The Makah artist helping the whale-hunting Thunderbird fly again

Micah McCarty's work revives the tradition of his great-grandfather, Chief Hishka, who crafted ornate puppets that were integral to the tribe's culture.

A person with a colorful shield walking into the forest

Micah McCarty carries his art into the woods outside Neah Bay, home to the Makah Tribe in northwest Washington. (Mason Trinca/High Country News)

This story was produced for High Country News and first published on May 1, 2023. It is republished here with permission. 

At the southern end of Cape Flattery in Washington, off a long sandy beach tucked away from the Northern Pacific’s rough seas, seven dancers hide. They crouch inside the belly of a puppet in the shape of a humpback whale. They move the whale’s fins and flukes. Feathers spew from its blowhole. Then one by one they crawl out through its mouth, wearing shawls and sea-serpent headdresses. Slowly they look around. High above the dancers, perched on a cliff, a Thunderbird puppet lurks, waiting. A crowd watches at Wa-atch, one of the people’s five villages — Waʔač̓, in the language of the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌, the people of the cape.

Thunderbird swoops down and snatches the whale puppet in his talons, just like he taught the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌ to do in the beginning, when they first hunted the giant sea mammals.

Chief Hiškʷi·sa·na·kši·ł, or Hishka, stands in front as the dancers perform the last song of the potlatch near the Wa-atch River on a late-summer evening.

That was only three generations ago, not long after the U.S. government sent so-called Indian agents to assimilate the people of the cape, now known as Makah.

Hishka, born in 1845, harpooned humpbacks and gray whales from canoes he carved himself, like other Makah chiefs before him. He was among the last hereditary chiefs to do so. Commercial whaling drove the animals to near-extinction, and, by the 1920s, the Makah voluntarily stopped hunting them. Meanwhile, state and federal conservation laws legislated the people out of their own coveted waters, where halibut, salmon, seals and whales sustained them — an entire nation — and made them wealthy. The tribe wouldn’t hunt whales again until the late 1990s.

“He knew it was going to be different forever,” Hishka’s great-grandson, Micah McCarty, said, as he waited for paint to dry on a redcedar mask he’d carved in his woodshop in Neah Bay, home to the Makah Tribe in the northwesternmost corner of Washington. The puppets, McCarty thought, were a way for Hishka to “commemorate and honor” Makah identity, “who we are and where we come from.”

Hishka made the whale puppet from canvas and linen, tying cedar branches together in big hoops to give it the right shape. With tall ship rigging, he engineered a system of ropes and pulleys so the Thunderbird could fly down from the cliff and pick up the whale. “It was a theatrical thing,” McCarty said of the performance, “to send a message to the people that we’re still gonna be who the fuck we are.”

In the decades after Hishka’s ceremony, the United States government banned potlatches, the central political, social and economic system of the Makah and other Northwest Coast peoples. During potlatches, chiefs gave away food, money and artwork that came with rights to songs and stories owned by families. Elaborate art, including the whale puppets, was reserved for these ceremonies. Under the imposed U.S. regime, with potlatches outlawed, McCarty’s family couldn’t create new puppets or other ceremonial artwork. Still, songs and stories survived.

He knew it was going to be different forever.
— Micah McCarty

Then, in the summer of 2010, the Makah hosted Tribal Canoe Journeys, an annual celebration held by the region’s tribal nations. McCarty, serving on the tribal council at the time, spent five weeks building a whale puppet with his dad, John. Along with other tribal members, father and son performed with a 30-foot-long black, white and red puppet in an elaborate display of song and dance. Hishka’s puppet, known only from memories, became something present, tangible.

Since then, McCarty has told friends and family that he wanted to make another puppet to honor his great-grandfather and Wa-atch village. But for more than a decade, life and other projects got in the way.

That changed last August when he finally started, building two puppets: one for relatives from the Pacheedaht First Nation on Vancouver Island, the other for McCarty’s five children. “It’s a huge family pride thing,” he said, and smiled. “I don’t know too many families that have that kind of history.”

