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Makah Whaling


Group 4 – supporting international mobility


pupils from 16 to 18


  • 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


150 minutes


Printed handouts: each participant should have their own role card for reference

Pens and paper for the groups to make their own notes


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)

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.

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.

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)

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:

  1. The Makah tribe who wishes to resume whaling
  2. High North Alliance (HNA), 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Greenpeace, environmental activists who oppose whaling.

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?

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.

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.

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 open for  discussion.

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 evaluation

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.


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.

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.


Compass: Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People, Council of Europe:


Makah whaling Handouts

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