The Makah dock in Neah Bay, Washington.

The Makah Tribe: ‘people generous with food’

The Makah Tribe has depended on the ocean for its food and livelihood for thousands of years, and now a new state-of-the-art fishing dock is helping establish economic stability for generations to come.

November 21, 2017

Sitting on the northwest tip of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, Neah Bay has been the home of the Makah Tribe for thousands of years. And throughout that time — given its proximity to the vast resources of the Pacific Ocean — fishing has been key to both the Makah Tribe’s diet and its livelihood.

“Our existence comes from the ocean — everything about us … is derived from the ocean’s resources,” said Timothy Greene Sr., former chairman of the Makah Tribal Council.

From their earliest days hunting marine mammals in handcarved canoes to their current modern approach to fishing, the native people of Neah Bay have always used the plentiful resources of the ocean to feed both themselves and their neighbors.

In fact, the name Makah — originally given to them by neighboring tribes — means “people generous with food.”

The Makah Tribe's new dock in Neah Bay, Washington, is providing economic opportunity for the tribal community and dozens of local small businesses. (3:18)

For the current generations of the Makah Tribe, “the ocean represents about 50 percent of the economy of Neah Bay,” said Russell Svec, director of Makah Fisheries. “So, our ocean resources are extremely important to us, as they were for our ancestors.”

At the heart of today’s Makah fishing economy is the Neah Bay dock, which employs dozens of members of the community and provides hundreds of fishermen a place to process their haul each day. The dock and the Neah Bay fishing industry generate an estimated $7 million in annual economic benefits for the Makah Tribe.

But a few years ago, that was all in jeopardy.

Connecting the ocean to the land

In 2013, Neah Bay’s 60-year-old dock had been condemned after reaching such a state of disrepair that a forklift literally fell through it. And while that might have derailed a lesser-established fishing community, 3,800 years of experience helped the Makah Fisheries persevere with makeshift docks and temporary fixes.

However, their way of life was at risk unless they could secure the funding to build a new dock and purchase the additional modern-day resources needed to make fishing more cost-efficient and effective.

Greene contacted Cora Gaane, a member of Wells Fargo’s Tribal Advocate group, for help on how to finance the nearly $14 million in construction costs needed to build a new dock, a 5,600-square-foot warehouse, and a state-of-the-art ice house.

With Gaane leading the charge, Wells Fargo purchased more than $3 million in New Markets Tax Credits from the National Development Council to help fill the dock’s funding gap.

“Wells Fargo has been providing banking services to tribal clients for the past 50 years, and we remain committed to serving the Native American community,” said Gaane. “I’m so proud to have the opportunity to work with tribes like the Makah tribal members to help them achieve economic empowerment, something Wells Fargo seeks to do with each of the 567 federally recognized tribes throughout the United States.”

The Makah dock in Neah Bay.
An aerial shot of the Makah Tribe's new state-of-the-art fishing dock.

Beyond the rod and reel

Now, three years after Neah Bay’s new dock was rebuilt and reopened for business, the Makah Tribe’s fishing economy is thriving.

Greene noted that the larger dock has space for multiple fish buyers to operate, which in turn creates competition and better pricing for the fishermen.

“The other thing that the Makah dock has provided is some stability to the community on having an asset that they can rely on — the fish hoists that are available and the buyers that are leasing space on that dock are both Makah-owned businesses — things that in the past our tribe didn’t have,” said Greene. “Now, to be able to give our own people a chance to maximize those revenues, keep the money here in the community, and provide jobs to our people is really paramount in the success of the Makah.” 

The positive impact of the new dock extends beyond the Makah Tribe. With more room for boats to offload their catch, and reliable access to ice — allowing fishermen to maximize their time at sea — the Makah dock is able to support the livelihood of about 90 local small businesses and their employees.

“For any tribe, having economic development activity is quite important — having their tribal members gainfully employed and achieving economic independence,” said Gaane. “We hope that, in a little way, the relationship that Wells Fargo has established with the Makah people has provided them a way to achieve their goal of economic independence.”

Contributors: Kathleen Llewellyn
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