Carving a moonwatcher mask

In his wood shop next to his home in Neah Bay, McCarty stood with a chisel in his hand, studying a partially carved moon mask made of Alaska yellow cedar. Around him, drawers burst with tools. Shelves held unfinished paddles, a bentwood box, a Thunderbird headdress, knives, chisels, and scraps of redcedar, yellow cedar, yew, alder and whale bone.

His 52-year-old wrists needed a break after chiseling. He rummaged for his drill. “My son tries to come in and clean my stuff every now and then, and then I don’t know where anything is,” he said, laughing. “I’ve got organized chaos in some ways.”

With the drill, McCarty cut through the creamy yellow mask’s elongated mouth. Then he grabbed his sander.

“I’m gonna fire it up,” he warned, putting on an N-95 respirator. Cedar’s smooth, straight grain is ideal for carving, but the dust is toxic. One of McCarty’s mentors, Carl Edgar, an elder from Ditidaht First Nation on Vancouver Island, used to stay with him for Makah Days, the tribe’s annual summer celebration. The last time Edgar visited before he died, McCarty woke up around 3 or 4 a.m. to Edgar wheezing and hacking up phlegm.

“Hey, Micah,” he yelled. “I want you to come take a look at this.”

McCarty got up to see.

“It’s about the color of cedar, isn’t it?” Edgar said. “You be careful.”

So McCarty always wears a respirator when he sands. As he carves, he carefully blows cedar flakes down and away from his face.

Once he finished sanding, the mask was soft as silk and the color of butter. Made to honor moonwatcher traditions during Makah whale hunts, it will be sold to a Tlingit elder. Moonwatchers were like living almanacs, McCarty explained, tracking lunar cycles and seasons to time spring hunts just right. “Whalers could live their lives until it was time to get ready, and the moonwatcher would say, ‘The moon’s changed,’” McCarty said.

His art tells stories of the rugged landscape where his family has lived for thousands of years. In one painting of abstract mountains rising from the sea, McCarty explained that the teal paint represented how his relatives hunted gray whales close to shore, where the green water turned blue. In another painting, Thunderbird pulls a whale from the water, as a white whale, depicting its spirit, drifts upward toward a waning crescent moon. “It’s really important to usher the spirit of the whale into the next world in a way that it’s accepted by the society of whales that have been properly hunted,” McCarty said. Makah whalers spend months in rigorous spiritual and physical preparation before hunting.

McCarty went back to work on the moon face. He chiseled and chain-sawed, using both hands to avoid a trip to his chiropractor. For more than three decades, he’s made his living this way, creating masks, canoes, paddles, headdresses, glass etchings, bentwood boxes, halibut hooks, plaques and paintings. In the early 2000s, he also served nine years on the tribal council, including three as chairman.

What we call art has been, for generations of McCarty’s family, a way of life, a visual language that carries knowledge, stories and privileges. Artists, like his great-grandfather Hishka, have endured smallpox epidemics, potlatch bans and assimilation efforts, including a more-than-20-year ongoing legal battle initiated by conservationists over whaling. Despite the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, which secures the Makah’s right to hunt, whaling has been forbidden.

To preserve his family’s literacy of the land and sea, McCarty creates. “When I was growing up in school, I was drawing Thunderbirds and whales on my math assignments,” he said. Art is “the continuity of culture.” It’s “keeping the living breath of our ancestors alive.”

Most of McCarty’s five children paint, carve, draw or bead, blending modern designs and mediums with their own styles and interpretations of tradition. His younger brother Alex, his sister Maggie, and many of his cousins, nieces and nephews also create.

“It’s a whole family of artists,” Alex said. His two children are artists, too. “It’s almost comical.”

