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Lummi members have new ally in fight to bring captive Southern Resident orca home

Bellamy Pailthorp
Tah-Mahs and Squil-le-he-le (Ellie Kinley, L, and Raynell Morris, R) at the Lummi ceremony on July 27, 2019 when they announced their lawsuit under NAGPRA to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home.";s:

She will be home in 2020.

That was the word from members of the Lummi Nation who have not given up on their efforts to free the captive Southern Resident orca some call "Lolita" from her cement tank at the Miami Seaquarium. A nonprofit law group has nowjoined the fight, bringing new legal tactics to the battle.

Lolita also is known as "Tokitae" in the Coast Salish language and was recently renamedSk’aliCh’elh-tenaut  by the Lummi. (The Lummi name is pronounced, roughly, SKAH-lee CHUCK-ten-NUT.)  The new name emphasizes the tribal village near Penn Cove, where she was captured 50 years ago. The Lummi view her as a relative.

Two members of the tribe filed a lawsuit last summer, demanding her return under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). They say they were called to do so after the Southern Resident orca Talequah grieved the loss of her calf, pushing its deceased body through local waters for an unprecedented 17 days. Tah-Mas (Ellie Kinley) is one of the two plaintiffs in the NAGPRA suit.

“She was taken when she was 3 years old. And we know her Mom — Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s mom — is out there, still grieving her loss, because she was taken from her,” Tah-Mas said.

The 91-year-old orca Ocean Sun is believed to be her mother.   

Now, the plaintiffs are getting pro bono help from the nonprofit Earth Law Center, which specializes in a relatively new legal movement, calledRights of Nature. Michelle Bender is assigned to their case and says she’s excited to take it in new directions.

“So the difference is we’re challenging the current legal system, we’re not trying to work within it,” she said.  

Bender is the ocean rights manager at Earth Law Center. She says they’re still working on the details of their strategy and there’s still a lot to explore.

“We’re really trying to show that there are flaws with Endangered Species Act and other statutes,” she said.“Those flaws prevent us from really protecting the environment, protecting nature — and our fellow species from going extinct — and being able to stand up for what you believe in.” 

She says this issue — standing, or the ability to demonstrate that a law allows a party to bring suit and protect their rights — is one the center sees as an area where much work needs to be done.

“Standing is a huge issue in our judicial system,” Bender said.  

She says they’re aiming to unveil a new legal strategy to free the captive orca in September, before the 50th anniversary of her arrival at Miami Seaquarium. She was captured in Penn Cove on Aug. 8, 1970.  

Squil-le-hel-le (Raynell Morris), the other Lummi plaintiff Bender is working with, says she has been told by her ancestors that 2020 will be the year of her release.

“This is her year to return,”  Squil-le-hel-le said. “We’re not going to fail.”

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to