Shinnecock Nation's ceremony for the great whale

The heavy rain of the night before had lessened as Shane Weeks prepared to leave his home on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, New York.

He had gotten the call.  Another dead whale had washed up and he was to perform the traditional memorial ceremony for the whale.

As his ancestors had done for hundreds of years before, Shane carefully prepared all the tools he would need to conduct the ceremony.

"Whales have a very cultural significance to our people," he said. "In our language, we call the whale podtap or mishe podtap—great whale."

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He arrived late in the morning at Main Beach in East Hampton and began searching. This was not unusual. Weeks had been to almost every beaching over the last four years or so.

"All the way from Queens to Montauk," he said.

The animal had come to rest 1 mile to the east. The rain began to pick up once again. Shane, wearing a black Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum T-shirt and medallion, grabbed his turtle shell rattle and began to sing loudly beside the badly decomposed whale.

The condition of the whale made identifying the species impossible. It was possibly a young finback or sei. A necropsy would follow.

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A team of marine biologists waited nearby, preparing for what was to come next.

Shane sang the prayer exactly as had been taught to him by a tribal elder, and as it had been previously passed unto him.

The prayer, he said, honors the spirit of the animal and thanks the Great Spirit for its creation.

"The importance of the whale, being the great being of the sea, is able to sustain our people in needs of nourishment and spirit," Shane said. "A lot of people don't know we used to have canoes that would hold almost a hundred people that would go out there and harvest these animals in a sustainable way."

The ceremony was first formally recorded by white settlers some 600 years ago but goes back well over a thousand years. Shane described how Shinnecock whalers would cut off the fins and tails and roast them on the beach for the entire community to share. Some of the meat, he added, would sometimes be given to local settlers.

Then came the offering. Shane removed dried sage from one of the several leather satchels he was carrying. He carefully placed the herb inside a clamshell as he squatted and circled the whale with the shell extended forward.

In the last decade, the number of dead whales that wash up on beaches has steadily increased, mostly due to massive cargo ship strikes. Shane believes many are younger animals who have not yet learned to safely navigate the shipping lanes.

"They are like young deer that don't know how to cross a road," he said.

The ceremony complete, Shane stowed away his gear. As he left, he gave the whale one last look. It wouldn't be the last.

The sun began to partially break through the clouds and the scientists moved in to finish the job.