A family of artists

The Makah are the southernmost of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples of western Vancouver Island, although their land-based territory is across the present U.S.-Canada border. Many of McCarty’s relatives descend from Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations, where they made art that is distinct from the work of Northern nations like the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

Compared to the structured Northern style, called formline, Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth art is fluid. Bold, flowing lines and deep cuts, at the corners of eyes and elsewhere, give three-dimensional depth to carvings, Alex McCarty explained. He mentioned pieces from Ozette, a former Makah village about 16 miles south of Neah Bay, where tribal members and archaeologists excavated more than 55,000 artifacts in the 1970s, many of them over several centuries old. Some Ozette carvings, including a whale-bone club with a human-like face engraved on its handle, have sloping triangular cuts that come to a point, like an inverted pyramid.

Alex, who is 48, chiseled a yellow cedar raven headdress in the carving studio of Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he teaches woodcarving and Pacific Northwest Indigenous history. Like his brother, he has carved for nearly 30 years, and incorporates Makah, formline and Coast Salish elements in his carvings, paintings and screen prints.

Alex grew up with their dad on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, while Micah lived in Olympia with his mom. Micah spent every summer fishing with them, and they listened to their dad’s stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents. Not many people in Neah Bay made artwork at that time, Alex said, but as a young kid, he watched his parents carve pieces to give away at family parties.

When the U.S. and Canadian governments banned potlatches in the 1880s, Makah art shifted. It transformed from a critical societal function to cheap trinkets for white tourists. “When they took that structure away, it changed our work substantially, and it changed the functionality of our work,” Alex said.

In the 1960s and ’70s, after potlatch bans were lifted, influential Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth artists emerged, like Greg Colfax, Art Thompson, Joe David and George David. They placed their work in fine-art galleries and paved the way for a new generation of artists.

It’s a visual narrative that connects to our oral traditions.
— Alex McCarty

After high school, Micah McCarty moved to Neah Bay in 1990 and started carving. When his younger brother visited, Micah handed him a mask to paint. But traditional art didn’t interest Alex until a few years later, when the Makah Cultural and Research Center hired him to create a diorama of the Ozette village. He immersed himself in Makah history and hung out with Greg Colfax, or with his older cousin, Spencer McCarty, drinking coffee and watching them work. Alex’s mentors pushed him to make new designs that were both innovative and historically accurate. “That’s when it becomes a visual narrative, when you’re able to create something that has a function, and it says something,” he said. “It’s a visual narrative that connects to our oral traditions.”

Tradition vs. environmentalism

Tools, wood chips and two massive drift logs, one destined to be a 12-foot canoe, covered Micah McCarty’s front yard.

Brandon Eaton, McCarty’s 38-year-old nephew, let out an exhausted, high-pitched sigh. He stood hunched over the log, chipping chunks of wood off it with an adze on a warm evening in late August. Sweat dripped from his brow.

“Looking good,” McCarty told him as he circled the fir, inspecting Eaton’s progress.

“I’ll give you some gloves if you want, so you won’t wreck yourself for tomorrow,” McCarty said. Eaton doesn’t carve much, and fir is especially challenging to work with because its wood is denser than cedar. “If you wanna switch it up and change your pace, you can do this,” McCarty said, as he grabbed a chisel and pounded it with a mallet to glide the flat blade across the fir, removing wood in long, thick strands.

Already, after only a few days’ work, it looked like a canoe, its tips and bottom tapered. Part of what would become the bow stretched upward. No bolts, screws or measuring tools necessary; just a log cut, chiseled and chain-sawed by generations of memory. In a few more weeks, it would be finished — a dugout canoe, painted red inside — and displayed at the Seattle Center, four hours away, as part of a temporary art installation.

McCarty learned to carve his family’s canoe shape from his cousin, Aaron Parker, who learned from their grandfather, Jerry McCarty, who learned from his father, Hishka.

Jerry was among the last Wa-atch chiefs to carve canoes. When he was a child, Hishka taught him how to launch a harpoon from a 36-foot canoe into a mammal of similar length. Jerry, who went to ministry school and became one of the Makah’s most fluent English speakers, helped the community transition following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, when Native nations were pressured to adopt tribal constitutions and form elected councils. He was the tribe’s first chairman; his daughter, Hildred McCarty, was council secretary and created the first Makah-language dictionary. Both were signatories to the 1936 Makah Constitution, which gave the tribe more power to engage with the U.S. government but ended traditional hereditary government. And while Micah is proud of his family, he’s struggled to reconcile his feelings about their participation in the colonial political structure.

