Sacred duty: Bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home

Indian Country Today

Corrected: Research by leading NAGPRA experts agree there is a strong case to be made that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut qualifies for return under NAGPRA

Family ties aren't limited to human beings. For many the animal world is very much a part of the culture. And so it is with the Lummi Nation in Washington. 

The Lummi call Orca whales their relatives. In 1970 whales were captured in the Salish Sea and sold to aquariums across the country. Of those whales that were kidnapped, only one remains alive today and lives in an aquarium in Florida. Now two Lummi Elders are leading the fight to bring their relative home. 

Raynell Morris and Ellie Kinley sent a letter to the Miami Seaquarium on July 27, 2019, putting them on notice they were going to sue if the business didn't release the whale back to the Lummi people. 

Grant Wilson is the executive director and directing attorney for Earth Law Center. This firm is representing the two women. 

Here are a few comments from Morris:

"She is part of a larger clan that we've named Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and there are three pods within that clan, J, K and L pod. She is from the L pod. Her mother, Ocean Sun, is 92 and (is) still alive. 

"As a mother and as a grandmother, if anybody came and took my child, that loss, that hurt would be there forever. She was violently captured. There were four orcas that died in that capture. And there were seven that were taken. And from 1970 Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is the only survivor, which is tribute to her spirit."

"When we did ceremony, traditional ceremony in the San Juan's, where she's from, the ancestors told our respected religious leaders who told us that it was our sacred obligation to bring her home, to reunite her, heal her family, heals our family because she's part of us. So when you're given that guidance from ancestors, you do it, you do the work."

"Those of us that have been sheltered in place under COVID-19, we're going on what 90 days and we're already having issues and problems mentally, with our families, with our friends. Think about 50 years of isolation."

"What they did is they put a couple of dolphins to keep her company in her tank, which is the smallest tank in North America. She can't dive like she does...They swim up to 150 miles a day. She can't, she can't be herself. She has to perform for her food. 

"Well, they did receive our letter, they acknowledged that but nothing meaningful and tangible came out of it. So we started looking for a legal partner to follow through with the intent to sue letter."

Grant

We feel like that's been a fair amount of time to give them an opportunity to do the right thing. There's still opportunity for them to do the right thing but we do have legal representation. So we're following through with the next step for reunification."

"We're really proud of our sister tribes. We have passed an affiliated tribes and northwest Indians resolution that's made up of about 75 tribes in support of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut and the southern resident killer whales Sk’aliCh’elh. So it's, it's Suquamish, it's Swinomish, it's Tulalips, it's Yakamas, it's tribes that aren't even on the ocean but they are our partners, standing up with us and the value of protecting our relations and our family. And so the resolution shows regional support to bring her home."

"Ellie Kinley, my tribal sister, and I have been able to go and spend time with her. We prayed with her. We carried a message from her mother that they'll be reunited soon. We apologized to her, asked for her forgiveness, that it's taken so long, but to keep the fight, keep her spirit. It will be 2020, we're told she'll be home."

From Wilson: "Earth law is a natural evolution of environmental law. Basically. It's all about a new DNA of our legal system based on respect for nature. And a lot of what we do is a growing amount of partnering with Indigenous communities and advancing their own rights, customs and belief systems through Western law and that's why we were thrilled here to provide legal representation in the quest to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to her home."

"When we came on to this legal representation, there had already been a large amount of research by leading NAGPRA experts, basically agreeing that there's a very strong case to be made that Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut qualifies for return under NAGPRA."

"Just to give a little background, under NAGPRA it requires the return of some Native American cultural items to the people that they came from. And Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is sacred to the Lummi and has vast cultural importance to them. And while it's a little bit nontraditional to apply NAGPRA to southern resident Orca it falls within the letter of the law pretty clearly."

"The NAGPRA experts that we've spoken to across the country think we have a high likelihood of success here."

"In this case, we have on our side scientists, lawyers, biologists, and experts from all walks of life who are all rallying behind the safe return of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to her home. I think with that combined intelligence and research and science if there's a good chance to reintroduce her, and I think there is, that we'll be successful and I'm hopeful that that's the outcome of this case."petition_dashboard

Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.

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This version has been updated to correct the spelling of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. 

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