Book Review – ‘The Sea Is My Country: The maritime world of the Makahs’ by Sean Fraga

By Sean Fraga, published November 2020


In The Sea is My Country, Joshua Reid presents the history of an indigenous maritime society at the heart of the Northwest Coast. Known to themselves as Qᵂidiččʔa·txˇ (kwi-dihch-chuh-aht, ‘the People of the Cape’) and to others as Makahs, the people of this tribal nation have historically centred their society and culture on the waters around them. The book draws its title from a statement made by Chief Ćaqá·wiƛ (tsuh-kah-wihtl) during land cession negotiations in 1855 with representatives of the United States. ‘I want the sea,’ Ćaqá·wiƛ told the Americans. ‘That is my country’. Reid argues that Makahs have weathered repeated economic and political changes by maintaining a strong maritime identity and protecting their marine sovereignty.

Geography and economics are key to Reid’s analysis. The Makah are based on Cape Flattery in present-day Washington State, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean. Reid terms this vast marine space the ča·di· (cha-dee) borderland, after the Makah name for Tatoosh Island, a key regional location, and argues that oceanic space benefits from the borderlands analysis more often utilized on land. Within the ča·di· borderland, Makahs accessed unique marine resources – whales, seals, halibut – and acted as economic middlemen in Native and non-Native marine trade networks, allowing the tribal nation to build and retain wealth (the name ‘Makahs’, bestowed by a neighbouring indigenous people, means ‘generous with food’). Reid argues that this marine wealth helped Makahs retain greater independence in the face of settler colonialism for a longer period of time than land-oriented indigenous peoples elsewhere in North America. Over six chapters, he explains how Makahs claimed and utilized marine space, from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

The first two chapters show how Makahs and other native peoples along the Northwest Coast incorporated non-Native arrivals into their world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the volatile middle decades of the nineteenth century. The final two chapters explain how the treaty affected tribal sovereignty.

Late nineteenth-century US Indian policy encouraged native peoples to assimilate by adopting agriculture. Instead, Makahs thrived by incorporating modern technology into traditional marine industries, purchasing larger ships and hunting and fishing farther afield. Ironically, persistent engagement with maritime markets integrated Makahs into the non-Native economy better than agricultural pursuits would have. But by the end of the nineteenth century, increased non-Native competition, new conservation laws, and stricter maritime border enforcement combined to exclude Makahs from lucrative maritime industries.

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Filed under: Nineteenth Century | Pacific
Subjects include: Miscellaneous | Whaling & Fishing

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