Among the many issues brewing in The Neah Virus, the problem of tribal whaling by Makah Indians is a key source of dramatic tension. The tribe’s attempts to re-establish their millennia-old practice of harpooning gray whales from dugout canoes, has been the subject of news coverage and world-wide concern by those opposed to it. When I wrote The Neah Virus, I didn’t shy away from the subject.
In fact, I have sat down with the Chairman of the Makah Tribal Whaling Commission on several occasions and had long discussions of what makes Makahs want to resume their ancient practice, now that gray whale populations have recovered enough to get off the Endangered Species list.
It has been eye-opening. And not just about whaling. And not just about Makahs.
I can’t go into all the details here, because that would spoil the fun of reading The Neah Virus. However, nothing is stopping me from writing a few teasers. So here goes.
First of all, I had to consider whether I would be pro- or anti-whaling. That ought to be an easy choice, but hold on. If I were to write a pile of anti-whaling rhetoric, then I’d come across as anti-Makah, which I am not. My journeys to Neah Bay have taught me to be thoughtful when confronting the cultural and dietary issues inherent in the Makah whaling controversy. Sure, the protesters have a point–the killing of a beautiful and graceful sea creature is horrific. I think even Makahs would agree to that. But Makah consumption of whale flesh is such an ancient dietary practice that the possibility exists tribal members may actually be adapted to whale meat and harmed by diets in which it is lacking.
I became sensitive to this subject in my sit-downs with Makahs. So, as I wrote The Neah Virus, I decided to side-step the issue by remaining neutral as the author. Instead, I gave one of the two central protagonists–Fin Morton, the medical reporter–the role of taking the anti-whaling stance, while the pro-whaling position was staked out by several of the Makah characters. The foremost of the characters is, of course, the Sherlock-Holmesian Dr. Peyton McKean. Like me, however, he tends to be scientifically withdrawn and circumspect on most subjects, this one included. Meanwhile, the clash between Makahs and protesters drives much of the fierce tension that develops, even as the Neah Virus itself begins striking down every non-Makah it encounters.
If you read The Neah Virus–and I hope you will–you will have plenty of occasions to make up your own mind about whaling if you haven’t already. But don’t be complacent. As you will find on the pages of The Neah Virus, the subject is fraught with great complexity and layers and layers of arguments and counter-arguments.
As the fate of humanity comes down to the answer to this and some other questions, you may find yourself turning pages at a feverish pace, almost as if you had caught the Neah Virus and were desperate for a cure. You might even find yourself praying to the whales for help.
Maybe they can give it.