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News / Northwest

Celebrating the life of Tokitae the orca on San Juan Island

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
Published: August 28, 2023, 7:27am

JACKSON BEACH PARK, San Juan Island — More than 300 people gathered Sunday at a park in the heart of the home waters of the southern resident orcas to pay tribute to the life of Tokitae.

She was the last of the southern resident orcas still alive in captivity until Aug. 18, when she died after spending 53 years in the same tank at the Miami Seaquarium. She was 57.

People set flowers, feathers, and burning sweetgrass on a totem pole carved to pay homage to the orca and the salmon they depend on.

In a haunting moment, a recording of what was said to be some of Tokitae’s last calls, recently made in her tank at the Seaquarium, were played over a loud speaker. Also played were the wild sounds of her family members, recorded as they swam the waters of the San Juan Islands, where they gathered the day she died.

The ceremony Sunday was intended to heal the hearts of so many who had long worked for her release, and well-wishers gathered to remember a whale whose death marked the end of the capture era’s long and tragic history in the Pacific Northwest. Between 1962 and 1976, about 270 orcas were captured in Northwest waters, some more than once. Of those whales, at least 12 died during captures and more than 50 were kept for display in aquariums around the world.

“We don’t want your sympathy,” said Tony Hillaire, chair of the Lummi Nation Business Council, to the crowd. “We want your empathy and your understanding.”

He and other Lummi dignitaries and elders traveled to the event not only to pay their respects to a whale they regard as a relative, but to ask people at the ceremony and beyond to remember the rest of her family, the J, K, and L pods of the southern residents that still struggle to survive.

There are only 73 left, imperiled by lack of adequate Chinook salmon, pollution and the noise and disturbance from boats, ships and ferries that makes it harder for them to hunt.

Tokitae was also known as Lolita. She was renamed Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi Nation for the village at Penn Cove where she was captured.

Her service Sunday also marked the dedication of the totem pole, installed permanently at the park as a gift, accepted by the Port of Friday Harbor.

The totem pole was carved by the House of Tears carvers at the Lummi Nation. The carvers and their supporters in May 2018 took the pole on a 7,000-mile journey from the Salish Sea to the Seaquarium and back, gathering prayers for her release. The pole subsequently was taken in May 2022 on a Spirit of the Waters journey to the Snake River and back, with gatherings along the way calling for restoration of the rivers — including dam removal on the Lower Snake to rebuild the salmon runs.

The late Lummi hereditary chief Bill James charged tribal elders and leaders with bringing Tokitae home as a sacred obligation. Nickolaus Lewis, a member of the tribal business council in 2017, led the passage of a council resolution to commit the nation to bringing Tokitae home.

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The Lummi Nation intends to bring her cremated remains back to her home waters. Ceremonial leaders will determine when and how to lay her to rest.

“Even though the circumstances aren’t what we wanted, nevertheless, she is still coming home,” Hillaire said. “We have been feeling it, with all of you, what happened, how did it happen. … We need to set that aside dear people. She deserves much more than that. She stands for much more than that.”

“Before we can truly heal as a people we have to acknowledge the true history of this place that we all call home,” he continued. “We have to be able to look at each other without disgrace, without disgust, without hurt and we have to build something much better for the next generation.”

Hillaire said the whale has brought so many people, from all walks of life, together to leave this place better than they found it, so that one day “we are going to see our salmon swimming. We are going to see the orcas swimming.”

Shannon Wheeler, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, called as a witness to the ceremony, asked the crowd to be of one heart and one mind, not only on Tokitae’s behalf, but for all animals, which in creation stories of the Nez Perce and Coast Salish people were put here first, then called forward by the Creator to take care of the humans.

“What do they see today? That is truly difficult because they gave themselves,” he said of the animals. “They continue to give what they can.”

He exhorted the crowd to, in their life, think of things he witnessed at the ceremony: Caring, sharing, understanding. Love, respect. Gathering. Responding. Acting.

“That,” Wheeler said,” is what will make the difference.”