Dress it up how you like – whaling is murder and murder is wrong.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society


This activity involves small group work, role-play, discussion and consensus building about the issues of:
• The sustainable use of marine resources
• The rights of indigenous peoples to freely determine their economic, social and cultural development

Related rights

• The right to take part in the cultural life of the community
• The right to food and access to natural resources
• The right to life, liberty and personal security


• To develop understanding about apparently conflicting claims to the right to participate in cultural life and protection of the environment
• To develop critical thinking, skills to present an argument and consensus-building skills
• To develop attitudes of open-mindedness to cultural differences.


• Pens and paper for the groups to make their own notes


• Read through all the handouts to familiarise yourself with the information on the issues. You will then be able to act as a resource person if needed.
• Make copies of the role cards. Each participant should have their own role card for reference.

Key Date
  • 9 AugustInternational Day of Indigenous People


The activity is divided into two parts: part 1 (30 minutes) is an introduction to the activity and the environmental and cultural issues involved, and part 2 (90 minutes) is a simulated meeting to try to find common ground between the Makah tribe and the anti-whaling lobby.

Part 1. Introduction to the environmental and cultural issues (30 minutes)
1. Explain that this activity is about environmental and cultural rights. It centres on a wish by the Makah nation to resume whaling and the opposition to this from conservationists and others.
2. Tell the group about the Makah and explain that the confrontation has been going on for many years and the legal costs are escalating without producing a lasting result. The conservationists have used reckless methods that have put their own and other people's lives at risk and some members of the Makah are so frustrated that they have broken the law and whaled illegally. It is a very unsatisfactory situation for all and it seems to be time that the parties try to get together to see what they have in common and to find a solution.
3. Introduce some of the issues by asking participants to indicate their response to the following questions by standing "high or low". (For how to use this technique, see this section). Read out the following statements one at a time:
• People's customs should be respected so long as they do not abuse human rights.
• We should respect people's right to be free to choose what they eat; to be vegans, vegetarians or to eat meat.
• The food we eat should be produced using environmentally friendly methods.
• Animal husbandry should not include cruel methods such as intensive rearing or cruel ways of slaughtering.
• Cultural traditions are very important for people and should be respected.
• Whales should not be hunted, even for cultural purposes.

Part 2. A simulated meeting to try to break the deadlock between the Makah tribe and opponents to whaling. (90 minutes)
1. Remind the group that fierce battles, both literally and legally, have been going on for years and that now is the time to try to find a solution. This activity is a simulated meeting hosted by an imaginary organisation called Crest (Culture, Rights, Environment, Sustainability and Talk). Crest is an independent organisation that works to bring a human rights perspective to environmental issues. They are committed to promoting understanding through dialogue. The simulation is a meeting chaired by Crest between four groups:
a. The Makah tribe who wish to resume whaling
b. High North Alliance, an umbrella organisation representing whalers and sealers that works for the future of coastal cultures and the sustainable use of marine mammal resources. The HNA supports the Makah.
c. Sea Shepherd, an organisation that investigates and documents violations of international laws, regulations and treaties protecting marine wildlife species. They oppose the Makah's request.
d. Greenpeace, environmental activists who oppose whaling.
2. Crest's role is to facilitate a discussion that will focus on five questions:
• Why are whales important?
• Are grey whales an endangered species?
• Why should the Makah be stopped from eating whale meat?
• Could the Makah's ritual of hunting whales be modified?
• If an agreement can be reached, what sort of monitoring will be needed to ensure that the whales are protected?
3. Ask for four volunteers to represent Crest and divide the rest of the group equally into four small groups. Hand out the role cards. The groups have 30 minutes to discuss the information and to consider their positions and supporting arguments on the five questions.
4. When the groups are ready, bring everyone together in plenary and call on the people representing Crest to take the chair. The meeting should last 60 minutes.
5. Crest opens the meeting with a short statement about the human rights and environmental frame of the discussions and restates that the purpose of the meeting is to share information and discuss the issues, as formulated by the five questions. The Makah tribe follow by stating their case. Then the topics are for open discussion.
6. At the end of the discussion Crest should sum up. Take a short break and then go on to the debriefing and evaluation.

Debriefing and evaluationGoto top

Begin by asking the groups to reflect on the discussions and whether it was possible to come to a consensus about any of the questions; then go on to talk about general issues.
• Was it difficult to take the different roles?
• What was the most interesting thing people learnt?
• What made the best arguments? Appeals to the emotions or rational, logical arguments?
• How hard was it to see the other side of the argument? How hard was it to accept it?
• How much common ground was there over each of the five questions?
• In real life, how hard is it to accept other people's cultural practices that participants find either rude, incomprehensible or unethical?
• At what point does the cultural clash become discrimination?
• How difficult is it to be open-minded about cultural differences?
• Does globalisation inevitably lead to loss of culture? Is a changed culture a lost culture? Shouldn't we see cultural change as a positive process in a changing world?
• Which human rights were at stake in this activity?
• Conflicting legal claims to rights are usually resolved in the courts. Is this a fair way to resolve human rights issues?
• Which should be prioritised, the claims of people to food and life or environmental protection and preservation of species?

