Where to see the totem that is part of Lummi tribe’s ‘sacred obligation’ to free orca

The totem pole that traveled across the country as part of Lummi Nation’s attempt to free an orca from the Miami Seaquarium has returned, and will make a stop in Bellingham on Thursday, June 13.

The tribe has called returning the killer whale — now called Tokitae by the Lummis and Lolita by the Miami Seaquarium — to the Puget Sound waters she was taken from nearly 50 years ago a “sacred obligation,” according to a Miami Herald article.

The Seaquarium has refused to release the orca, which has lived there for more than 48 years.

On the totem pole’s return to Whatcom County, the tribe continues to bring awareness to the issue as well as threats to the Salish Sea during stops along the West Coast.

That includes at the Whatcom Museum, which is hosting the totem pole during a free event Thursday night at its Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St. in downtown Bellingham.

The event runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. inside Old City Hall as well as outside.

It was organized by Lummi Nation through the tribe’s campaign to save and protect the Salish Sea, including the struggling southern resident killer whales, whose numbers have fallen to their lowest total in three decades.

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People gather around a 16 1/2-foot orca totem pole during the Lummi Nation stop of the Tokitae Totem Pole Journey in May 2018 at the Lummi Nation Tribal Administration Center north of Bellingham. The orca totem pole and two accompanying seal poles were carved by Jewell James and the House of Tears carvers. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

They are “fighting for survival, and we must act boldly to help them. As one Lummi elder has said, ‘What happens to them, happens to us,’ “ according to the Lummis’ Sacred Sea website.

Lummi organizers added in a release: “Our resident orcas face extinction, our salmon runs are endangered, and the Salish Sea is increasingly threatened by unchecked human development. Climate change, ramped up marine vessel traffic, and other stressors on the Salish Sea ecoystems necessitate immediate action, rather than endless deliberation. Tribal nations and communities are coming together to protect our orcas and our home.”

The totem pole, which weighs 3,200 pounds, will be on a truck parked outside of Old City Hall for people to see.

The event will include poetry, music and speakers, including from the Lummi House of Tears carvers. The Lummi also will announce a new name for Tokitae — Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — in a centuries-old tradition, organizers said.

It will end with a procession outside of the Old City Hall to the totem pole, where faith leaders will offer a blessing.

Bellingham isn’t the final stop for the totem pole.

It will next head to Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, where the Lummi Nation will launch its Salish Sea campaign on Saturday, June 15.

Its home will ultimately be the offices of the Lummi Nation, where it will be installed in October, according to Kurt Russo of the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office for Lummi Nation.

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Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.