To the Lummi people, the orca whales of the Salish Sea don’t just share their ecosystem, they also share their ancestry. Fifty years after an entire generation of these whales was brutally captured and sent around the world to aquariums and zoos, only one survives—and the Lummi are on a mission to bring her home.
They surge through the water, drawing deep breaths each time they break the surface. Orca whales: six ton marine mammals who may be capable of more complex and subtle emotional intelligence that humans, due to the fact that the portions of their brains that process emotion, including empathy, are far larger than our own.
In the marine waters of the Northwest, these orca whales prey exclusively on fish—and not just any fish: salmon, and preferentially Chinook, the biggest salmon in the Pacific. In this, these orcas (sometimes called Southern Residents) have plenty in common with some of the other longtime native residents of this place: the Lummi Nation.
In the Lummi language, the local orcas are called Qwe ‘lhol mechen: our relatives who live under the sea. And these communities, human and orca, have been intertwined for generations uncounted, their families sharing fishing sites passed on from their ancestors since time out of mind.
When the Lummi first came to this Douglas fir and cedar cloaked land and its glacially carved bays and inlets, the Southern Residents were here to greet them. These whales are regarded as relations by the Lummi people, a family tie inextricably woven into Lummi songs, stories, and art.
Like the Lummi, the orcas live in lifelong family groups, sharing food, their own dialect, ceremonies, and culture.
So, it is perhaps inevitable that the Lummi people have taken up the cause of saving the lives of their companions in their home waters, as the Southern Residents, one of the most endangered animal groups in the world, risk extinction. There are only 73 left.
The Southern Residents are plagued by the noise of ships and vessel disturbance, which hinders their ability to hunt. Additionally, their food has become scarcer, as their preferred Chinook salmon are at a fraction of their historic abundance in the rivers of the Northwest.
When they can’t get enough to eat, the whales burn their own fat. That releases toxins from the environment stored in their blubber: a third factor in the three main intertwined threats to their survival. Their population is nearly as low today as after a generation of Southern Residents was netted and shipped around the world to aquariums and zoos.
By 1976, some 270 orcas were captured—many multiple times—in the Salish Sea, the trans boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered Southern Residents, were kept for captive display.
Captors preferred the youngest animals: the cheapest to ship and the easiest to train for the entertainment of bleachers full of paying marine park customers.
Today, of the Southern Residents kidnapped from their families, all are dead but one. Lolita, as her captors at the Miami Seaquarium call her.
“Her slave name,” says Jewell Praying Wolf James, a carver at the House of Tears Carvers at the Lummi Nation. He and a team of artists created a totem pole honoring Lolita in 2018 and trailered it all the way across the country to Miami, staging a protest outside the Seaquarium in which they called for her release. The theme park’s owners have refused to even discuss with the Lummi the tribe’s plan for her liberation and retirement from nearly 50 years of twice-daily performances.
The Lummi want to bring her back home and, given her age and long captivity, retire her to a netted-off cove in her home waters, feeding her live Chinook salmon and letting her once more hear the voices of her family, still here in her home waters. Perhaps, in time, she would recover enough to even once more go free.
The Lummi returned to the Seaquarium this May. They again presented the totem pole and played her family’s calls on a loudspeaker from the sidewalk across from her concrete tank—the only place they are allowed to demonstrate.
They also brought her a new name: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. Never again is she to be called Lolita, a name given to her, the story goes, by a long-ago publicist to evoke a lurid comparison with the famous child lusted after in the eponymous novel, as the four year old orca was moved into a tank with an older male orca whale named Hugo.
The Lummi will only call her by her new name, presented in ceremony to her and shouted over the concrete wall of her tank. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut: the Lummi language name for the native village that was at the west end of Penn Cove, WA where she was captured.
Their fight to free her is about so much more than one whale.
For the Lummi, or Lhaq’temish, the People of the Ocean, this fight is about defending a deep sense of home and the sovereign right to define, whether as an orca or a Lummi, both the place and its culture. To be within the culture and to define its latitude, its scope of movement and thought.