“When I was first looking at it, I criticized it, and I didn’t fully embrace that my grandfather is a signatory, and my Auntie Hildred is, too,” he said. Now, though, “I kind of look at it in a way where survival instinct might have kicked in.”

His grandfather, he explained, tried to succeed within an imposed system while preserving his Makah identity. “There was a time when my grandpa wasn’t practicing much in the way of traditional whaling culture that he was raised in, but he did keep it,” McCarty said. “We had Indian agents that were telling us we’d go to hell if we practiced that stuff.”

For millennia, whaling tribes managed whale populations, understanding the reciprocal relationship necessary for both whales and people to thrive. But in the mid-1800s, a whaler from Maine found gray whales’ birthing grounds off the coast of Baja California. He and other non-Natives slaughtered whales in the teal lagoons, and by the 1880s just 2,000 remained — down from an estimated 24,000 whales at the turn of the century. By the late 1920s, so few migrated past Cape Flattery that Makahs stopped hunting them. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission was established and banned commercial hunting of gray whales, though it included an aboriginal subsistence exemption. In the United States, gray whales were listed as “endangered” in 1970, under a precursor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. They were further protected in 1972 by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

McCarty was born into this era of federal conservation laws, when whaling traditions weren’t practiced but preserved through stories. In his 20s he was a tumbleweed, following his interests wherever they took him, including two stints in Hawaii. Winter on the Big Island was a nice reprieve from Neah Bay’s rainy skies, but once gray whales were delisted in 1994 and the Makah announced their intent to resume hunting, he came home.

“When Makah whaling became a reality, my roots really grounded me,” he said. “I felt a magnetic lightning rod through my spine to my homeland to be a part of this.”

The tribe has had one successful hunt, in May 1999. Journalists and animal-rights activists descended on the small and remote Neah Bay. Some protesters carried signs: “Save a whale, harpoon a Makah.” McCarty initially trained as part of the whale-hunting crew, but ultimately, inspired by his grandfather, he went into politics instead, to fight for Makah treaty rights. The crew left a seat open for him in the canoe, going out with seven men instead of the traditional eight.

I felt a magnetic lightning rod through my spine to my homeland to be a part of this.
— Micah McCarty

In the nine years that McCarty spent on the tribal council, the Makah navigated complex national and international laws, determined to whale again. McCarty traveled to Belgium, Russia and Japan and met both diplomats and whalers. He was on a committee in the Obama administration’s National Ocean Council, and still serves on the Makah Whaling Commission in the footsteps of his father, the commission’s first executive director.

To McCarty, the treaty is being held hostage by non-Native conservationists who believe whaling has no place in the modern world. In 2002 a federal court ruled that under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Makah needed permission to hunt despite their treaty — the “supreme law of the land,” according to the U.S. Constitution. The tribe submitted a request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2005. After years of studies, public hearings and bureaucratic delays, NOAA is set to make a final decision sometime this summer. Under the current proposal, the tribe could hunt no more than 20 whales in 10 years, with strict rules regulating the hunts.

The process left McCarty jaded. He had thought he’d go whaling with his dad someday. But John died in 2015.

Outside his Neah Bay studio, McCarty gestured east. His workshop is below what’s known as “BIA hill,” after the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he said one of the first white Indian agents lived in a white house that’s still standing. In the shadow of that house and hill, McCarty carves.

He recently started hiring family members like Eaton to help with projects. Over the years Eaton has struggled in Neah Bay. He’s driven to carve and create art, seeking work from McCarty, whom he jokingly compared to The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi. “I wanna do more and be more,” Eaton said, chipping wood off the canoe.

