With song and prayer, Lummi Nation carvers and their supporters have embarked on a more than 7,000-mile journey to deliver an orca totem pole to the last surviving killer whale to be captured in Puget Sound – the first step in an effort to bring her home.
Tokitae, as she was named by her captors, was taken in 1970 from Penn Cove at Whidbey Island and has been at the Seaquarium in Miami ever since. There, she is known as “Lolita” and performs tricks for tourists.
Owners of the facility have refused multiple efforts over the years to release the whale – but they have never faced an effort quite like this one.
The Lummi Nation is marshaling a journey from their reservation near Bellingham down the West Coast and across the southern tier of the U.S., stopping all along the way with the totem pole to raise awareness of the orca’s captivity, and the need to bring her home and heal the Salish Sea from which she was taken.
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“This is about so much more than one whale,” said Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius, as supporters laid hands on the carving, loaded on a trailer for the journey to Miami.
“This is about telling the truth,” Julius said. “About all the bad policies that allowed this to happen to her. But about all the things that are still happening today. We need salmon. The orcas need salmon. We need to heal the rivers and the land.”
The journey began with an interfaith ceremony at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship Wednesday evening, then a send-off from the Lummi tribal center the following morning.
At the send-off ceremony at Lummi, fisherman Steve Solomon wafted blue smoke from burning sage over the totem pole, as carvers Jewell Praying Wolf James and his brother Doug James of the House of Tears Carvers explained the spiritual meaning of the journey.
“We are on a journey to free a fellow being,” said Jewell, who explained that the killer whales are the tribe’s family members. The Qwel lhol mechen, or The People Who Live Under the Sea, is how blackfish, or killer whales, are known in the Lummi’s tribal language.
And today, the tribe says, Tokitae lives torn apart from her family, the L pod of killer whales in Puget Sound.
Fully a third of the population of southern resident killer whales was taken during the capture era of the 1970s, a loss from which the whales have never recovered. Of the dozens taken and sent to aquariums all over the world, all have died but one.
She still lives alone today in a concrete tank, with two dolphins for company.
“She cries at night, she still sings her song of her family,” said Lummi Nation traditional chief Bill James, who helped lead the blessing launching the journey. “She wants to come home.”
Tribal members say her separation recalls dark times when Native American children where forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding school. For them, Tokitae’s separation from family is all too familiar.
“We know how she feels,” Julius said.
The 16 1/2-foot totem pole is carved from a single cedar log and depicts a killer whale, chinook salmon, raven, and carved figures of people raising their hands in respect to her and all the other beings in the sea. It is flanked by two 8-foot-long carvings of seals, the food of the transient killer whales.
Southern residents eat mostly chinook salmon, and the lack of adequate food is their biggest challenge to survival.
The Miami Seaquarium has repeatedly refused to release the whale, saying it would be too risky for her and not in her best interest.
“Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi Nation and the services that the Lummi Business Council provides to its people. However, the members of the Lummi Business Council are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita the orca,” said Eric A. Eimstad, general manager of the Seaquarium, in a prepared statement.
“As we have stated repeatedly, it would be reckless and cruel to risk her life by moving her from her home solely to satisfy the desire of those who do not understand or care that such a move would jeopardize her life and the life of the other killer whales in Puget Sound,” the aquarium said.
Moving her back to Puget Sound, the aquarium maintains, could not only expose her to a “wide variety of new health threats, but doing so could pose the same risks to the wild killer whale population.
“We will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment and we will not jeopardize her health by considering such a risky move,” Eimstad said.
The Lummi Nation has proposed retiring the aging whale to a netted cove off the coast of Orcas Island. The plan would require approval from NOAA fisheries, which has regulatory jurisdiction over endangered species, including Tokitae, even though she is in captivity.
“I feel like for the first time there is hope,” said Susan Berta, a board member of Orca Network, her hand over her heart as she watched the blessing of the totem pole Wednesday night. “There is so much good spirit behind this.”
This is not the first attempt to rescue Tokitae.
The Orca Conservancy worked with the Makah Nation as recently as 2016 to bring Tokitae home to Neah Bay. The conservancy now wants to focus on efforts to improve the salmon runs and home waters of the whale for the sake of the rest of her family.
A member of L pod, Tokitae has living relations among the remaining 76 whales in the critically endangered Souther Resident Killer Whale population.
“We hate her being there at the Seaquarium,” Shari Tarantino, president of the board of the Orca Conservancy, said. “But we feel like this is where we need to be focused now.”
The totem pole’s journey will culminate May 27 with a demonstration at a park near the Seaquarium to free the whale.
Stops along the way include a ceremony in Seattle at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Centilia Cultural Center, 1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival St. The event is free and open to the public.
The entire itinerary and more about the tribe’s effort to free the whale are online at sacredsea.org.