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Who are the Makah Indians?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Makah Indians are a Pacific Northwest native tribe that resides in the state of Washington in the vicinity of Neah Bay. The tribe is believed to have continuously inhabited this region of Washington for more than three millennia subsisting on fishing and whaling in the Pacific Ocean. Makah Indians prefer to refer to themselves as the “people who live by the rocks and the seagulls” since the name Makah is a corruption of a Salish word that means “generous with food.” The Makah tribal reservation on the Olympic Peninsula is approximately 46 square miles (121 square kilometers) and was created in 1855 when the tribe agreed to cede the majority of its territory to the U.S. government in exchange for the right to fish, seal and whale in their waters.

Prior to contact with European settlers in the 18th century, the Makah Indians lived in a series of permanent and summer villages along the shore of Washington state. Traditional dwellings were longhouses made of red cedar planks that could be opened to allow more light or ventilation. Makah Indians used red cedar bark when making hats or clothing and weaved cedar roots into baskets. The tribe’s diet consisted primarily of whale, seal, fish and shellfish in addition to bear, elk and deer. Almost every part of a whale was useful to the Makah who fashioned weapons and jewelry from the bones, consumed the meat and made valuable oil from the blubber.

By the late 18th century, Makah Indians began having incidental contact with European settlers and explorers. European diseases such as influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis spread quickly through the tribe and many members died as a result of a wave of epidemics. The loss of so many Makah broke the chain of the tribe’s oral history and disrupted the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. In January of 1855, 42 Makah representatives negotiated a treaty with the United States that would preserve the tribe’s main village in addition to fishing and whaling rights. The treaty was ratified in 1859 and the tribe was threatened with assimilation by missionaries, teachers and government agents but was ultimately able to resist these efforts even though the last native speaker of the Makah language died in 2002.

The Makah tribe established a tribal government and ratified its own constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The five-member Tribal Council under the direction of a chairperson enacts legislation for the Makah. The tribe operates a museum in Neah Bay that includes exhibits like dug-out canoes and a replica longhouse. Visitors can hike, visit several beaches, go whale watching or fish with a local guide. Forestry and fishing are principle sources of revenue for the Makah Indians.

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Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Nov 05, 2010

I did a research paper on the Makah Indians and was most impressed with their language. Even though their language is rarely spoken anymore, it was a very complicated language.

The Makah language has very long words and many different sounds that do not exist in English. Some of the more simple Makah words are: “ho” which means “yes” and “wiki” which means no.

Another thing that was fascinating was the Makah Indian art. They made some really beautiful pieces.

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