Alberta Nora “Binki” Thompson, Defender of Whales

Alberta Nora Thompson, Makah elder and whale advocate, December 3, 1923–April 11, 2012 - Photo by Frohoff-AndersonThere she was, in her 70s and arthritic, in the remote Baja, Mexico desert, camping out in the wilderness. It was by sheer willpower that Mrs. Thompson got into the small boat to finally see her beloved whales. And it wasn’t long before a friendly gray whale and her calf swam up to her in the small boat. It was then that the whale rose up to touch her hand. She wept in joy, love, and awe; and at the thought that they might suffer from whalers—including her own people of the Makah tribe of Northwest Washington—who might approach these whales with harpoons instead of loving hands.

Later that day, she would sit at the table in the camp’s cook tent and talk quietly with actress Glenn Close, then Pierce Brosnan, and later Robert Kennedy, Jr., among others. The list of people who wanted to know about this humble woman who could not stand injustice in her own tribe grew every year. She and Jean-Michel Cousteau joked about getting married and who would do the cooking. Aboriginal peoples from around the world invited her to speak. She attended International Whaling Commission meetings in Scotland, Monaco, London, Australia, and Japan to petition for the protection of whales. In 1998, she was honored as a planetary elder during a trip to support an aboriginal tribe in Australia. The event is captured in a movie called Whaledreamers.

Alberta (or "Binki" as she was known) was one of the remaining few who still spoke the Makah language fluently. In her youth, she was well known for her skills in tribal dancing. Like many Native Americans, she was forced to attend schools to be assimilated into Western culture. During WWII she worked as a welder in a shipyard. After returning to Neah Bay, Alberta married and worked as a secretary for Neah Bay High School, a receptionist at Neah Bay Indian Health Service, and coordinator for the Makah Senior Citizen Center.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, however, that this passionate and determined by-then septuagenarian began to become internationally known for her courage in the face of adversity. It began in 1996 when Alberta invited other Makah elders who opposed the Makah whale hunt to her home. Here, the elders discussed their tribe’s intent to resume whaling for the first time in 70 years—whaling that these elders did not support. The elders decided to write a letter. Writing in English—their second language—they prepared the letter hoping that it would tell the world that they opposed their own tribe’s desire to resume whaling. Alberta took it upon herself to get the actual signatures.

When Alberta arrived at the home of Isabell Ides, the tribe’s oldest elder, Mrs. Ides was in her summer cabin on the shore of Makah Bay weaving a small basket. The image of a whale was woven on the basket and, with other symbols, the basket told the tribe’s ancestral story about how they first came to hunt whales—a tradition that ended in the late 1920s. In all, seven elders signed the letter, which was published in the regional paper. It read—

We are elders of the Makah Indian Nation (Ko-Ditch-ee-ot) which means People of the Cape. We oppose this Whale hunt our tribe is going to do.

The opposition is directly against our leaders, the Makah Tribal Council, Tribal Staff, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is an arm of the United States Government.

The Makah Indian Nation has been functioning without a quorum; two Councilmen are off on sick leave for very serious reasons, cancer.

How can any decision be legal when our by-laws state the Treasurer shall be present at every meeting? The Vice Chairman is the other man out.

The Whale hunt issue has never been brought to the people to inform them and there is no spiritual training going on. We believe they, the Council, will just shoot the Whale, and we think the word "subsistence" is the wrong thing to say when our people haven't used or had Whale meat/blubber since the early 1900's.

For these reasons we believe the hunt is only for the money. They can't say "Traditional, Spiritual and for Subsistence" in the same breath when no training is going on, just talk.

Whale watching is an alternative we support.

Signed, Isabell Ides, Age 96; Harry Claplanhoo, Age 78; Margaret Irving, Age 80; Ruth Claplanhoo, Age 94; Viola Johnson, Age 88; Alberta N. Thompson, Age 72; Lena McGee, Age 92.

Because she spoke out against her Tribal Council’s intent to kill whales, she was stripped of her job at the tribal senior center, her grandson was picked on at school, and her stay-at-home dog was found a mile away, killed on the side of the road. As she worked to prevent suffering, she was made to suffer. She was, in the words of her pastor who gave her eulogy—persecuted. Alberta had a deep Christian faith and often went to her pastor when she felt overwhelmed by the people who turned against her opposition to her tribe’s whaling. Her pastor wept as he told the mourners at the packed church about her persecution.

Binki remains in our hearts. Her wisdom, her humor, her kindness, her wonderful memory and love of telling stories, passed to her from her elders, made her precious and irreplaceable. She will always be an inspiring role model within and outside of her tribe. Her courage provides inspiration for those who advocate for whales, other species, people, and ecosystems.

Binki touched the lives of many people—millions when you include those who saw and read about her in the news. She led instead of followed. Her humility hid her power. With her smile, near-constant gentle laugh, and good nature, she was more than the issues she campaigned for. Everyone saw her goodness and compassion and her love for her family and community. “Don’t forget….” she would tell you as you left to go home. It meant, “Don’t forget I love you.” She took into her home children who did not have parents. “Don’t forget....” is what they learned.

Somewhere along the way, she must have said to the gray whales, “Don’t forget....”

In loving memory, by Will Anderson, Margaret Owens, Toni Frohoff, and Tami Drake