated skills related to self-recognition (Delfour and Marten 2001). Vincent Janik et al. (2006) found evidence that dolphins have a name-like mechanism, a unique identifying whistle sound that remains tied to an individual throughout its lifespan. The examination of cetacean brain structure also leads to postulations about intelligence and sentience. Multiple elements, including the hemisphere shapes and the depth of both gyri and sulci of cetaceans are more similar to apes and humans than many other species, and the cerebral cortex of cetaceans is very different from their nearest living animal relatives from the Bovidae family (Pyenson 2017). Most recently, in a lengthy text that compiles studies on cetacean bodies and behaviors, marine biologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell (2015) argue there is clear evidence that many whales and dolphins have culture, the transmission of which is important to survival.
While researchers remain within the confines of defensible and field-specific analysis, results are of course open to interpretation by other stakeholders contributing to the discourse on cetacean sentience, welfare, and rights. For example, both aforementioned studies on dolphins were cited by philosopher and advocate Thomas White (2007) in his book In Defense of Dolphins, and studies on cetacean sentience continue to be highlighted in the advocacy literature and public comments of activist conservation groups including Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Sea Shepherd.
Reflecting on Traditional and Indigenous Perspectives of Sentience
Many traditional or indigenous marine hunting groups have difficulty engaging with the sentience debate. I discuss here two alternative perspectives related to sentience that appear in my own research and the ethnographic literature on marine hunting communities. First, in the environmental cosmologies of many traditional marine hunting communities, the right to hunt has never been predicated on the idea that animals are somehow inferior or of a “sub” moral or ethical category, which then makes them acceptable as a target. The understanding of many hunting communities of their position vis-à-vis prey animals is often that of co-constituents in a much broader web of environment, life, and chronology. Therefore, the recent revelation of animals as sentient by Western science, or as ethically considerable subjects by Western philosophy, does not somehow exclude them as prey, as they already exist within the domain of ethical consideration. As scholar Charlotte Coté notes about indigenous whaling communities in the Pacific Northwest, including the Makah and her own related people, the Nuu-chah-nulth, “The Makah people and my own people have lived alongside whales and have had a relationship with them for thousands of years, one that is sacred and respectful. But, deep inside our cultures, we also have … an understanding that killing animals for sustenance is acceptable” (2010: 162). Ultimately for many traditional hunting groups, the debate about sentience within the whaling discourse is somewhat of a non sequitur. Cetaceans can be sentient and ethically considerable actors; they are also prey.
Second, some hunting communities have religious structures that engage with the concept of sentience in ways that are not accepted by Western science. For example, the marine hunting community of Lamalera is Roman Catholic but also continues to worship ancestral and natural spirits. For Lamalerans, all marine prey are sent to their shores by their ancestors. There exists a sacred form of communication or communion between ancestors, land, sea, and animals that determines whether a hunting boat is worthy of successfully harpooning an animal on that hunt, based on harmony at home and within their community. Refusing to accept an animal is tantamount to blasphemy and equates to refusing an ancestral blessing, communicated through the animal. In another instance of communication, Lamalerans believe that when whales damage a new hunting boat they are purposefully showing the boat maker where they erred in the construction process so that it can be fixed. In short, whales are understood to be agentive beings who communicate with both the living and the dead, but they remain acceptable targets within Lamalera's cosmological system.
