Lolita, the orca at the Miami Seaquarium, has been in captivity for decades. Now, in addition to the animal rights groups that have long been calling for her release, another groups of people are demanding her retirement.
Several Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, where Lolita was born, are voicing their concern on the orca's ongoing captivity. The natives, whose people have lived alongside orcas for thousands of years, hope that Lolita is soon returned to Puget Sound. They believe holding orcas captive for entertainment purposes is an affront to their cultural beliefs.
Among the Squamish Lil'Wat people, a tribe that lives on Vancouver Island, the orcas are known as the "guardians of the sea," and are associated with the idea of unity because of the way they travel together in tight-knit families.
According to the tribe's cultural centre webpage, orcas are called "sea wolves" because they travel in pods and hunt in packs.
"The Killer Whale is the most admired of all the whales and is used as a powerful crest by many [indigenous] clans. Held in great awe for its power and size, it was believed a Killer Whale could capture a canoe and take it underwater to transform the occupants into Whales. Thus a Whale near the shore was a human transformed and trying to communicate with his family."
Another ancient belief among some of the region's native tribes is that when a chief dies, his soul may be reincarnated as an orca. Indeed as recently as 2001, Chief Ambrose Maquinna of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht people told his successor that he would return to them as a kawawin (killer whale) when he died.
Three days after the chief's death, a lone orca who had become separated from his pod appeared near one of the tribe's communities. The native people saw the kawawin's arrival as the fulfilled promise of the deceased chief.
Lynn Clark, a member of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Washington State, is grieved about Lolita's captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. Clark, along with other natives, call Lolita by her original name, Tokitae (which means "beautiful day" in Coast Salish).
"Tokitae's [Captivity] is a foreign and a prison-like concept," she said. "It's cruel to take [orcas] from their lifestyle and their pods and then force them to live outside of their natural habitat, tradition, and environment. It is disrespectful."
Though the tribe members do not believe they possess Tokitae as a person might own a car, Clark says natives see her as family. So they hope she is returned to the Pacific Northwest, and placed in an orca sanctuary near Puget Sound.
Other natives, such as the Suquamish people, who live along Puget Sound near Seattle, also view the orcas as spiritual family members. They believe that all creatures were human until their deity transformed some people into the various animals that are seen today.
Leonard Forsman, the chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, says his people consider the orcas as integral parts of their culture.
"[Orcas] are revered and respected as an important part of our world, both spiritually and culturally," Forsmen told New Times. "They're ancient beings and have a strong connection with each other. They are social and when one of them is separated from the pod, I'm sure it hurts. We believe everything is interconnected and the orcas are an important part of the circle of life."
Among the Duwamish people, the neighboring tribe to the Suquamish, orcas are also regarded and sacred beings.
Cecile Hansen, the chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe and the great-great-grand niece of Chief Seattle told New Times seeing the orcas in Puget Sound is a "beautiful spectacle" to behold.
In early February the Puyallup Tribe, another Coast Salish group, expressed its support of keeping orcas out of tanks by supporing a proposed bill sponsored by Washington Senator Kevin Ranker that would make the captivity of orcas for entertainment purposes illegal in the Evergreen State.
Currently, there are fewer than 80 Southern Resident killer whales (the orcas native to Washington) left in the world, down from an estimated high of 200 in the late 1800s. During the 60s and 70s, about 47 calves were captured by to be placed in captivity for entertainment purposes. As a result of the roundups, the Southern Residents (already low) population number declined due to the loss of nearly an entire generation of young.
All of the captured orca calves from that time have died off one by one over the years. Tokitae is last survivor.