More than 47 years ago, one of our Lummi relatives was taken from us. As the baby blackfish (killer whale) Tokitae was stolen from her pod in the Salish Sea, her family could be heard crying for her. Her mom called to her as she was lifted out of the sea and then transported thousands of miles to an aquarium in Miami. The word in Xwlemi Chosen language for Blackfish, qw’e lh’ol’ me chen, means “our relations who live under the water.”
The qw’e lh’ol me chen are culturally and spiritually significant to the Lummi people. Tokitae is our family, one of us, and we have a sacred obligation to bring her home, out of captivity, and return her safely to her family for her remaining years.
As part of Lummi Nation’s plan to bring Tokitae back home, and our larger vision to protect and restore the Salish Sea, Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers have carved a Blackfish totem pole to honor Tokitae. James and his team will deliver it to Miami, where Tokitae has been held in captivity for so many years. Events along the journey’s route will bring attention to her powerful story, which, in so many ways, is our Lummi story: a story of resilience and survival.
Just like Tokitae, members of the Lummi Nation have endured centuries of destructive policies – policies that separated our families, depleted our salmon runs, desecrated our sacred sites, and reduced our traditional fishing areas to a fraction of what they once were. These policies and willful disregard for our treaties have damaged the health of the Salish Sea and negatively impacted the well-being of our people.
For thousands of years, our people have fished the Salish Sea. Our way of life, our schelangen, has always been based on an understanding of balance, sustainability, and the health of our ecosystem. Like the qw’e lh’ol me chen, our health is directly related to the health of our salmon, which in turn is related to the health of the entire Salish Sea region.
Today, Lummi and all tribes of the Salish Sea face constant attacks on our waters, our communities, and our cultures. Killer whales in the Salish Sea are going hungry because the salmon runs are down. Our fishery openings are shorter than they’ve ever been because salmon runs are down. When we are fighting the development of a coal terminal at our sacred Cherry Point or the release of more than 150,000 invasive Atlantic salmon into our Pacific waters, we are fighting for our entire way of life.
Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing Washington v. The United States, a case brought by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The “culverts case,” as it is known, concerns the state’s responsibility to ensure that culverts are not destroying salmon habitat. The ruling that the Supreme Court makes will either uphold our treaty rights or challenge them. We need strong policy that protects the salmon because, like the blackfish, our survival depends on it. We need rigorous enforcement of our treaties.
Tokitae’s story is a story of a blackfish, and it is also a story of Coast Salish peoples who have always been physically nourished and spiritually nurtured by the Salish Sea. Tokitae’s abduction from her home should serve as a reminder to us all about the failure of policy to protect the marine life and sanctity of the Salish Sea. The return of Tokitae is an important step we can take together towards rebuilding our community and inspiring a new era of strong policy focused on the health of our people, lands, waters, and all our relations.
Jay Julius is chairman of the Lummi Nation.