Native Americans: Return Lolita the Orca to the Pacific Northwest

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.

Ever since the captures, the rare orcas have continued to have trouble bouncing back in numbers. Because of this, NOAA Fisheries declared the Southern Resident killer whale endangered in 2005, though Tokitae did not obtain protection until this year because the listing verbiage only initially afforded protection her wild counterparts.

The rather quick deaths of nearly all the captured orcas have lead many animal rights activists to conclude that captivity is detrimental to the health and well-being of cetaceans, leading to Kirk's bill. However, the senator stated his bill was ultimately "killed" later in February because of staunch opposition presented by SeaWorld lobbyists.

Because of the manner in which Tokitae was captured, through the use of M80 bombs to separate her from her pod, the Lyackson First Nation believes she may have been taken against the laws of the area's native people.

"Unless Tokitae gave her permission to be taken through prayerful communication, then she must be returned as she was wrongfully taken and perhaps under our cultural laws, illegally taken," said Kathleen Johnnie, a member of the tribe. "It is our preference that any captive creature from our area be returned. [Tokitae should be] returned to her rightful place and to her family."

The concern for Tokitae among the natives has inspired many animal rights activists in Washington. Among them is Vicki Sedlacek, who is a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group aimed at protecting marine life. Sedlacek is appalled in Tokitae's "violent kidnapping" and hopes that she is returned to the Pacific Northwest.

"Every injustice inflicted on Tokitae for money our Salish brothers relate to," said Sedlacek. "Our Salish brothers are one with nature. Their respect and gratitude for nature's creatures is overwhelming and awe inspiring. They would have sacrificed their lives to keep Tokitae in [Puget] Sound. It's called love. I want justice for our Salish brothers, Toki and all destroyed by greed!"

Among the injustices Sedlacek is referring to that the native people have faced is the reduction of their cultural voice and for some tribes, the lack of official recognition by the federal government.

"The Duwamish people are the indigenous people of Seattle, and the settlers named their city after our Chief, SEalth," remarked Chairwoman Hansen. "We gave up 54,000 acres, now Seattle. We have no reservation, fishing rights, hunting, medical or education benefits and no recognition from the federal government today. It is sad the Duwamish people and leaders listened to some crooked agents in 1850's so that they could [take] our indigenous villages. That is history here in Seattle."

Though the Duwamish Tribe was granted federal recognition in 2001, it was taken away later that year under dubious circumstances. Currently, the tribe is appealing the decision that stripped their recognition away and are waiting for the U.S. government to correct this "injustice."

In regard to Tokitae, this month animal rights groups are also appealing a federal court's ruling. The lawsuit, which was filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Orca Network, seeks to force the United States Department of Agriculture to stop renewing the Miami Seaquarium's exhibitor's license.

A hearing on March 24 in downtown Miami is expected to be attended by hundreds of animal rights activists.

On the same day demonstrations are expected to break out in the Magic City in support of Tokitae's retirement, in Washington many animal rights activists and natives will be supporting Tokitae from afar.

Lynn Clark of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe concluding her thoughts on the orca's continued captivity by expressing her ongoing deep discontent.

"I am grieved and I am sorry for all your sorrow and loneliness and anger, Tokitae" concluded an emotional Clark. "I represent many people who love you and recognize you as a supremely magnificent being... and we want you to be happy."

Recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whale: 10 Years of Research and Conservation from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

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Jonathan Kendall
Contact: Jonathan Kendall