McCarty hasn’t always been present in his family’s life. He was on council for much of his children’s youth. He worked long hours and traveled for weeks at a time. “I honestly could have been a better father and husband when I was on council,” McCarty said. “I did the best I could, but I was really dedicated to my job.” He couldn’t be a politician, artist, husband and father all at once, so after his third term he stepped away. “I was promised a fourth straight term and a divorce,” he said.

A new generation

After her dad came home from council, Inanna Kʷaʔowišč Tyee, who teethed on whale blubber from the 1999 hunt, observed him in his workshop. He’d put on Bob Marley, draw and carve, and give her, his firstborn, designs to trace and color. Sometimes he’d play old recordings of her great-grandfather Jerry explaining how her great-great-grandfather Hishka went out at sunset for humpbacks, paddling 15 to 20 miles into the horizon.

Tyee was a shy kid, and her dad’s political career felt like an inescapable force. But when she was 16, the family moved off-reservation to Olympia, and she gained a better understanding of his work and what it meant to be Indigenous and Makah. She took art more seriously, learning from people like her dad, her Uncle Alex and her cousin, Aaron Parker Jr.

Tyee, 24, studies geography at the University of New Mexico. She draws, paints and beads, incorporating Makah, formline and Coast Salish elements in her work. Last year, with her dad, she designed the five salmon species that now decorate the windows of Chief Seattle Club’s ʔálʔal Café in Pioneer Square. She also practices silversmithing, and designs jewel-toned silk scarves inspired by her aunt Maggie McCarty, Micah’s sister, who taught Tyee how to merge style and tradition.

The McCarty name often felt like a heavy weight to carry. While Tyee is proud of her dad, calling him a “treaty warrior,” she sought her own identity. She wanted to get rid of the Scottish surname given to her family when the treaty was signed. Within Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth families, some names are earned, like “Hishka,” which means “he makes the whale blow on the beach.” Others are formally passed down, both paternally and maternally, during potlatches, transferring rights and knowledge. Names can also be created, so Tyee gave one to herself. “I wanted to make something different and new and still honor where I come from,” she said.

They are supposed to be tied and connected to the whale and the spirit of the whale to calm the (whale’s) body.
— Inanna Kʷaʔowišč Tyee

Kʷaʔowišč means “the little one” in Makah, and Tyee means “great chief” in the Nuu-chah-nulth region to honor her mom, who comes from Tsawout First Nation on Vancouver Island.

Growing up, Tyee soaked up stories her dad told her about the first whalers. But she noticed that the narratives often left women out. Whenever the tribe can whale again, it’ll be her brother, cousins or future sons out on the water, not her. So she’s been researching how Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth women contributed to hunts. “There is a practice when the men go out whaling, the women are supposed to lay flat on the beach, or go indoors and be flat and still,” Tyee said, “because they are supposed to be tied and connected to the whale and the spirit of the whale to calm the [whale’s] body.”

She hopes to weave together a fuller narrative of whale-hunting preparation and rituals, maybe through animated watercolor, to depict what’s now a controversial topic as something elegant and soft. “Not a lot of people understand [whaling], or think it’s necessary,” she said. “This is part of my heritage and family, and I have a right to it.”

Beading and whaling

On a sunny afternoon in November, McCarty sketched designs for whale puppets at his kitchen table. His 19-year-old niece, Shyla Wright, painted across from him. His daughter, Priscidia McCarty, rummaged through a collection of colorful necklaces she’d made. Priscidia, 21, recently moved back to Neah Bay from Olympia. She’s McCarty’s “whale baby,” as her dad likes to say, born two years and two hours after the 1999 whale’s time of death.

“How long have I been doing this, Dad?” she asked, trying to remember when she started beading.

“When your little baby fingers could figure out how to hold a bead and push them on,” he said. She smiled. “We started off with plastic beads with the littles,” Micah said.

“Then I moved up to glass beads,” Priscidia added.

Priscidia also draws and paints, but most of her work was lost in the chaos of the move. Her dad left the room and returned with a framed picture she drew when she was 14. It’s a colorful silhouette of a woman’s profile against a gray backdrop. Her rainbow neck muscles transform into roots. Floating eyes and mouths surround her.

