After more than 3,000 miles, Lummi Nation tribal members delivered their songs and prayers for the release of Lolita the southern-resident killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium where she has been kept for 47 years.
The Seaquarium would not allow tribal members any closer than the public sidewalk outside the facility where the whale performs twice a day for food.
Undeterred, tribal members on Sunday walked in procession to the Seaquarium from a nearby park through a subtropical storm lashing wind and rain. At Seaquarium, they spoke to the whale in their language, and sang to her. As they sang, the sun came out.
A member of L Pod, the whale was taken from her family in Penn Cove and sold to the theme park. About a third of the southern-resident population was taken from Puget Sound and sent to theme parks all over the world during the 1960s and 1970s.
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The critically endangered southern-resident orca population has never recovered from the loss.
The Lummi Nation has launched a campaign to bring the whale back home to retire her to a netted cove on Orcas Island. So far, the Seaquarium has refused to engage with the Lummi Nation on the proposal, insisting Lolita is safer right where she is.
Similar efforts by others have ended at the same stalemate, but the Lummi insist they are not going away or giving up. Dozens of community activists joined in the ceremony Sunday, and the Lummi reached out to people across the country in their journey from their reservation near Bellingham. They carved a totem pole for the whale and carried it to Miami to speak out for her, and to her.
“In our language, qwe lhol mechen translates to ‘our relative under the water,’” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation. “She is a member of our family, and it is our sacred obligation to bring her home to the Salish Sea.”
Many American Indian families were torn apart when children were taken for compulsory instruction in boarding schools far from home, where they lost their language and culture. The same forced separation, cultural impoverishment and torment have been suffered by the whales, Julius said.
“She was forced out of her home waters to live in isolation far away from her family. Her story is the Lummi story and the story of so many Native peoples across the country.”
The last survivor of the capture era, Lolita, or Tokitae as she is also called, still has living relatives in L Pod. “We know she wants to be back with her family,” Julius said.
The tribe last week received support for its effort to bring Lolita home from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, a coalition of 57 tribes around the Northwest.
To the tribe, the campaign is about more than one whale. The tribe’s Sacred Sea campaign is also an effort to bring attention to the need to return her home waters to health.
“Our entire way of life has been threatened by bad policy that has upset the entire ecosystem of the Salish Sea,” Julius said. “The salmon, the waters, the marine life — all of it is in delicate balance, and we need better policy that protects it. We are only as healthy as the salmon, the waters and the lands we rely on to nourish and protect us.”