updated 10/4/2007 9:30:57 PM ET 2007-10-05T01:30:57

A federal grand jury has charged five American Indians with misdemeanor counts in the killing of a protected gray whale without a permit last month, the government said Thursday.

The indictment charges the men, all members of the Makah tribe, with conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine.

The men did not have permission for the hunt from the federal government or leaders of the tribe, which has more than 1,000 members.

According to the indictment, the five took two motorboats into the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the tribe's reservation at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula on the morning of Sept. 8 and harpooned the California gray whale. They then shot it at least 16 times with a high-powered rifle, authorities allege.

The whale sank and was not harvested.

The killing was a public relations disaster for the tribe, which had been working with federal authorities to arrange a legal hunt, and Makah officials rushed to Washington, D.C., to assure the government they did not approve.

The Makah, who have been whalers for centuries, have sought to resume the hunts as part of their cultural heritage. But their treaty rights to hunt whales have been tangled in the courts for several years.

The federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994. Five years later, with a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Makah tribal members killed their first whale in more than 70 years.

Animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.

'I'm feeling kind of proud' of hunt
Makah officials strongly condemned last month's hunt, pointing out that the tribe was close to obtaining the government waiver.

The crew in the 1999 hunt was captained by Wayne Johnson — one of the men charged in last month's hunt. Also indicted were Theron Parker, Andy Noel, William Secor and Frankie Gonzales.

Johnson told reporters after the recent kill that he wasn't sorry for it.

"I'm not ashamed," he told The Seattle Times. "I'm feeling kind of proud. ... I should have done it years ago. I come from a whaling family, on my grandmother's side and my grandfather's side. It's in the blood."

Tribal attorney John Arum said he did not know if the men had lawyers. The tribe still hopes to prosecute them under its own laws, he said.

Arraignment was set for Oct. 12 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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