Latitude is not only a line drawn on a map, it is the cradle of culture, both human and orca, defined by experiences lived richly in place. Neither the people nor the animals of this area are complete in isolation, their lived experiences have always unfolded within the sight and sound and presence of the other. Separation either by capture or extinction is unthinkable, a primal violation that goes beyond mere absence.
“There was a time not very long ago that we shared the Salish Sea with the whales, the salmon, and the Salish Sea was rich with the noise of the natural world. And we were a part of that. We are the indigenous people of this land, and they know our songs,” said Jay Julius, chairman of the Lummi Nation and a lifelong fisherman, like his relations before him. “They are older than us. They were here before us. Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut represents the true history of what our people have gone through.”
The Lummi have been fighting for their own survival since the apocalypse of disease and displacement that came with European expansion into their homeland and waters. The Lummi people continue to defend their ancestral rights and way of life, or schelangen.
Yet more than 150 years of logging, overfishing, mining, farming, polluting, diking, draining, filling, and paving has compromised and even destroyed the natural abundance of much of the region—and threatened the Lummi’s fundamental ancestral relationship with what has always been their place.
The tribe’s cultural relationship with the orca also has been disrupted, even hijacked, by the commodification of the orca, which is precisely what led to Lolita’s nearly 50-year confinement far from her family and home waters, where she has been forced to do tricks for tourists twice a day for food.
“She was pimped out,” Julius said of Lolita. He sees a connection with the despoliation for profit of her home waters, too. “Puget Sound has been pimped out.”
Kurt Russo, a strategist with the Lummi Nation Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, remembers well his visit to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium last year. She has no shade from the searing Miami sun and no companionship of her own kind. Her small, chlorinated tank defines her existence. Some of her only stimulation includes carrying her captors around on her belly for the cheering crowds. “It’s humiliating,” Russo said of that stunt and others, such as being made to leap up on a concrete island in her tank, snort through her blowhole, and wave to the crowd with her massive pectoral fins. “While it was heartening to see her, it was disheartening all at the same time,” Russo said.
Lolita, who is about 20 feet long and weighs about 7,500 pounds, is held captive today in the smallest tank used for an orca anywhere in North America. The tank is so small that Lolita cannot swim in a straight line further than 60 feet or dive deeper than 20. She daily endures an extreme violation of her natural behavior. In the wild, orcas are superheroes of the sea, traveling more than 75 miles a day, with bursts of speed up to 30 miles per hour. They are capable of diving more than 3,000 feet.
In their seasonal rounds, the Southern Residents travel a vast territory, hunting salmon all along the Pacific Coast from central California to southeast Alaska, and throughout the Salish Sea. Theirs is a mighty dynasty, co-evolved with the salmon on which they prey.
To see them in the wild is to understand their primal dominance. They are powerful, confident, athletic, and playful. Their giant dorsal fins, nearly five feet high, emerge foot by foot from the water as the orcas surface with an explosive blow. It’s a deep, lung-purging exhalation any human that has ever surfaced after a dive recognizes—a sound that triggers an intuitive kinship. These are not fish; they are mammals, like us.
Constantly in conversation with one another, their calls can sometimes be heard at the surface. They play, tail slap, and breach, seemingly just for fun, hurling their bodies through air and landing with a spectacular splash. Sculling on their backs underwater, their white bellies glow through the green water. Orcas have no predators in the wild. They have reigned supreme in every ocean of the world as a species for an estimated 6 million years.
Their sophisticated culture is part of their success as a species. The Southern Resident families stick together for life, sharing a food source, language, culture, and territory. When members of an extended family meet after long separation, their greeting ceremony, unique in nature, is a joyful reunion. The whales line up, facing one another, then erupt in conversation and play.
Always on the move through their territory, following the seasonal migration of salmon, they have no nest or den. Their home is the constant company of one another.
Had she not been kidnapped at about age four, by now, Lolita would be taking on the role of a matriarch in her family, leading her clan to the best locations for finding fish taught to her by her mother and grandmother and sharing the catch to help sustain the next generation.
Her capture was brutal.
