To most of us, they’re killer whales or orcas. But to the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, they are qw’e lh’ol’ me chen – “our relations who live under the water.”
In short, they are family. And last week, members of the Lummi Nation set out from Bellingham, Washington, on a 7,000-mile trek across the United States to visit one of their own, Tokitae, in Miami, Florida, and to deliver a totem pole in her honor.
More than that, they want to bring her home.
Tokitae, who is known as “Lolita” at the Miami Seaquarium, was taken from her family during one of the infamous Penn Cove round-ups of the 1970s, when orca families were driven into nets so that young ones could be taken from their parents to spend the rest of their lives entertaining tourists.
Since that time, public opinion has shifted dramatically from thinking of these highly intelligent, autonomous animals as a legitimate form of entertainment at marine theme parks.
The families never recovered from having 25 percent of their number carried away to marine theme parks.
Also, since that time, we have come to understand that the kidnappings were not just a catastrophe for the whales who were taken into captivity; they impacted the entire population of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). The families never recovered from having 25 percent of their number carried away to marine theme parks. Today, with just 76 left in the ocean, the SRKW are now officially listed as an endangered species, and their situation is going from bad to worse due to the dwindling number of salmon – their only food.
Meanwhile, over the years, all but one of those original captives have died. The sole survivor, Tokitae, continues to perform in shows at the Miami Seaquarium, where she has two Pacific white-sided dolphins, but no orcas, for company. And while her family still plies the waters of Puget Sound every day, the staff at the Seaquarium continue to refer to her as their family.
The Lummi want to change all of that. They are determined to retire her – with a plan for potential release – to a netted cove off the coast of Orcas Island where her family passes by regularly.
The Miami Seaquarium is firmly opposed to giving her up, now arguing that at her age, roughly 51 years old, she is no longer well enough to travel to a new home and adapt to a new life. General manager Eric Elmstad calls it “reckless and cruel to risk [Lolita’s] life by moving her.”
Such a statement, of course, is a bit rich coming from the people who continue to profit from daily cruelty to a sensitive, highly intelligent, emotional being.
Certainly, there are legitimate questions surrounding such a move: What exactly is Tokitae’s state of health? What pathogens might she be carrying from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean that would be finding their way into the waters of the Pacific Northwest? What pathogens that have evolved in the waters of the Pacific Northwest in the decades since her capture might she have no defenses against?
The first step toward getting answers to these questions would be to have an independent team of veterinarians examine Tokitae. But the Miami Seaquarium remains adamantly opposed to allowing such a team to visit her. And until that changes, anything that anyone says about her health and wellbeing is at best speculation and at worst simply not trustworthy.
Meanwhile, as the Lummi Nation continues to bring Tokitae’s plight to a larger audience than ever before, they add that their work has an even wider relevance.
“This is about so much more than one whale,” Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius told supporters at an interfaith ceremony as they laid hands on the totem pole. “It’s about telling the truth. About all the bad policies that allowed this to happen to her.” He said that it’s also about the ocean itself. “We need salmon; the orcas need salmon. We need to heal the rivers and the land.”
Jewell Praying Wolf James, who carved the totem with his brother Doug James, added, “We are on a journey to free a fellow being.”
The totem itself is a stunning artistic achievement: a horizontal, 16-foot orca with her tail flipped over her back, resting on the backs of two harbor seals. A human figure holds on to the dorsal fin, riding the back of the whale.
“That’s the whale rider,” James explained. “It’s part of a mythology that’s up and down the West Coast here, where the humans are trying to experience the power of the whale and be accepted by them.”
He added that for the Lummi, all life is sacred. “We’re all part of a cosmic song. We believe that we’re not just helping her socially and physically by helping her come home, but we’re helping balance a part of the spiritual atmosphere, the songs of creation.”