Animal Hierarchies: Normative Valuations Beyond Sentience
Outside of any cosmological differences about sentience, many traditional marine hunting communities feel that urban, especially Western, populations are disconnected from food production and that this disconnection impacts their relationships with and valuation of animals. This is especially true of meat production, and it means these populations don't reflect on the fact that in order to eat meat, an animal must die, and must experience some measure of suffering. This perception of ignorance and disconnection is held very strongly in Lamalera. An exchange from 2017—excerpted from a discussion with members of the clan traditionally responsible for marine management focused on the negative pressure from outside—reflects the community's position succinctly. One clan leader pointed out that many of the outsiders who are disturbed by scenes of blood in the water, or of animals being cut up on the beach, have never seen any animal killed or butchered. Globally, animal slaughter has long been removed from the flow of everyday life both for practical and cultural reasons (see Seetah 2018; Shanklin 1985). This means that such people are doubly shocked by what they see in Lamalera, he reasoned, making the community's lifeway seem even more distressing to them. This struck him as logical but rather hypocritical, since many of these people eat meat every day—more meat in fact, than most Lamalerans. A second person in our discussion, who now studies and lives in a large city on Java, noted that people in the West treat many animals quite differently than people from their community do. To illustrate, he exclaimed, “People there take their dogs to salons!” This was met with general amusement and some incredulity, and I was asked to confirm that there were, in fact, salons for dogs in the United States. It should be pointed out that Lamalerans also have their own animal hierarchies. Hunters were both careful and adamant in explaining to me that the community has its own ethical norms about what is acceptable prey. The most common example I was given is that Lamalerans do not hunt blue whales. According to their oral history, a blue whale saved a group of Lamaleran clan ancestors at sea, and because of this, the species are honored and left alone. In the end, it wasn't surprising to the group in discussion then that outsiders would be alienated by Lamalera's hunting practices due to different valuations of animals. What confused and angered people throughout my research was that the patrons of dog salons found it appropriate to come and impose their external normative structures about animals in Lamalera.
For Lamalera, as for many ASW communities, the stakes of the sentience debate are high, then, because they lead from normative categorization to legal frameworks that foreclose alternative ways of seeing and interacting with other species. While a detailed review of the international legal proceedings in relation to sentience is beyond my scope here (see instead Birnie 1985; Bradford 2000; Firestone and Lilley 2005; Gillespie 2001), how groups gain, maintain, and lose the authority to legislate behavior toward cetaceans constitutes a major part of the discourse of marine hunting.
Cetacean Hunting and the Authenticity Debate
Some of the most contentious terrain over which the conflict of traditional and indigenous marine hunting is fought concerns challenges to and defense of claims regarding the authenticity of cultural practice. While inextricably muddled in reality, these conflicts can be subjected to a Gramscian methodological separation, first into disputes about the authenticity of and constituent control over the methods and technologies that hunters use, and second into disputes about the socioeconomic, cultural, and cosmological significance of hunting and consuming cetaceans to any given group. These debates exist outside of, but are also closely linked to, the IWC's decision to recognize and define Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, and thus have important consequences.
The Way They Used To: Struggles Over Hunting Practices
The ASW definition delineates the kinds of methods and technology that hunters are allowed to use, something discussed extensively by Coté (2010) in her description of the Makah community's struggle to resume whale hunting in Washington State. In 1999, the Makah people were awarded a quota for hunting that the US government negotiated at the IWC. Coté documents how, with lengthy consideration, and in consultation with the US government and the IWC, a group of designated Makah elders determined a hunting method that would satisfy tradition, safety, and animal welfare requirements for all parties. This method combined paddled canoes for hunters supported by boats powered by outboards for safety and support. The kill would be made by harpoon gun immediately followed by a rifle to make the process as fast as possible for the animal. However, once the plan was released, and put into practice a single time in 1999, critics from advocacy groups and the public questioned its traditional nature. This lack of adherence to tradition was then used as a reason that the Makah should not be allowed to continue hunting and a legal challenge was mounted. A demonstrative public comment in the Seattle Times in relation to a later incident read, “If they did it in the way that they used to do it, with the harpoon and the canoe, it'd probably be fine with me” (cited in Coté 2010: 185).
This debate about allowable technology in traditional hunting is mirrored in the conflict about modernization between the marine hunters and conservation groups in Lamalera, Indonesia. There the debate has centered on the use of outboard motors. During a slow transition, from the 1980s to the present, Lamalera's hunters have started to incorporate outboard motors into their methods (Nolin 2010). According to the majority of Lamalerans, outboards are a tool that allows hunting—and thus meat exchange, and thus the core of their cultural identity—to continue in the face of a graying fleet and major out-migration pressure. Outboards mean that hunting boats can get out to hunting grounds with smaller crews than would be required to execute the hybrid rowing and sailing method of the past.6 Outboards are also safety measure. Marine hunting is dangerous, especially the way Lamalerans hunt, which is by hand, with a harpoon attached to a bamboo pole from an open wooden boat. Injury isn't uncommon, boats are routinely capsized and broken by whales, and storms can arrive quickly. If something goes wrong, nearby boats with outboards can offer assistance faster, or return to shore for help.
