WASHINGTON – The House Resources Committee on Wednesday gave a boost to the Makah Tribe’s bid to resume whale hunting off the coast of Washington state.
The panel approved a nonbinding resolution urging the Bush administration to uphold whaling rights guaranteed to the tribe under an 1855 treaty with the federal government.
The resolution, sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., calls a waiver process required by the National Marine Fisheries Service “burdensome, costly and … tantamount to a denial of the tribe’s treaty rights.”
The resolution goes on to urge Congress to express “its disapproval of the abrogation of the tribe’s treaty rights, and that the government of the United States should uphold the treaty rights of the Makah Tribe.”
The Republican-led panel approved the measure 21-6, with five Democrats joining 16 Republicans to vote in favor.
Five Democrats, including Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, voted against the measure. Inslee ridiculed the resolution as a “political statement” with no legal impact, introduced by an out-of-state lawmaker.
“This effort is clearly not a serious effort by Chairman Pombo to look into an important issue. It’s just asking us to make a political statement” in favor of the tribe, Inslee said.
Inslee said he supports the tribe’s treaty rights, but said he also wants to uphold the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which outlaws whaling in the United States. The tribe is proposing to harvest as many as 20 gray whales during a five-year period, with a maximum of five whales killed in any one year.
“This is a very complicated issue and we ought to have hearings on it,” Inslee said.
After the federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994, the Makah took steps to hunt again in waters off its reservation at the tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
In 1999, tribal members killed their first whale in more than 70 years. Animal welfare activists soon sued the tribe and its federal backers, leading to the court order that resulted in the February request for a waiver.
Rick Marks, a lobbyist for the tribe, hailed Wednesday’s the vote as an important statement. The Resources panel oversees Indian issues in the House.
“This is a good, positive message to the tribe that their treaty actually means something, and that Congress has stood up and said the Makah’s treaty rights are important and they recognize the difficult process the tribe is in,” Marks said.
Pombo said in a statement that Congress has an obligation to uphold the Makah’s treaty rights and respect their cultural heritage.
“Congress must be willing to stand behind the promises given to tribes over the years. Today, only a handful of members opposed this resolution, with an overwhelming majority voting in strong support,” Pombo said.
Pombo, who became Resources chairman in 2003, is one of the top recipients in Congress of campaign contributions from Indian tribes. So far this year, at least 18 tribes – including several in Washington state – have contributed nearly $90,000 to his leadership political action committee, federal records show.
Among the Washington state tribes who have contributed to Pombo’s committee, Rich PAC, are the Cowlitz Tribe of Longview and the Puyallup Tribe of Tacoma, each of which contributed $5,000. The Cowlitz are seeking federal approval to build a casino near La Center, Wash.
Pombo’s campaign and leadership committees have collected $221,000 from tribes since 1999, according to Political Money Line, a Web site that tracks campaign contributions.
That figure places Pombo third among all House members in that period, the Web site said. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was the top Senate recipient of Indian money, with $225,000 raised.
A spokesman for Pombo defended the campaign contributions from Indian tribes.
“He’s the chairman of the committee that oversees Indian affairs,” said spokesman Matthew Streit. “Political contributions to his campaign don’t in any way affect the way the chairman views Native American issues, and he continues to be a staunch advocate of their rights, especially with regard to treaty rights.”
Federal records do not list any contributions to Pombo or his leadership committee by the Makah.
Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Cantwell, who is running for re-election next year, has received at least $4,000 in campaign contributions from the Makah, federal records show. Murray, who was re-elected to a third term last year, received a total of $2,000 in 2003 and 2004.