NEAH BAY, Wash. – The Makah Tribal Council on Sunday denounced the killing of a California gray whale that was harpooned and shot several times off Washington's coast, calling it "a blatant violation of our law" and promising to prosecute those responsible.
But one of the men suspected in the killing told a newspaper Sunday that he was "feeling kind of proud" and whaling is "in the blood."
"We are a law-abiding people, and we will not tolerate lawless conduct by any of our members," the council said in a statement released Sunday.
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The U.S. Coast Guard detained five men believed to have killed the whale on Saturday, then turned them over to tribal police for further questioning.
In its statement, the council said the men, whose names it did not release, were booked into the tribe's detention facility and released after posting bail. The council said the men will stand trial in tribal court, but did not set a date.
The American Indian tribe has more than 1,000 members and is based in Neah Bay at Washington's westernmost tip.
Wayne Johnson, captain of the whaling crew that in 1999 legally killed the tribe's first whale in decades, told The Seattle Times that he and four other tribal members plunged at least five steel whaling five harpoons into the animal then shot it with a .460-caliber rifle.
[The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported it was a "Weatherbee .460," presumably a Weatherby Mark V, which comes in several different calibers.]
Johnson, 54, said he had no regrets — other than waiting so many years to do it.
"I'm not ashamed," he told The Times in a story the paper posted on its Web site Sunday. "I'm feeling kind of proud. ... I should have done it years ago. I come from a whaling family, on my grandmother's side and my grandfather's side. It's in the blood."
The Makah tribe's treaty rights to hunt whales have been tangled in the courts for several years.
The federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994. Five years later, with a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Makah tribal members killed their first whale in more than 70 years.
Animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.
John McCarty, a former tribal whaling commission member who has been an advocate of the Makah's right to resume whaling, said the tribe had been working to obtain the waiver and that the process was close to completion.
"I don't know why they did this. It's terrible," McCarty told The Times. "I think the anti-whalers will be after us in full force, and we look ridiculous. Like we can't manage our own people, we can't manage our own whale."
The Times reported that four of the five men detained Saturday took part in the 1999 hunt. All five could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each and up to a year in jail, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The whale was headed toward the Pacific Ocean after being wounded and later disappeared beneath the surface, dragging down buoys that had been attached to a harpoon. A biologist for the tribe declared the animal dead, Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said.