Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Makah

Among the most rewarding of the excursions on KLK's and my recent trip to the national parks (and forests, wilderness areas, and visitor centers of several Native American tribes) surrounding Seattle was our brief visit to the tribal holdings (reservation) of the Makah Indians at the farthest northwest point in the lower 48 States, Neah Bay on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. I can't do a better job than InfoPlease's  succinct brief on the Makahs' linguistic/cultural heritage and post-contact history:

"Makah (mäkô') [key], Native North Americans who in the early 19th cent. inhabited Cape Flattery, NW Wash. According to Lewis and Clark they then numbered some 2,000. The Makah are the southernmost of the Wakashan branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock, being the only member of the Wakashan group within the United States (see Native American languages). Makah culture was fundamentally that of the Pacific Northwest Coast area. In 1855 they ceded all their lands to the United States except a small area on Cape Flattery that was set aside as a reservation. Today most of the 1,600 Makah in the United States live on the Makah Reservation; their main tribal income is from forestry."

One set of pivotal events is not described, however. As a people whose economy was  dependent upon the sea--they were, and still are, consumate whalers, sealers, and fishermen--their villages have always verged the stormy Pacific coast. An estimated 400 years ago, one of these villages (at what is now known as Lake Ozette) was inundated by a mudslide, and disappeared from memory until its extent was rediscovered in the 1970s, thanks to freak wave action from the Pacific that began to uncover tantalizing clues. The tribe found expert partners at the University of Washington and other academic institutions, and organized the methodical unearthing, cataloging, cleaning, and preservation of literally tens of thousands of artifacts, from the smallest utensils and toys to six cedar long houses (large communal structures typical of the Native American cultures of the Pacific coastal region). 

The wet mud was extraordinarily effective at preserving the treasures of daily and ceremonial life, but when exposed to air, many fragile items--to wit, woven cedar-bark baskets and clothing--began to deteriorate. Modern archaeological methods were employed to stabilize the precious treasure trove of cultural and physical history that is now properly stored at the well-executed Makah Cultural and Research Center, where my photos were taken.  

The totem poles I believe are more or less contemporary. Unfortunately their origin is not labeled (or I didn't find the label).  A  well-labeled selection of exemplary objects from the dig are also on public display, but elsewhere in the museum where photography isn't permitted (flash can certainly damage such fragile objects). Nonetheless, a good sense of the Makah's aesthetic is visible in the totem poles and other wood carvings.  The only staff member on duty was the young lady tending the till at the gift shop. I asked her if this was an eagle, and she said, "No, that's a thunder bird."  So I give you a contemporary Makah thunder bird:

This small pole shows what I think is a sea bird, perhaps a cormorant, on top, a man holding a stylized seal, and at the bottom, a foundational human:

And these:

Please visit the Makah Research and Cultural Center's web site; much additional historic and current visual information is also available at the University of Washington's digital image library, where this c. 1900 portrait of Makah carver Frank Allabush (by photographer Samuel G. Morse) and many more like it can be enjoyed and studied.

Used by permission

And in conclusion:

To appreciate the photos' details click to enlarge them.
Makah is pronounced mah-KAH. 
I welcome corrections and additions to the above narrative, which, as a certified non-expert, I've only pieced together from what we learned at the Makah center and bits and pieces from scholarly and non-scholarly information available on the Web. Please post a comment or write to me at vcwald @ yahoo dot com.


  1. Very interesting - the first picture looks like a former school teacher of mine. Great post.

  2. Fascinating. Too many things to see there for us and not enough time

  3. Hi Veronica,

    Great blog! I have an original photograph of Frank Allabush as well as other Makah material for sale at my gallery in LaConner! Cheers!