By Lauri deGaris
I wept when I learned Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut or Tokitae, resident Orca from the L-Pod in the Salish Sea, died August 18, 2023 at Miami Sea Aquarium. Tokitae, also known as Lotita, was a performing Orca for more than 50 years. Tokitae was taken from her ancestral home in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Lummi Nation, in 1970.
In the Lummi language, the term for killer whales is qwe ‘lhol mechen, meaning “our relations below the waves.” The Lummi see whales as people whose cetacean regalia allows then to live underwater. They recognize that whales and humans share similar lifespans, intelligence, social complexity, community skills, and the capacity for love.
Who can forget the images of the whale Tahlequah and her very public display of grief in 2018? For 17 days, Tahlequah carried the corpse of her baby over 1,000 miles along the shores of the Pacific Northwest. “People above the waves” around the world grieved along with her.
Consider that Tokitae’s mother is still alive at 97 years old, living in the Salish Sea. As a matriarch, it is her job to teach the song of whale to her relations. And, indeed she did just that with her young daughter, Tokitae, before she was taken away.
Almost 20 years after being held in captivity, a recording was made of Tokitae singing in her concrete tank. In 2018, that song was identified as the song of Orca “L-Pod” in the Salish Sea. Experts agreed, this was the whale song her mother, Ocean Sun taught her many years ago. Tokitae remembered. It is reported that Tokitae sang this song every day until her death.
Once the Lummi Nation discovered that Tokitae was singing her mother’s song, they passed a resolution to rematriate her with family. The Lummi Nation Elders gathered and prayed. A vision was received. The Lummi Nation developed a ceremonial, cross country campaign aimed to bring Tokitae home to her ancestral waters in the Salish Sea.
A 16.5-foot totem pole carved from a single cedar by Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers was created to honor Tokitae. The totem brings to life the Orca whale, chinook salmon, raven and figures of people displaying respect to Tokitae and all other inhabitants of the sea by raising their hands in reverence. The totem pole traveled from the West Coast to the Miami Seaquarium making many ceremonial stops along the way.
Also in 2019, a lawsuit was placed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to sue Miami Seaquarium unless they worked collaboratively to bring SK’aliCh’elh-tenaut home, safely. The Earth Law Center provided legal representation for the repatriation effort. The Whale Sanctuary Project and the Lummi Nation worked together to draft a plan based in ancestral wisdom as well as science to further efforts in returning her to the Salish Sea.
It is an obligation to bring our relation, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’ home to the Salish Sea announced the Lummi Nation. Plans were made for sacred space in Salish Sea to receive Tokitae. Here she could swim and dive, feel the lunar pull of tides, breathe the air of her ancestors, swim through kelp gardens and hunt for food.
On the West Coast, Southern Resident Orcas are culturally, spiritually and economically important. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, as there are fewer than 80 individuals remaining. Earth Law Center and Legal Rights for the Salish Sea are calling on local communities, state legislatures and governors to recognize the inherent rights of all whales. They plan to introduce legislation on the state level in the 2024 session.
Under our current legal system, humans and corporations have rights but other animals and ecosystems do not. Earth Law Center and other groups believe that animals and ecosystems should also have legal rights, not just protections that change with political winds.
The Lummi Nation believes that all Southern Resident Orcas have inherent rights, including: life, culture, adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, freedom from pollution, autonomy, and safe passage. This follows Lummi Nation ancestral wisdom. They understand the interconnectivity that exists between us all.
Jay Julius, former chairman of the Lummi Nation, said “When we decolonize our imagination for a moment and really allow ourselves to imagine what once was … deeply imagine the truth and reality of what we are doing to everything that is, then, I believe, the story is so important. Tokitae, Lolita, our story – everything that is, is being managed to extinction.”
After Tokitae’s death, her remains were taken to the University of Georgia for necropsy. It will take a few weeks before results are released. Tokitae’s remains will be cremated and returned to the Lummi Nation.
Raynell Morris, Lummi elder and longtime Tokitae advocate will escort Tokitae home. Morris told Cascadia Daily News at a prayer ceremony for Tokitae last April that when Tokitae was stolen in 1970, it broke a strand in the web of life. He went on to say “when that strand was broken, the only way to heal her family and to heal our people is to bring her home and start the healing, mend that broken strand.“
When I think about the story of Tokitae and the sacred Salish Sea, I am reminded that Amelia Island residents also share sacred waters with whales. The North Atlantic Right Whales have migrated to the warm, shallow waters off our coast for thousands of years to give birth. And, despite our best policies and management strategies, they too are being managed into extinction. It is absolutely heart-breaking to know that humanity has not reached maturation.
It is my hope that the story of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut will open everyone’s hearts and fill them with love for all our relations below the waves.
Meet all the Salish Sea Orca’s here.