Lummi Nation joins effort to bring Lolita home to Puget Sound

The Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, recently joined the 25-year-long struggle to bring the killer whale named Lolita back to her home waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured and removed 47 years ago.

The tribe’s involvement could change the nature of the ongoing battle entirely, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been leading the effort.

Trailer to a movie in production about the Lummi Nation's effort to bring Lolita home.

“I feel like we are at a whole new level of synergy and mutual support as we bring out our passions and abilities and professional skills,” Howie told me during a phone call from Miami, where he and Lummi leaders were visiting the 52-year-old whale.

Lolita, also known by her Native American name Tokitae, has lived all these years in a relatively small tank at Miami Seaquarium, performing twice each day for visitors to the marine park.

Members of the Lummi Nation contend that what happened to Tokitae was a kidnapping, and her aquatic prison violates native traditions that hold orcas in high esteem. An estimated 40-50 orcas were captured or killed during roundups during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, officials say, and Tokitae is the last living orca taken from Puget Sound.

“There is no way they should be getting away with putting these mammals in captivity for a show,” Steve Solomon, Lummi Natural Resources Commissioner, said in video segment for WPLG Channel-10 News in Miami. “Those are our brothers and sisters that were taken.”

Some have compared Lolita’s capture and removal with actions surrounding Indian boarding schools, where Native American children were taken after being forced to leave their families and give up their native culture.

Orca Network and other groups have proposed bringing Lolita back to Puget Sound and caring for her in a blocked-off cove on Orcas Island until she is ready to head out into open waters, possibly joining her own family. Orca experts believe that her mother is Ocean Sun, or L-25, and that Lolita would be able to recognize the voice of her mom and other L-pod whales.

The cost of the proposed sea pen on Orcas Island and moving the whale by airplane is estimated to cost about $3 million. Howie said he has no doubt that the money can be raised, especially with the help of the Lummi Tribe. Orcas Island is just across Rosario Strait from the Lummi Reservation west of Bellingham.

There is some talk that the Lummi Nation could use its treaty rights to force action if the Miami Seaquarium continues to resist. The Lummi are signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty, which guarantees the right of native people to hunt, fish and gather shellfish. Courts have ruled that tribes also have a vested right in protecting the habitat, but their moral argument to bring Lolita home might be stronger than their legal one.

Eric Eimstad, general manager of Miami Seaquarium, said the killer whales in Puget Sound are listed as endangered, and there are clear concerns about their lack of food, boat noise and chemical runoff.

“The focus should not be on a whale that is thriving in her environment in Miami,” Eimstad said in a statement.

“After more than 47 years, moving Lolita from her pool, which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins, to a sea pen in Puget Sound or anywhere else would be very stressful to her and potentially fatal,” he continued. “it would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move.”

Experts can be found on both sides of the issue, and nobody denies that Lolita’s tank is smaller than any captive orca habitat in the U.S.

While in Miami today, Howie was able to watch Lolita in action. He told me that he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses to escape notice, since he has been kicked out of Miami Seaquarium several times for being an “activist.”

“She is looking good,” Howie said of Lolita. “It was encouraging to see that she is not weak. In fact, she is strong. She made four breaches up and out of the water.”

That’s a good indication that this whale could not only survive a flight across the country, but she could thrive, he said. Any treatments she gets, such as antibiotics, would be continued as long as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Lummi contingent is planning a 30-day journey throughout the country to raise awareness about the plight of Lolita. They will take along a large totem pole of an orca, which is now being carved.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is hoping to be Florida’s next governor, has signed onto the campaign to bring Lolita home. He opened a press conference yesterday in which he was joined by numerous supporters, including Lummi leaders.

“The time is right to do the right thing and finally free this captured endangered whale,” Levine said. “It was my honor to host the Lummi Nation on this historic day, as we continue the fight to bring Tokitae home to her native waters.”

The first video on this page is a trailer for a movie in production. Producers Geoff Schaaf and Dennie Gordon of Los Angeles are following the Lummi involvement in the tale of Tokitae, which they say is emblematic of the larger story about saving the salmon and all the creatures that live in the Salish Sea.

The second and third videos make up an excellent two-part series by reporter Louis Aguirre of Miami’s WPLG-Channel 10 News. He digs into the controversy over Lolita, including a visit to Puget Sound and what could be Lolita’s temporary home near Orca Island.

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