While the community sees outboards as a flawed7 but vital tool to continue their way of life, other stakeholders involved in marine policymaking in Indonesia see outboards as a sign of inauthenticity. In discussions with resource managers, scientists at universities, and conservation NGOs, the use of outboards was repeatedly highlighted as a sign that Lamalerans don't hunt in a traditional way, and therefore cannot call themselves a customary community, or masyarakat adat. The ability to claim a practice as adat has major implications for gaining legitimacy within Indonesia culturally and politically, and for gaining access to pathways for exception from national marine policy and protection of rights to resources.
Most simply, adat translates to “traditional” or “customary” and can represent an identity claim or legal status. In practice, the term's cultural, historical, and legal footprint is much larger: it has been used to describe entire communities, specific local laws and prohibitions, and other cultural practices. It is used in legal arguments, and a large body of law in Indonesia addresses the alignment between national law and adat law, dating back to the Dutch colonial period (Davidson and Henley 2007). At its most colloquial, adat is a synonym for local culture. While longtime President Sukarno officially declared that Indonesia had no indigenous people, many subsequent claims of tribal, traditional, or indigenous status have been framed through the concept of adat.8 The current constitution does technically support claims of adat status and use of adat laws, including claims to natural resources, but several legal roadblocks can make enacting such claims difficult (Butt 2014).
For Lamalera's struggle to continue hunting, interpretation of current legal precedent suggests that designation as a masyarakat adat, or customary community, might offer them some form of protection that would allow them to continue hunting legally. The community has discussed trying to pursue formal designation at multiple junctures, including in formal talks during my fieldwork in 2016. Foremost in this discussion, has been the often-agonized debate about how to demonstrate that Lamalera is in fact a traditional community. This debate is broad ranging but major foci include the presence and role of national and international media, the transmission of rituals and behaviors, and perhaps most contested, both the optics and use of outboard motors in hunting. In short, many Lamalerans are keenly aware of the connection between how the outside world sees their performance of culture and their lifeway's future.
Determining Need: Nutrition, Culture, and Cosmology
Moving back across the Pacific, the legal and political battle over the Makah right to hunt can also illustrate the second type of authenticity dispute regarding the cultural, spiritual, or socioeconomic need to hunt and consume cetaceans. Blocked by both historical context and legal disputes, the Makah didn't hunt whales for almost a century (Miller 2000). Their desired return to hunting was contested, in part because of this long absence. Anti-whaling groups and members of the public argued that if the community had survived for so long without whaling, there was no need for them to return to it, or if there was a need, it was not strong enough to outweigh objections (Bradford 2000). Coté counters that regardless of the length of hiatus, “traditional food is sacred and has a spiritual connection to the world we live in,” and that this is a connection shared by many Native people (2010: 198).
The argument about whether the Makah need to hunt is part of a larger set of arguments that question both whether indigenous groups can demonstrate a legitimate need for cetacean products, and how such a need could be demonstrated (see Gillespie 2001). This has been countered, in turn, by a wealth of ethnographic data on the central place of cetacean products in such communities. Perhaps most prominent within the literature is the critical place of cetaceans across the Arctic, in Inuit and Alaskan Native communities. Anthropologist Milton Freeman, who has worked with Inuit communities and resource managers for more than five decades, notes that the consumption of whale products is materially important, but also, as importantly, hunting and eating it links “Inuit symbolically and spiritually to their cultural heritage” (1998: 29). The sharing and consumption of meat through communities sustain bonds between families and individuals that are understood to be necessary for cultural survival and, in the minds of many, physical health and well-being (Freeman et al. 1998).