Finish the session by doing another round of "high or low" to see if people have moved in their attitudes to the issues of whaling. Repeat the same questions as you asked in part 1.

Tips for facilitatorsGoto top

The complexity of the issues addressed in this activity means that it is best suited to a mature group with good discussion skills. There is a lot of information to assimilate and the text on the role cards assumes a certain level of knowledge of human rights and environmental terminology. You may wish to consider doing the activity over two sessions and giving the groups time in between to read the role cards and think about the issues.

One important objective of this activity is to confront young people with the limitations of their own cultural perspectives and enable them to reconsider their attitudes to the sustainable use of wildlife. Whaling is a very emotive issue for many people and one on which they often hold very strong views. This makes it a challenging – but also difficult - topic to work with. You could, for instance, ask the participants how they would react if they were forbidden to eat some specific food important for their culture, life and traditions. A second objective is to develop consensus-building skills, which is why the activity has been designed to be a meeting which is mediated by an imaginary organisation, Crest (culture, rights, environment, sustainability and talk). Before doing the activity, you may like to refer to the information about consensus building.

At part 2 step 1 of the instructions you may want to elaborate on some of the questions. 
• Why are whales important? Consider the economic, historical, environmental and spiritual reasons?
• Are grey whales an endangered species? What scientific evidence is there?
• Why should the Makah be stopped from eating whale meat? Consider that Jews and Muslims don't eat pork for cultural reasons, but they don't stop other people eating pork.
• Could the Makah's ritual of hunting whales be adapted? Bear in mind that cultural practices can and do change: for example, in response to the AIDS epidemic, in cultures worldwide talking about sex is no longer taboo and rituals involving sex, such as widow cleansing, are being challenged and changed.
• If an agreement can be reached, what sort of monitoring will be needed to ensure that the whales are protected? Consider open access to information, who might be the arbitrator of whether in a certain year the whale stock was in good shape, and how to prevent cheating.

Check that participants fully understand the meaning of some of the terms and concepts introduced on the role cards. For example:

Indigenous peoples

There are no hard and fast distinctions that enable us to unambiguously define indigenous people. In general, it may be said that they are the descendants of peoples who originally occupied the land before colonisers came and before state lines were drawn. They are always marginal to their states and they are often tribal. The 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises their right to self-determination, their right to freely determine their economic, social and cultural development, and their right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures.

High North Alliance web site: www.highnorth.no

The Sea Shepherd International: www.seashepherd.com

International Whaling Commission: www.iwcoffice.org

Makah Nation web site: www.makah.com

Greenpeace web site: www.greenpeace.org

The precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically". It includes taking action in the face of uncertainty; shifting burdens of proof to those who create risks; analysis of alternatives to potentially harmful activities; and participatory decision-making methods.


In 1989 the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also called the Brundtland Report, defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". "Sustainable use" is a term that is applicable only to renewable resources: it means using the resource at rates that are within their capacity for renewal. There is a globally agreed principle of sustainable use of the world's natural resources, based on scientific evidence and objective data.

VariationsGoto top

If the group is small you can work with two groups, the Makah and the High North Alliance on one side and Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd on the other.

You may like to run the activity on two separate occasions to allow the groups to research facts and have more time to consider their positions.

An alternative way to present this activity is as a panel debate. Have one person to represent each of the four groups, the Makah, the High North Alliance, Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. Get them to present their cases and then proceed with questions from the floor. At the end, take a vote on each of the five questions. In this way you get people to consider the human rights, cultural and environmental aspects of the issue, but it will lack the element of consensus building.

Suggestions for follow-upGoto top

If the group would like to explore the idea of culture change, then go to the activity "Soon to be outdated".

Ideas for actionGoto top

Support indigenous peoples by buying their products. Many handicraft items for sale in shops that sell "fair traded" products are made by indigenous peoples. Go and have a look next time you are out shopping for a present for someone.

Further informationGoto top

There is more information about animal rights and the idea that kindness and respect is due to all sentient creatures on www.uncaged.co.uk.

More information about whaling and the Makah nation can be found at: www.historylink.org (search for makah whaling)

The Makah Whale Hunt and Leviathan's Death: Reinventing Tradition and Disputing Authenticity in the Age of Modernity. Rob van Ginkel, University of Amsterdam. It is available on the Internet; put the title into your search engine.