Terry Newby, on hand to help in Penn Cove on that day in August 1970, remembers it well. Working in skiffs, the captors herded the whales with firecrackers, then encircled them with nets, separating the young from their parents.
Newby said he will never forget the whales’ cries or the desperation of the parents as their young were taken away, lifted by cranes and slings to waiting trucks. Five whales died in capture: four calves and an adult.
It was his job to keep Lolita calm on the flatbed truck as she was taken to Seattle for shipment to the Seaquarium. “I was touching her, rubbing her, she was just a beautiful animal and very scared of course,” Newby said.
“She would follow you with her eye. I will never forget that.”
Intensely social in the wild and never out of earshot and physical proximity of their families, for her nearly 50 years in captivity, Lolita has not been in contact with her living relatives in Puget Sound among the Southern Residents. Since the death of her tank mate Hugo in 1980, she has been without the companionship of her own kind, living instead with two Pacific white sided dolphins that bite and harass her.
In depositions recently unsealed by a federal court, four separate orca experts on site visits in 2013, 2015, and 2016 found Lolita’s tank and living situation unfit for an animal of her size, intelligence, and need for movement and socialization. She was catatonic, two observers reported. When not performing, she remained facing the walls of her tank, fixated on the flow coming from a single water pipe. Each observer independently expressed shock at the small size of her tank, as well as her severe isolation and sensory deprivation.
For the Lummi people, the restriction of cultural and emotional range, and even physical confinement, is all too familiar.
Beginning in the 1860s, in the U.S. and Canada, the children of the Lummi and other native people were taken from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools. Not true schools at all, these were re-education camps meant to “kill the Indian to save the man,” as the saying went at the time. Removed to places far from their families, the children’s hair was cut, their clothes were burned, and their names were changed. They were forbidden to speak their native language and punished if they did. Many were abused physically and sexually. Many died.
“We understand what happened to her,” Bill James, hereditary chief of the Lummi Nation says of Lolita. “We can relate to her captivity because of the things that happened to our people. Our young people were taken away from us. Our families’ cultural values were taken away from us, just as hers were taken away. That’s how I relate to her, with her captivity and the government schools taking away our children and the trauma, taking away our history, our language, our culture, the breaking up of our families.”
“I can feel her heart. I can feel her lonesomeness. And how it is to be taken away from home and family. Because I have heard all the stories of our ancestors of being taken away, the boarding schools. And I know what happened to them, and the hurt they carry, and the historical trauma that has hurt our people today with the loss of our tongue and the loss of our culture. We are trying hard to bring it back.”
“She still sings her family’s songs. One of the reasons she is still alive is that she still knows who she is.”
Just like the Lummi people, whose identity has also never been extinguished. Even when they ceded most of their ancestral lands to the government of the United States in an act of survival, their ancestors reserved their fishing rights in their home waters, in order to preserve their way of life and provide for their people. A core of the Lummi’s old territory remains in their possession, too, on the Lummi reservation along the waters of the Quel ‘lhol mechen.
On a recent morning, Bill James and Freddie Lane, a Lummi tribal councilman bounced in a pickup truck over a sandspit that emerges on the first daytime low tide each spring. It was time to go to Portage Island, an old home ground of the Lummi people that is uninhabited today, but is still used for ceremony—and clamming.
Lane set to work digging a pit in the sand and gathering beach stones while James collected driftwood for a fire. As the flames built and sweet smoke drifted, more tribal members arrived and headed to the tide flats to dig clams. There was laughter, storytelling, and soon, feasting. Shucked, cleaned, and roasted by the fire on hand-cut ironwood sticks, the clams were crunchy and smoky on the outside, sweet, creamy, and succulent within.
Just an appetizer, there was much more to come. Lane heaped rocks on a second fire over the sand pit, piling them high and baking them until the rocks were suffused with an orange glow and so hot that they started to split. Only then did Lane pour on buckets of clams and heap verdant seaweed, fresh, wet, and briny, on top. “My secret recipe,” Lane said, as plumes of steam carried the fragrance of clams on the sea wind.
