Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

It’s been 50 years since the orca known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tanaut, or Tokitae, swam in the ocean.

Two Lummi women of Washington and a legal rights group are joining forces to set the killer whale free before Tokitae’s mother dies. 

The Earth Law Center is a non-profit that advocates for establishing legal rights for ecosystems. It will be representing Lummi tribal members Tah-Mahs (Ellie Kinley) and Squil-le-he-le (Raynell Morris) in the effort.

In 1970, Tokitae was captured in the Salish Sea, protected waters off British Columbia and Washington state, and moved to the Miami Seaquarium, where she’s lived ever since. There, she’s called Lolita.

Morris is director of the Lummi Nation’s sovereignty, treaty and protection office. She said laws in other countries about holding orcas captive are changing, and someday they may change in the United States too. But she said Tokitae, who is an estimated age 56, urgently needs to be freed if she’s to see and spend time with her aging mother. 

“She doesn't have time to wait much longer for her mom to be able to receive her,” Morris said.

"The way we look at it is what's happening to our Salish Sea, what's happening to salmon, what's happening to qw’e lh’ol me chen (the orca) is happening to us in our community. Until we're made whole, there's always that loss, that emptiness. We feel it. She feels it," Morris said.

Lummi ties to orca run deep. Terri Gobin, Tulalip, is chairperson of the nearby Tulalip Tribes. At an event last year she said the word for orca in the Lummi language is qwe’lhol’mechen, which means “our relations under the water.”

“I'm thinking of what they've [orcas] done for us in our history over time. They've fed our people. They've drove the fish into the shore when our people were starving. They've thrown seals on our beaches when our people were hungry,” Gobin said. “They’re our brothers.”

The Miami Herald reports Tokitae is the last known survivor of dozens of whales captured in Puget Sound in 1970, and the only orca kept in solitary captivity. In 1980, Tokitae's fellow orca at the aquarium died after injuring himself on the tank walls. Animal rights activists have long argued the tank doesn’t meet federal standards for animal welfare.

Miami Seaquarium, which is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not respond in time to comment for this report. However, it has previously rejected assertions that the orca’s tank is too small or that she is unhappy. It has said changing Lolita's environment would be bad for her health.

Some scientists also have raised concerns about the effect of a new environment on the orca’s well-being, and about the ongoing costs of her veterinary care. They also say releasing the orca into the ocean or a seaside sanctuary isn’t the best option because of the stress of moving her, though advocates disagree.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 2015 issued a rule to include Tokitae in the endangered species listing for Southern Resident killer whales of Washington and British Columbia, which means the agency would have to approve actions to move or release her. The Lummi say Tokitae should be moved to a protected cove in her home waters for rehabilitation to live in the wild. 

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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