There is more information about animal rights and the idea that kindness and respect is due to all sentient creatures on www.uncaged.co.uk.

HandoutsGoto top

PDFDownload as PDF




General information for the facilitator

The Makah people (also called the Makah or Makah tribe) live on a reservation that sits on the most north-western tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA. The current reservation is approximately 27,000 acres. In July 1999 tribal census data showed that the Makah tribe has 1214 enrolled members, although only 1079 members currently live on the reservation. The average unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 51%. Almost 49% of the reservation households have incomes classified below the federal poverty level, and 59% of the housing units are considered to be substandard.

In spite of this bleak description, the traditions are very strong and many Makahs who graduate from college come back to the reservation to work for the Makah tribe, the local clinic, and the public school.

A brief history of the recent disputes
• October 1997: International Whaling Commission agreement allotted the Makah four grey whales per year.
• May 10, 1999: the first Makah whale hunt in more than 70 years took place. Protestors disrupted the hunt, putting their own and other’s lives in danger.
• May 17, 1999: one whale caught.
• June 9, 2000: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that hunts cease until a new environmental assessment was prepared.
• July 2001: the new assessment was issued. Hunting again approved.
• 2002: the International Whaling Commission approved the Makah request to renew its quota of whales for an additional five years.
• December 2002: a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit placed the hunt on hold indefinitely until a full environmental impact statement was prepared.
• February 2005: the Makah tribe submitted a formal request to the National Marine Fisheries Service for a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act allowing them to hunt whales.
• September 2007: some members of the tribe, frustrated by the lack of progress, hunted a whale illegally.
• May 2008: the Fisheries Service released a draft of the environmental impact statement.
• Mid-2009: no final environmental impact statement or a decision on the waiver request.
Source: www.historylink.org


CREST role card

Your position on the whaling issue is neutral. Your role is to provide background information on the human rights and environmental legislation, to mediate between the groups and to sum up at the end. Your job as facilitators of the meeting is to ensure that the discussion is focused on the task in hand and to clarify misconceptions and misunderstandings. Help the groups move away from their differences and explore instead what they have in common in order to come to a consensus about the following questions:
• Why are whales important?
• Are grey whales an endangered species?
• Why should the Makah be stopped from eating whale meat?
• Could the Makah’s ritual of hunting whales be modified?
• If an agreement can be reached, what sort of monitoring will be needed to ensure that the whales are protected?

Start by welcoming everyone. Set the framework for the discussions. Take about two minutes to set the scene by summarising the main human rights and environmental aspects of the issue, quoting if you wish from the extracts below. Restate the purpose of the meeting: to discuss the issues and to try to come to a mutual understanding in order to find a durable solution to the current conflict.

Ask the Makah tribe to explain their reasons for wanting to resume whaling before opening the general discussion. After 50 minutes’ discussion you should briefly sum up, and list points that arose in this meeting that will need to be clarified at the next.

Some background information about human rights, culture and the environment

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states in Article 1 that:
1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.

Article 15:
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone:
(a) To take part in cultural life;
(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.

The preamble to the Vienna declaration of 1993 states that, “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis … the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind”.

In 1981, the International Whaling Commission decided to permit Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW). This is 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 the use of whales”.

The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea states that, “One of the general principles is the optimum sustainable utilisation of renewable marine resources.”

In 1982, the IWC placed a moratorium on fishing for the endangered grey whale. In 1994 the population had recovered to an estimated 21,000 individuals and it was also removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List.

Makah tribe role card

Your role is to present the case of the Makah Indians who live on the north-west coast of North America. Whaling is an important cultural tradition for the Makah and you only want the right to kill five grey whales each year.

You should use your own existing knowledge of human rights and environmental issues together with the following information:
• Even though it is 70 years since the last whale hunt took place, the ceremonies, rituals, songs and tales have been passed down and kept alive. A whole social structure was built around the hunt.
• Nowadays some Makah Indians make a living fishing salmon and pacific sable fish, which is sold to a local fish plant, but the old system of sharing between family and friends is still in existence.
• It was the industrial whaling operations carried out by Europeans and Americans that depleted the whale stock. Now the stock is back up at a historically high level and has been removed from the US Endangered Species List.
• Our young people value having an identity based on their own culture and history. Being part of a culture that has a long tradition is a privilege that not many young people in the US have.
• We’re not going to hunt the grey whales for commercial purposes. Our purpose is ceremonial and for food / subsistence.
• We’ve requested up to 5 grey whales but that’s not to say that we’ll take them all.
• We fish in small coastal vessels using the traditional hand harpoon. We are considering a modified version with a grenade on the tip like the ones used in the Alaskan bowhead hunt.
• We will be an active player to ensure the grey whale never goes back on the Endangered Species List.

