ALONG the craggy, rain-pelted coast of the Olympic Peninsula, the Makah people survived for centuries by harvesting the ocean's bounty.
In part, they subsisted on whales, hunted in dugout canoes. A harpooner would dive into the water to make the kill with a final lance thrust.
Now, almost 70 years since they last hunted the massive marine mammals, the Makah tribe wants to return to the tradition.
''We've sat here and watched the [gray] whale come back'' from being an endangered species, says Jerry Lucas, a member of the Makah Tribal Council in Neah Bay, Wash.
With unemployment as high as 50 percent and alcohol and drug abuse rampant among the 1,000 residents of the Makah Indian Reservation, Mr. Lucas says he hopes whaling can help revive community spirit and fight these problems.
''Everybody has to work together'' to bring in a whale and make use of its meat, blubber, bones, and baleen for food and for traditional crafts and ceremonies,'' Lucas says.
Although the Makah's goal is modest - harpooning five gray whales annually out of a population of more than 20,000 - environmentalists are concerned that this could be the beginning of the end of gray whales in the Northwest.
Their worry is twofold: that renewed ''subsistence'' whaling could be a first step toward commercial whaling, and that one tribe's action may lead others to assert similar rights, boosting the whale harvest dramatically.
Will Anderson, a spokesman for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood, Wash., says other tribes nearby may push for a more liberal interpretation of their treaties. In British Columbia, Canada, several tribes with whaling in their past are already negotiating their first treaties with the Canadian government.
The Makah are in a strong position to pursue their claim because of a 1855 treaty that specifically reserves ''the right of ... whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds.'' Other tribes have treaties that typically refer to fishing in general without specific reference to whales.
But Mr. Anderson's group and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society of Marina Del Rey, Calif., oppose any whale hunting by the Makah unless the tribe wins permission from the International Whaling Commission, of which the United States is a member.
The US government will bring a Makah request before the IWC at the commission's annual midyear meeting in 1996. But the tribe says the treaty gives it the right to hunt whales, period - regardless of the IWC ruling.
The Whaling Commission sets annual quotas for Alaska's Inuit and other indigenous peoples who depend on whales for subsistence, but some question the validity of the Makah claim. Anderson and Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson are marshaling evidence questioning tribal claims that gray whales were a staple of Makah diet.
Mr. Watson says Sea Shepherd vessels may try to intervene if the Makah start hunting whales in 1996, as is currently planned, prior to an IWC decision.
''If it gets down to a confrontation between the US Coast Guard and Sea Shepherd, then so be it,'' says Watson, claiming that the IWC reflects a higher law than any single nation's. The Whaling Commission has no enforcement body of its own. Watson says it would be ''racist'' to treat one group, the Makah, as uniquely exempt from the IWC.
Complicating matters for whaling opponents is the support the Makah have from many scientists and environmentalists. Greenpeace, while decrying commercial whaling, has no quarrel with the subsistence request. And while some say hunting could drive the friendly 45-foot creatures away from whale-watching boats, biologist John Calambokidis says, ''I can't imagine hunting efforts aimed at five animals ... would affect the behavior'' of the whole migrating group.
''If anyone has the right to hunt these animals, it's these people,'' Mr. Calambokidis adds.
The Makah have pledged to modernize their hunting methods - such as using exploding-head harpoons, in order to be more humane and safe.
Calambokidis supports last year's move to delist the gray whale as an endangered species.
Anderson disagrees. ''You wouldn't think a city of 21,000 people is very big,'' he says. Grays are the only whales that feed directly off the ocean bottom. And he and Watson each allege the Makah have a hidden agenda of commercial whaling.
Lucas says he ''can't see that happening'' while he is on the Tribal Council. But, noting the tribe's long tradition of trade, he adds, ''I'm not going to say [what may happen] in the future.''