Drawing on sources from specific Arctic communities expands and deepens this understanding. Yupik groups are subsistence marine hunters who are most widely known for hunting bowhead whales in Alaska. The tradition of marine hunting there is passed patrilineally through families, and catching whales constitutes a centrally important moment in an individual hunter's life as well that of the community. The sharing and eating of meat, blubber, and oil is hugely important both practically and spiritually for the Yupik, and they have argued that to lose access to this food constitutes loss of self. As one community member in Gambell described, “To us Eskimos, hunting is our life; [it] very much keeps our bodies alive” (C. Ungott 1992, cited in Jolles and Oozeva 2002). Like the Yupik, Alaskan Inupiat Eskimos have a long history of subsistence marine hunting passed down through families. A whaling captain from this community noted that whaling is critical not only in terms of food production but also for cultural survival. “Subsistence whaling is a physical, emotional and spiritual experience which gives our people self-confidence and unites our communities” (Brower 1998, cited in Coté 2010). In Greenlandic Inuit communities, eating hunted whale meat makes connections “not only between the family and the animal, but moreover between family members and the place in which the animal was caught,” reinforcing intimate connections between people and animals as well as sense of belonging (Tejsner 2014: 431).
Returning to Lamalera, cetacean products represent a large portion of the protein consumed in the community. Meat and blubber also contribute to the diets of communities all over the island through a historical trade network with interior agricultural villages. While all marine prey are honored equally as rejeki, or blessings, from the ancestors, large whales hold a unique place because one whale “feeds the whole community,” explained one clan leader. Like in many traditional hunting communities, animals are shared first in a complex system based on hunt participation, tool use, and clan affiliation. They are then distributed further throughout the community in a gifting system called bĕfãnã, a term for smaller portions of meat given to family and neighbors based on need and on reciprocity. The importance of this catch distribution is difficult to overstate; without it, many members of the community say that Lamalera will die. Some see this as a symbolic or social death. Others, especially elders, see this as a physical death.
Reflecting on the wealth of literature, we clearly see that both segments of the authenticity conflict categorized here echo the work of many environmental anthropologists and political ecologists focused on the scrutiny of indigenous peoples’ practices in relation to natural resources (see Colombi and Brooks 2012; Conklin 1997; West et al. 2006). The need to perform a traditional way of life “correctly” to outsiders in order to maintain credibility and thus legal rights to cetacean resources ties to a much broader observed pattern about how practices, when related to traditional or indigenous resource claims, become entangled with rights (Del Cairo Silva 2015; Dove 2006; Muehlmann 2013; Wenzel 1991). Drawing on Daniel Francis (1992), Coté (2010) argues that the imposed restrictions within the ASW designation does in fact do this slippery work, tying indigeneity to the past tense, and the argument that there can be no “modern Indian” in the Western construction of native identity. Kalland (1993) argues the ASW designation has forced indigenous groups to come before the IWC and argue for their own “primitiveness.” Ultimately, the current position of the IWC regarding ASW, and the way the definition has come to intersect with the broader public discourse of anti-whaling advocates, has resulted in a situation where indigenous and traditional marine hunters are required to hunt and to live in an imagined past, rather than being free to construct a “traditional future” (Reid 2015).
Cetaceans and Struggles over Cultural Sovereignty
Coté (2010), Kalland (2009), and others have argued that the requirements placed on indigenous cetacean hunters to perform in specific ways according to external assessments of their own histories represents a violation of these groups’ cultural sovereignty. For many groups, this violation is only one instance in a wider context of struggle. Many of these communities live with a tenuous definitional and legal relationship to the settler states that historically colonized their lands. This tenuousness permeates beyond identity work and definition into struggles over territory and claims to resources and practices related to these claims (Simpson 2014). In the United States and Canada, this relationship is defined by treaty law that maintains indigenous groups as quasi or fully separate entities—although some have argued that the constancy of state violation of treaties and their conditions of negotiation undermine this characterization (Wolfe 2011). In contrast, the legal and regulatory frameworks of traditional peoples in many nations constitutes a body of customary law that is both older and separate but also laboriously (and often imperfectly) integrated within the national legal framework. This can then present a different kind of challenge for identity work and resource rights claims. This is very much the case in Indonesia, as seen in the discussion of adat.