Sea Shepherd and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society role card

The Sea Shepherd International is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved with the investigation and documentation of violations of international laws, regulations and treaties protecting marine wildlife species. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) is the world’s most active charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins and porpoises.

You should use your own existing knowledge of human rights and environmental issues together with the following information:
• “Dress it up how you like – whaling is murder and murder is wrong.”
– Whales are not human but they are not less than human. The mindset that accepts killing whales overlaps with the mindset that accepts the genocide of “inferior” human beings.
– In a profound sense, whales and some other sentient mammals are entitled to, if not human rights, then at least “humanist rights”.
• The real reason for this initiative by the Makah is because they know very well that whale meat goes for $80 per kilo in Japan. One whale is worth nearly one million dollars.
• Allowing the Makah to whale will have implications for thousands of whales because Norway, Japan, Russia and Iceland are looking at this as a precedent.
• We are walking the tightrope of trying to respect people’s historical right to carry on long-standing traditional ways and yet balance the interests of conserving and protecting whales.
• In 1995 there was criticism of the Russian grey whale hunt when it was alleged that the whale meat was not eaten by indigenous peoples but was actually fed to foxes in fox fur farms.
• Cultures change. The Alaskan North Slope Eskimos are now economically very different to the peoples who hunted whales a century ago. Oil exploitation has brought an enormous amount of money to the local people. Also, hunting from modern skidoos and helicopters is straining the definition of what is aboriginal.
• While the International Whaling Commission (IWC) continues to debate the emotive issue of the resumption of commercial whaling, hundreds of whales, and their cousins, the smaller dolphins and porpoises, are dying every year, almost unnoticed, in aboriginal hunts.
• In the context of wildlife, the precautionary principle should be followed.

The High North Alliance role card

The High North Alliance is an umbrella organisation representing whalers and sealers from Canada, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. The HNA is committed to working for the future of coastal cultures and the sustainable use of marine mammal resources.

You should use your own existing knowledge of human rights and environmental issues together with the following information:
• The Makahs had been whaling for 2,000 years before the white imperialists came over and took the whales, and destroyed the Makah traditions and way of life.
• Now the whales are plentiful again but the white men want to ban all use of this resource and to deny us our rights.
• Different cultures will never be able to agree on which animals are special and which ones are best for dinner. In northern Norway people have a special relationship to the eider duck although in Denmark eider breast is a delicacy.
Therefore, the statement “whales are different” begs the question: different for whom?
• Whaling, as well as sealing, is allowed only as long as it is conducted by indigenous peoples, is non-commercial and is only for “traditional usage”. This is unfair because:
– It tends to be the outsiders who define what is “traditional”.
– To link whaling and sealing to a non-commercial mode of production is to deny people their obvious right to define their own future.
– No culture is static, but the policy of anti-whalers is de facto an attempt to “freeze” the situation, to turn an evolving culture into a static museum object.
– Commercialism in itself seems to be considered bad by the majority of the contracting governments at the International Whaling Commission (the body that controls whaling). It is ironic that this view is expressed by governments which are usually strong advocates of free trade.
• The current moratorium, or “hands off whales” policy is difficult to defend using logical arguments. There are many practices in agriculture, fishing and forestry that are clearly unsustainable, but there is no blanket ban on these industries.
• “Marine mammals are part of the living resources of the ocean ecosystems. They should be protected when threatened and only hunted when there is certainty that the size of their stocks allows it. Hunting may also be necessary in order to avert over-population and imbalances in marine ecosystems.” (Report on Marine Mammals, Council of Europe, July 12, 1993)
• Whaling is a good example of how international co-operation can transform a situation of over-exploitation into one of sustainable use. International co-operation is not perfect, but it can and does work.

Greenpeace role card

Greenpeace supporters around the world campaign for their visions of how to achieve a more sustainable world.

You should use your own existing knowledge of human rights and environmental issues, together with the following information:
• People from many cultures worldwide hold whales to be sacred and consider each species a sovereign nation unto itself, worthy of respect and protection.
• Whales bring joy to many thousands of whale watchers.
• Greenpeace does not support any whaling, but does not oppose truly subsistence whaling, as long as there is no commercial element.
• Grey whales migrate vast distances each year and they only briefly pass through Makah waters.
• If the proposal to authorise 5 grey whales to be taken by one tribe goes ahead, then several other tribes in Canada and Alaska will say, “Well, if they can hunt them, we can hunt them”.
• It’s extremely difficult to determine accurately the actual number of whales in different whale populations. The size of most populations is known no more accurately than plus or minus 50%. Since changes happen very slowly; it is impossible to tell if a population is growing or shrinking in the course of a few years’ study. However, there is no doubt about the decline in whale numbers caused by commercial whaling.