Sin of omission; Lewis and Clark, sea otters and the Pacific empire; PART ONE

PORTLAND, Ore. – Sea otters are the ultimate couch potatoes.

Little whiskery critters munching away flat on their backs in the blue Pacific. At
least that’s how they often appear to modern audiences checking out
National Geographic specials.

But the sea otter’s fate has been anything but happy. The animals were the
first of the Pacific Northwest’s resources to be looted by incoming
Europeans, and unlike the salmon runs, the sea otters have not made a
comeback – at least not much of one. In fact, many people alive today have
forgotten the sea otters were ever here. Taxpayers across the nation spend
millions to bring Northwest salmon back and the fish are in the public
debate constantly. The sea otter – elakha in Chinook jargon, however, goes
largely unmentioned and unfunded. A sin of omission.

Sea otters living along the Oregon and Washington coasts during the
centuries surrounding the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 – ’06, were
prized by Indians and Europeans alike for their fur. The difference was,
though, that while the Indians were home, the Europeans were trying to find
one.

First the Russians and the Spanish, then the English, and finally the
Americans came looking for wealth, jockeying over empires. Initially the
rainy Northwest coast seemed uninteresting, but once explorers discovered
the fabulous wealth in sea otter pelts, the extractive economy that has
marked the region ever since, began.

Sea otters have “rich, darkly-colored glossy fur with shimmery silvery
undertones,” in historian Carlos Schwantes’ words. So dense and exquisite
that many of the era found sea otter pelts “among the most attractive
natural objects ‘excepting a beautiful woman and a lovely infant,'”
Schwantes observed in his book, “The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive
History.”

The Chinese agreed and then some. First the Russians took pelts, and then
the English. After Captain James Cook sold sea otter furs to China in the
1770s and discovered the fantastic prices they brought, it was all he could
do to get his ship back home to England. Seeing the fortune ‘they could
make, his sailors came just short of all out mutiny.

Prior to contact, Indians along the coast stitched capes and wove fur robes
from sea otter pelts – clothing for revered members of the tribes. What
they didn’t expect, was that another people would also want the furs, and
want them badly enough to hunt them almost right out of existence.

The heyday of the maritime fur trade in sea otters – as distinguished from
the inland trade that decimated the beavers – went from the 1790s through
to 1812. The Russians, though, started the first sea otter hunts as early
as the mid-1700s. The slaughter of the animals continued clear through the
19th century and into the 20th when an international treaty in 1911 finally
banned the killing.

Sea otters are small compared to seals and sea lions. About three feet long
with a tail that adds another foot and weighing from 40 to 100 pounds. The
animals live out their lives in shallow coastal waters over kelp beds.
While the sea otters formerly spent part of their existence on land, since
the intense hunting, they have rarely been seen ashore. Their range
originally ran in a continuous arc around the Pacific Rim from the Japanese
islands to the Aleutians in the north, and then down along Alaska and south
to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Only a few isolated communities were left
after the fur trade was halted.

Historian Norman Graebner knows why. As Graebner put it in his book of the
same name, the sea otters were hunted out ruthlessly because the nation was
intent on building “an empire on the Pacific” focused on finding trade
routes – and trade opportunities with the immense and lucrative Asian
market.

Siletz tribal council member and engineer for the City of Portland who
holds a master’s degree from Oregon State University, Dave Hatch agrees
with Graebner. Hatch spoke at the 89th Ecological Society of America
conference in Portland, Ore. last August. Citing from Jefferson’s message
to Congress in 1803 and instructions the president gave to Meriwether Lewis
that same year, Hatch explained that Jefferson was not only intent on
displacing Native peoples but also taking advantage of the fur trade.

“To provide an extension of territory, encourage them to abandon hunting,”
Jefferson wrote. He also told Lewis and Clark to look for more direct trade
routes – the famed Northwest Passage leaders hoped would connect eastern
capital to the natural resource bonanzas in the West. Jefferson, of course,
also told Lewis and Clark to collect the region’s fur in the most
advantageous manner.

Hatch wrote a 2003 article posing the both question and the answer, “Why
did Lewis and Clark cross the continent? – To get sea otter pelts.” He
titled the piece “Clueless and Lark – The Elakha Connection.” The sea otter
connection.

While the expedition may have been clueless about Indian society, it wasn’t
about Jefferson’s goals. But that was 200 years ago. What Hatch is
wondering is if mainstream America is still clueless, or if contemporary
Americans are ready to stop committing sins of omission. Certainly the sea
otter is as endearing an ambassador as one could hope for. Shining black
eyes, whiskers and fur – as Warm Springs tribal member and poet Elizabeth
Woody, says is “so soft it feels like a breath.”

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