The Red Road totem pole, a Lummi Nation carving similar to the orca pole that was presented to Miami Seaquarium and refused, was transported from Washington state to Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

FL - Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, the last surviving captive Southern Resident orca, has a shot at returning home

Her Lummi name is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (pronounced SKA-li CHUKH-teNOT). It references the cove on Whidbey Island where she was captured as a calf in August 1970. She has other names, including Tokitae, taken from Chinook jargon, bestowed by Jesse White, the veterinarian who took charge of her that day when she was ripped away from her L Pod family.

She is best known by the stage name her owners at Miami Seaquarium gave her—for all the wrong reasons—when she was shipped across the country after the kidnapping: “Lolita.” But the Lummi name, bestowed in 2015, may wind up being the only one that matters.

Regardless of name, the most inescapable fact about the 53-year-old orca held in Key Biscayne in the nation’s tiniest whale tank is that she is the last survivor of the 50-plus killer whales from the Puget Sound’s now-endangered Southern Residents, who were taken captive by the marine park industry in the 1960s and ‘70s. That, and the conditions of her long confinement have always been something of a travesty, sparking a decades-long campaign to have her returned to her native waters.

For the first time in memory, the tide in that battle now appears to have turned, ever so slightly, in her favor, thanks in no small part to the Lummi people who see her cause not as that of an adopted animal but an extended family member. The Lummi consider her "qwe lhol mechen," which translates to “our relative under the water.”

“To my tribe, the Lhaq’ te’mish of the Salish Sea, they are people,” writes Rena Priest, a Lummi tribal member. “In our stories, they have societies and a culture similar to our own. They are the first harvesters of salmon, and, like Coast Salish tribes, they are matriarchal. Most remain by their mothers’ sides for their entire lives. The matriarchs are the keepers of the wisdom—the decision-makers, the leaders on whom the survival of their pods depend.”

There has been an active campaign to bring Sk’ali/Tokitae back home to the Pacific Northwest since the 1990s, but Miami Seaquarium’s owners have refused to even acknowledge it, let alone discuss the possibility. Now, however, its ownership is about to change into the hands of a company that does not deal in the care of killer whales, and its CEO has been talking congenially with the Lummi people about what to do with her.

The Dolphin Company—a firm based in Cancun, Mexico, that specializes in offering “swim with dolphins” experiences—announced this fall that it was preparing to purchase the lease for the Seaquarium, the home of the original “Flipper” with a large collection of bottlenose and other dolphins. When the activists who have been working to end Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s captivity contacted the company, they were pleasantly surprised to find officials were willing to talk. Lummi organizers told Daily Kos that there have been quiet discussions with company executives, which have been necessarily vague, but hopeful.

“We’ve thought the best, most effective way to bring her home is if Miami Seaquarium can say yes to working with us, rather than going through the protracted and expensive process of actually suing them,” said Julie Trimingham, secretary/treasurer of Sacred Sea, the Lummi-based nonprofit that is spearheading the campaign to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home. “We’re partnered with the Earth Law Center, who’s representing us.”

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