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Contesting Leviathan

Activists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

Contesting Leviathan

Activists, Hunters, and State Power in the Makah Whaling Conflict

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

In 1999, off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the first gray whale in seven decades was killed by Makah whalers. The hunt marked the return of a centuries-old tradition and, predictably, set off a fierce political and environmental debate. Whalers from the Makah Indian Tribe and antiwhaling activists have clashed for over twenty years, with no end to this conflict in sight.
In Contesting Leviathan, anthropologist Les Beldo describes the complex judicial and political climate for whale conservation in the United States, and the limits of the current framework in which whales are treated as “large fish” managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Emphasizing the moral dimension of the conflict between the Makah, the US government, and antiwhaling activists, Beldo brings to light the lived ethics of human-animal interaction, as well as how different groups claim to speak for the whale—the only silent party in this conflict. A timely and sensitive study of a complicated issue, this book calls into question anthropological expectations regarding who benefits from the exercise of state power in environmental conflicts, especially where indigenous groups are involved. Vividly told and rigorously argued, Contesting Leviathan will appeal to anthropologists, scholars of indigenous culture, animal activists, and any reader interested in the place of animals in contemporary life.

248 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Culture Studies

History: Environmental History


“Beldo has written a compelling, open-minded, and comprehensive account of a complex and controversial issue. His portrayal of the Makah and the activists who opposed their return to whaling is sympathetic and respectful of both their commitment and their arguments, and he persuasively demonstrates the way that official regulations ultimately shaped the strategies of all the parties to this conflict.”

Harriet Ritvo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“A graceful, respectful and hugely enjoyable ride across the choppy waters of controversy, Contesting Leviathan navigates among Makah Indians, environmental activists, and US government bureaucrats with good humor and keen wit. This book deftly explores what whales mean to people with sharply divergent viewpoints, and how those people find unwitting common ground where they least expect it.”

Don Kulick, Uppsala University, Sweden

“With his first book, Beldo has produced a thoroughly researched and well-written ethnographic study of the ongoing Makah whaling conflict. Timely and necessary, Contesting Leviathan combines his excellent independent research and discussions of relevant literatures using an accessible writing style that will engage anyone interested in this complex subject.”

Mary Weismantel, Northwestern University

Table of Contents


One / It’s Who We Are
Two / We Eat Them
Three / Everything Is Connected
Four / This Fishery Will Be Managed
Five / You Just Don’t Kill Whales
Six / The Science Has Ruled
Seven / The Whale Approaches


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