Gaining designation as a masyarakat adat is attractive for Lamalera because it could potentially provide the community with the protection to continue hunting without fear of repercussions. Such designation is also in better accordance with Lamalera's understanding of itself as an entity within Indonesia. When discussing the conflict over hunting, multiple elders expressed to me that a central issue was that of cultural sovereignty in relation to history: “Lamalera was here long before Indonesia,” I was often told. This was not to say that Lamalerans don't feel that they are part of Indonesia. They speak the national language, go to government schools and clinics, and are eager to go to work or school in other parts of the country. At the same time, they feel their way of life is a unique inheritance that should not be sacrificed in order to conform to national fisheries policies, which have banned almost all the species that Lamalerans hunt. This struggle for balance arises in different venues. In 2017, for example, during the traditional dispute resolution ceremony held by hunters at the start of the marine hunting season, much of the talk centered around how Lamalera would handle the use of outboards that season, and if and how they had a right to autonomy of decision making in this regard. In my research about Lamalera's struggle to hunt with those active in the fishery, one of the most commonly expressed sentiments is “we just want to be left alone.”
For the Makah in Washington, and for ASW groups in the Arctic, the legal situation is somewhat different. Makah territory sits within the continental United States, which is an IWC member. The hunting of marine mammals is also regulated through the national Whaling Convention Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (Khoury 2015; Roman et al. 2013). The Makah right to hunt whales is enshrined in their original treaty agreements with the US government, however (Firestone and Lilley 2005; Miller 2000; Reid 2015). This right has been both recognized and challenged at various state and federal courts in a legal struggle that has stretched from the 1980s to the present (Bradford 2000). In 2004, the Makah right to hunt was rejected by the Ninth Circuit, the highest court of appeal before the US Supreme Court. Despite this loss, the Makah are still seeking a process that will allow them to return to hunting,9 based on their original treaty rights and their commitment to cultural sovereignty (Reid 2015).
Not all challenges to cultural or legal sovereignty come through legal channels, however. The Yupik case opening the article is a good example. To send a minor death threats for killing a whale in a traditional practice accepted under both national and international legal regimes arguably violates that individual and the community's right to practice their way of life. The death threats, physical assaults, and racist verbal abuse leading up to and during the single legalized Makah hunt in 1999 can be categorized similarly (Reid 2015). Ultimately, building on Kalland, Einarsson, and others, I argue that sovereignty becomes less and less important for anti-whaling groups and the public in the general discourse about cetacean hunting, as cetaceans move closer to human or “near-person” status (Mence 2015). In the extremis of this position, hunters become murderers and violations of sovereignty become acceptable to prevent the death of human-adjacent beings. With this transformation, the conflict moves from the realm of biology and policy to the moral realm, which makes conflicts harder to resolve and further entrenches the divide between stakeholder groups.
What this article has revealed is a profound difference in the perception of cetaceans between traditional and indigenous hunting communities and anti-whaling advocates. The differences begin with how the animals themselves are perceived and then categorized, and then move to how human behavior must be defined in relation to this perception: are cetaceans a unique category of organism whose specialness accords them a right to life and/or global regulatory protection, or are they cosmologically important beings that are also appropriate targets? This fundamental lack of agreement on what cetaceans are and how they are then “framed” threads through each of the discourses on charisma, sentience, authenticity, and sovereignty (Lakoff 2010). It affects what each stakeholder group presents as important, what kinds of evidence is marshaled, and if they can even enter into the same conversation. If whales are appropriate targets, sovereignty and authenticity of practice can be debated. If whales are unique and sentient near-persons as defined by Western ethical norms, then such points are irrelevant. Kalland (2009) argues that such differences build on themselves, citing Gregory Bateson's theory of schismogenesis.10 This is troubling for both sides and for neutral parties, but I would argue it is more troubling for traditional and indigenous stakeholders, as the balance of power within the global public discourse, and at the IWC, now rests significantly away from their position (Bradford 2000). It is also troubling because it represents a marked difference from the trend in international environmental law, such as the Convention on Biodiversity, which has done specific, if problematic, work to include the rights of indigenous peoples in recent decades (see Reimerson 2013). Instead, the disempowerment of indigenous and traditional cetacean hunting communities can be interpreted as reversion into a much longer global pattern in which policy-making instruments including the ICWR “were conceived and crafted by dominant societies and imposed on indigenous peoples based on the values, interests and norms of the dominant societies” (Firestone and Lilley 2005). This imposition is particularly impactful because cetacean hunting holds such a central role in the lifeworlds of many of these communities, influencing myriad aspects of lived experience, from socioeconomic organization to religious practice, and very often integrating categories in a way that is not present in the Western normative order. The pressure to stop hunting then becomes a pressure to stop an entire way of being.