When Priscidia was 13, the family moved from Neah Bay to Olympia. Classmates stared, asked where she was from, and doubted her Native identity until she showed them her tribal ID card. She went from hanging out at the beach with friends and cousins to being isolated, with only her siblings to talk to. “I just started doing art,” she said.

Drawing helped her transition from life on the reservation to life in the state’s capital. But it also held her back; the charcoal and graphite locked her in dark thoughts. Everything she created was sad, she said. And so not long before COVID-19 hit the United States, she took a break.

Then she met her current partner, who is also Makah and an artist. He inspired her to draw and bead again. The two, who are vegan, don’t think the tribe should hunt whales, though Priscidia understands why they’re fighting for it, for their treaty rights. It was a battle that kept her dad away from home when she was young. She’d go to school, he’d go to work, and by the end of the day, they’d briefly say goodnight.

“It was really hard not being around him,” she said. “But I knew he was doing it for the tribe and doing it for us.”

Now that she’s in Neah Bay, Priscidia wants to help her dad with house projects that he’s put off. She wants to, simply, be around him. She also wants to spend time with her younger brother, Khephren McCarty. They recently collaborated on a paddle that he carved and she painted.

In the past few years Khephren, 20, has carved paddles and masks with help from his dad. He’ll work on the whale puppets with him too. He was 7 when his dad and grandfather made the last one for Tribal Canoe Journeys, in 2010. He remembers crawling through the beginnings of the 30-foot puppet.

During the performance, Khephren and hundreds of others watched as his grandfather helped tow the whale puppet into a large tent outside Neah Bay High School. Micah’s older cousin, Spencer, sang to awaken it. Smoke and eagle feathers exploded from the blowhole. The pectoral fins flapped. Then four dancers emerged from the whale’s mouth one by one, including Micah. “After I saw that, I was pretty interested in trying to make stuff,” Khephren said, “to try to carve and learn my culture.”

Hauling a 900-year-old tree

A few years ago, Micah McCarty needed a cedar log big enough to make a totem for the Puyallup Tribe. The tree had to be at least 12 feet long and 3.5 feet wide, with a trunk free of branches to avoid knots, which are challenging to carve around.

McCarty’s cousin has wood-gathering rights near Mount Rainier National Park, so McCarty and Khephren woke up early and headed east on Highway 12. When they reached their destination, they found their tree: a 14-foot cedar log, not far off the mountain road, already felled by the wind, and, McCarty estimated, at least 900 years old.

“That thing was fucking huge,” Khephren said, “pardon my language.”

Father and son set up a pulley system, rigging lines to move the log — all 10,000 pounds of it — down to the road. Then they leveraged it with a jack, lifting it onto a 20-foot flatbed trailer attached to McCarty’s 1988 red GMC Suburban.

“It pushed that truck to its limits,” Khephren said. “When we were going down the freaking mountain, oh my. We were just holding the brakes the entire time.”

Woodworking felt daunting to Khephren when he was younger. He’d watch his dad carve, paint, etch, “whip up designs out of nowhere,” and wonder if he would ever have the same discipline and strength.

By 15 he could remove wood with a knife. He recently made his first pook-ubs redcedar mask for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. Pook-ubs have sunken eyes and loose skin and wear conical cedar-bark whaling hats, depicting a whaler who was lost at sea. The whaler eventually washed ashore on his village’s beach and was brought back to life. He blew a blessing on his fellow whalers so they wouldn’t have to go through what he did.

Khephren wants to learn how to paint and weave, to experiment with modern designs, maybe make new masks. Once he’s more capable with power tools, he plans to carve canoes.

And Khephren wants to whale someday, to paddle out in a canoe that he’ll carve himself, past Cape Flattery, to the places his dad told him about, where his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather hunted, where the green water turns blue.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Josephine Woolington

Josephine Woolington is a writer and musician based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.