UPDATE: 10:45 p.m.: This story and its headline have been updated to clarify that the lawsuit will be filed by two individual members of the Lummi Nation, not the tribal goverment.
Native American tribes and first nations from around the region are celebrating their annual canoe journey this weekend. Along with songs, stories and dancing, their five-day gathering at the Lummi Nation, near Bellingham, will include the announcement of a lawsuit from two members of the Lummi Nation to ‘repatriate’ a captive orca.
The Lummi consider the Southern Resident killer whales their relatives. And they consider the capture of dozens of them at Penn Cove in 1970 a violation. Seven young whales were sold to amusement parks. Only one has survived to this day and is still performing at Miami Sequarium. Members of Lummi Nation are suing for her release.
“We’re one and the same – they’re our relatives under the sea. And she belongs with them,” said Ellie Kinley, one of the two plaintiffs in the case.
A WHALE WITH THREE NAMES
Her stage name is Lolita, others call her Tokitae. And the Lummi call her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, after the ancestral village near Penn Cove where she was captured. (The Lummi name is pronounced roughly, ‘SKAH-lee CHUCK-ten-NUT.’)
The suit will be filed under a 1990 federal law called NAGPRA that’s been used to date for repatriation of archeological artifacts, including human remains.
Critics say it’s cruel to confine large mammals in cement tanks. The Lummi want to bring her home to a protected cove, where she might eventually be reunited with her relatives — including 91-year-old L-25, Ocean Sun, who is believed to be her mother.
“I mean, her own mother is still alive. You know? Her own mother is probably still missing her,” said Kinley, adding that the unprecedented display of grief a year ago by the orca known as Tahlequah – who carried her deceased calf on her head for 17 days – inspired her to get involved in the lawsuit.
“It’s time to step up,” she said. And she sees the lawsuit and hopeful release of Lolita as just one of many steps that must be taken to help restore the health of the Southern Resident orcas and the Salish Sea.
The tribe says they were never consulted about the capture. And Miami Seaquarium has repeatedly refused requests for meetings and calls for the release.
The Seaquarium did not respond to calls for comment, but in past statements has said it "will not jeopardize (Lolita's) health by considering any move from her home" in Miami.