The difference in relationality to cetaceans between traditional hunters and the now more globally dominant anti-whaling discourse is nowhere more apparent than within the writing of Western literary scholars on human-cetacean relations. In prefacing his book Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The Cetacean Quartet, Graham Huggan writes: “While whales are substantial material presences, most of the time they are defined by their absence. Partially visible at best, whales remind us of what we can't see, and this lack of visibility allows us to better imagine what we have done to them. Another way of putting this is that whales function as multifaceted figures for human melancholy” (2018: xxi). For the people I work with in Indonesia, whales are described as real and large, dangerous and awesome. They are considered worthy opponents, sacred communicators, and many other things, but they're not defined by melancholy or the unknown. Nor are they unseen or ungrasped in either a literal or metaphorical sense. The process of killing any animal by hand is intimate. Hunters get into the water with an individual to make a cut to the brain stem that kills them quickly. For a large sperm whale, this can mean sitting or lying on top of the animal. This is done to end the animal's pain, which is acknowledged as important, and in doing so, to end the danger presented by a 50-ton body in its death throes. They then spend up to three days with the body of the whale bringing it to shore and parting it out according to tradition. I argue that, for traditional hunting communities, cetaceans are in fact intimately known, inside and out, and interactions with cetaceans are better characterized by excitement, fear, honor, and joy at being able to sustain life. In Lamalera, as elsewhere, these emotions also include a combination of relief, belonging, and sacredness, since a successful hunt in their belief system signifies being blessed by their ancestors. It is a sign that all is right with the world and their place in it.
This article would not have been possible without the generosity of the community of Lamalera, Indonesia, where I lived and conducted research between 2016 and 2017. This research was supported by the Fulbright Scholar Program, the American Institute for Indonesian Studies, a PEO Scholar Award, and the ERC-funded project “Whales of Power” at the University of Oslo. I would also like to thank my PhD adviser Marcela Vásquez-León, Aike Rots, Jeannette Ralston, and the editors of Environment and Society.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Ben Blikololong.
Cetacea is the infraorder of animals including all species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Currently, 89 species of cetaceans have been identified.
Following Tania Murray Li (2000), I use the terms traditional and indigenous together and interchangeably in this discussion because of the unique nature of the indigeneity discourse in Indonesia in relation to adat and because of the broader debate about the interaction of these terms globally within both scholarly and activist literatures.
Between 2016 and 2017, I did 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork with small-scale coastal communities in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. This research, the bulk of my dissertation, focused on the traditions of three coastal communities in two districts, including Lamalera, and their adaptations to socioeconomic change, tourism, and marine conservation programs.
For many communities, cetaceans represent only one portion of a network or cycle of traditionally hunted foods. For this reason, in the title and throughout the article, there are instances where I use “marine hunting communities” instead of something like “whale hunters” (for an excellent description of the seasonality of Inuit subsistence patterns by species, see, e.g., Jolle and Oozeva 2002).
Anthropologist Arne Kalland (2009) provides an in-depth discussion of how this usage occurs in his book Unveiling the Whale.
Many crews don't allow outboards directly on the sacred traditional boats themselves, instead building towboats that take the traditional boats out to sea and drop them off near where animals have been spotted.
The technology transition has not been seamless. For example, there is disagreement about how to compensate the “role” of the outboard in traditional catch sharing. Noisy outboards also alert animals to hunters’ presence more quickly, making them harder to target. But the younger generation especially cannot see a way around using outboards with the current small state of the fishery.
In 2007, an unauthorized hunt was conducted by individual Makah members, without the consent of the Tribal Council, the US government, or the IWC (see Coté 2010).
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