Quileute welcome gray whales with annual ceremony
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Lonnie Archibald/for Peninsula Daily News
Bradley Hatch, left, and Jonathan Boyer offer a salmon to gray whales at First Beach in LaPush on Wednesday.

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

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LAPUSH — Sacred whale songs echoed through the A-ka-lat Center on Wednesday as dozens of Quileute schoolchildren performed traditional dances in honor of the gray whales now returning to the coastline during their annual migration north.

A crowd of about 200 filled the community center in LaPush for the sixth Welcoming the Whales ceremony, co-hosted by the Quileute Tribal School and Quileute tribe.

Wet and windy weather pushed the main program from First Beach to the indoors, but that did not water down the excitement of the annual ceremony.

“These songs and dances are very special to us within our villages,” said Marco Black, master of ceremonies.

Keynote speaker Chris Morganroth III, a tribal elder, told of the significance of gray whales in the Quileute culture.

He offered facts on whale intelligence, anatomy and how tribal members hunted the revered mammal until 1910, when federal laws were passed to protect the animals whose numbers had dipped.

The Eastern North Pacific population of gray whales was listed as an endangered species in 1970 and was removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 1994 because their numbers had recovered, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The gray whale has been one of the biggest parts of our culture as it passes through our area,” Morganroth said.

“For many, many, many thousands of years, we've been hunting for this whale.”

On whale hunts, the Quileute used multiple 36-foot-long canoes with six paddlers each, including a harpooner.

Seal-skin balloons were tied to long ceder rope to keep the whales from diving underwater after they were harpooned.

“Everything was so scientific, from the rope to the building of the canoe and knowledge of the people and how they worked to capture and kill a whale,” Morganroth said.

A full grown female gray whale is roughly the size of 10 elephants, he said.

“There was a lot of muscle there, so they had to have a lot of knowledge, a lot of guts and know-how to be able to do those things and stay out in the ocean for days at a time and be hungry and cold,” Morganroth said.

“They knew they had to feed their people.”

Gray whales migrate 10,000 to 12,000 miles up and down the Pacific from winter calving lagoons in Baja Mexico to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.

They can be spotted off LaPush in April and May.

Tribal elder Leon Strom, the second keynote speaker, said it was satisfying to see so many tribal youths enthusiastic about whales.

He offered a $100 first-place prize for the student devising the best plan for the selection and assignment of whalers on a hypothetical hunt.

The students were tasked with doling out the imaginary whale meat to tribal members and developing a ceremony to honor the whale.

Strom, who helped start the whale welcoming ceremony with the late Sonny Woodruff and others, told a tribal legend about a thunderbird carrying a whale to starving villagers.

Tribal students performed a transformation dance in which a whale turns into a wolf.

Gray whales and orca whales have been seen at past Quileute whale-welcoming ceremonies.

“There is something about this ceremony that is real,” Strom said, “that connects us with our brother from the sea.”

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 10. 2013 5:59PM
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