Soon, elders and children were sharing in the feast. Seeing a young tribal member take a particular interest in the preparation, James gifted him his roasting sticks—all but one, carved with the name of his mother, who had passed it on to him.
How long had these sounds, scents, tastes, skills, and stories persisted, in just this way, in just this place? The soft talk of the gulls, the heron stalking the shallows, the chitter of eagles, the gossiping clams, squirting in the clean, dark grey sand. The sounds of making fire, piling beach rocks. How long?
After the clam bake, put on to honor what would have been his late mother’s 95th birthday, James sat by a woodstove in his home on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, WA, a wood fire burning and rain falling softly, glazing the picture window that looked out to the water.
Like his late mother Fran James before him, James is a master weaver of wool and cedar. Their baskets and blankets are in museums all over the world. Bill has carried on his mother’s work, teaching traditional weaving, in addition to his tribe’s native language and genealogy. He said he is encouraged by the cultural revival underway in Coast Salish territory, where tribes, irrespective of the US-Canada border, are united in a shared cultural continuum and history that has persisted across thousands of miles and years.
But the natural world and, in particular, the battle for survival by the Southern Resident orcas saddens him. It is a more than abstract grief; it is a personal anguish and a cultural assault. The Lummi’s relationship with animals and the forces of nature that defines and informs their culture is imperiled. Orca. Salmon. The clean water, and even the very rhythm of the seasons is under threat as the same non-native expansion that disrupted and displaced their ancestors today alters the land, the waters, and even the climate.
The Lummi people’s ancestral values have been violated, and in the captivity of Lolita, it continues.
Others have tried for decades to free Lolita. But the Miami Seaquarium has never faced a challenge quite like this one. So far, the Seaquarium has maintained in its public statements that Lolita is better off at the theme park than in her home waters, where her endangered relatives battle extinction.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would have to approve Lolita’s release, considering both her safety and that of animals in the wild. Despite decades-long legal battles—and another proceeding still pending—Lolita is spending her 49th year in captivity.
In July, two Lummi tribe members filed a notice of intent to sue the Seaquarium and its affiliates within 90 days if Lolita is not returned to her home waters. The tribe says they will never forsake her, never give up.
“We will use the truth as a weapon,” Julius said. “We are exposing the true history of where we are today, who is willing to stand up for the land, the Salish Sea. That is what this is about.
Lolita, he said, is the epitome of a larger and longer history of exploitation of the natural world, and bringing her home would be a first step in the more profound reset needed if the Lummi and orca families are ever again to live in mutual abundance, sharing song and ceremony and salmon, as they did for thousands of years.
There are stirrings toward wholeness. The world’s largest ever dam removal on the Elwha River, completed in 2014, has helped bring back thousands of Chinook salmon to the waters of Washington’s wild Olympic Peninsula. The Southern Residents noticed, hunting last summer at the mouth of the Elwha, where returning salmon also are feeding the birds, bears, humming clouds of insects, and the land.
Mother orca Tahlequah stunned the world in July 2018 by carrying her dead calf, who had lived for only 30 minutes, through the Salish Sea for 17 days and 1,000 miles. The Lummi, and many others around the world, saw in her an extraordinary witness to loss, a message, and a mandate. While not new, the problems of salmon and orca have never been so much in the public discussion.
“It is time for us to demand change and more than that, create change,” Julius said.
“It’s about getting back on the right path and correcting where we are going and not being so selfish. It is not just about us and jobs and money. There are other things, things that connect all of us.”
Lolita is a symbol and a messenger for the Lummi, who are obeying not only their sacred obligation to preserve their way of life, but who are also leading a larger regional fight by people everywhere who yearn for salmon and orcas in these waters, as the embodiment of the abundance and enchantment of this place. “Let the orcas bring us home,” Russo said.
Healing and putting right the original relationship between people and the lands and waters of the Salish Sea today must be done on behalf of everyone’s children, orca and human, native and non-native alike, Julius said. Or a cement tank future awaits not only Lolita, but us all.
“It doesn’t end in Miami,” Julius said. “It is never that easy. This will continue.”