Lummi Nation prepares for Sk'aliCh'elh'tenaut's return home - Salish Current
August 25, 2023
Lummi Nation prepares for Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s return home
Richard Arlin Walker

Captured at around four years old, the Southern Resident orca whale Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut died earlier this month, still in captivity in a Florida amusement park, while efforts to return her home alive to the Salish Sea were underway. She died before that could happen. (Wikimedia image)

August 25, 2023
Lummi Nation prepares for Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s return home
Richard Arlin Walker

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Chairman Hillaire: ‘She needs to rest where her family and her ancestors come from.’

She spent 53 years in captivity, performing in a Florida amusement park under the stage name Lolita.

She will soon return home to her native Salish Sea as Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut (pronounced Ska-lee-CHUCK-ten-aught), to be laid to rest in the waters where her orca pod still resides much of the year.

Sacred Sea, a nonprofit that campaigned for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s freedom and return home, posted on social media Aug. 24 that the orca’s remains would be cremated by the University of Georgia after a necropsy there.

Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, who was also known as Tokitae, died Aug. 18 at Miami Seaquarium, possibly from renal failure according to the medical team that had been preparing her for her return home.

Information about the status of the necropsy was unavailable Aug. 24. The University of Georgia media relations office did not respond to a phone message that day seeking information.

“Lummi tribal members will travel to the University of Georgia to drum immediately following her cremation,” Sacred Sea reported. “Squil-le-he-le Raynell Morris will carry Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s ashes home on a plane. Lummi Nation cultural leaders will decide how to best put Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to rest.

“Lummi will fulfill the Xa xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation) and the late Chief Tsilixw Bill James’ directive to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home.”

Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut was captured in Penn Cove in 1970 in a highly publicized orca roundup that helped turn public opinion against orca captures for marine parks. 

Death unexpected

The Seaquarium’s new owners retired Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut in March and a medical team from the nonprofit Friends of Toki had been monitoring the orca’s health and preparing her for the return home. Philanthropist Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts NFL team, paid for the orca’s medical care and improvements to her tank, and had pledged to cover the costs of her return home. 

Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s death shocked all those who had long campaigned for her freedom and were preparing her for the 3,300-mile journey home. Her medical team had reported on July 31 that the 57-year-old orca had shown improvement from a bout of “abdominal/stomach discomfort” and was showing an increase in energy, appetite and engagement in daily activities.

Her death coincided with a gathering of the three southern resident orca pods — known as a superpod — in the San Juan Islands, where the resident orcas spend part of the year following salmon runs. Among the orcas was L-25, nicknamed Ocean Sun, who is believed to be Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s mother.

Ellie Kinley, a Lummi Nation citizen who campaigned for Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s release from captivity, was on a tribal fishing boat that day. She believes the orcas knew Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut had died, in the same way that humans often get a sense that something has happened to a loved one.

“The pods were with Ocean Sun, her mother, at the time, so I think they did know [Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut had died],” Kinley said. “They knew. Literally, [Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut] made it home, but not in the way we wanted her to make it home.”

Kinley choked up when she recalled just how close Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut was to returning home alive after 53 years of life in a 35-by-80-foot tank, far removed from family and home. 

“We were so damn close,” Kinley said Aug. 19. “We had permission from all the tribes, which was the last thing we needed before Washington state kicked in their team to do all the permits. We had conducted acoustic testing where her [acclimation] pen would be. 

“In July we did a ceremony with her. She was so energetic. She was breaching, throwing her whole body out of the water. I believe she was making herself stronger for the trip home.” 

Mourning yet celebrating

Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s death spurred reaction from near and far.

The Lummi Nation, which considers the orcas to be their relatives and which campaigned for several years for Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s release from captivity, pledged to see Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s remains returned home for ceremony and burial in her natal waters. 

“We have our protocols and we believe she needs to come home,” Lummi Nation Chairman Anthony Hillaire said. “She needs to rest where her family and her ancestors come from. Lummi Nation will be involved in supporting or helping or leading — whatever role we need to play — to get her home.”

Hillaire said the Lummi Nation is mourning but is also celebrating Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s life: how she brought people together to work for animal rights, her resilience amid dire circumstances, and the fact she didn’t forget who she was and where she came from. Sacred Sea reported that over the years Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut was recorded singing her family song — making the vocalizations unique to her pod that she learned before her capture in 1970.

Sacred Sea has planned a vigil at 2 p.m. Aug. 27 at Jackson’s Beach on Griffin Bay, San Juan Island.

Orca Network, a nonprofit orca advocacy group that campaigned for Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut’s release from captivity, hosted a candlelight vigil on Aug 19 in Langley, a Whidbey Island town located 25 miles from where the orca was captured 53 years ago. 

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) called for amusement parks around the world to free their captive orcas. There are an estimated 54 orcas in captivity worldwide — 29 of which were born in captivity — according to the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation

The Jane Goodall Institute called for an immediate ban on the capturing, keeping and breeding of whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity. 

The Samish Indian Nation, which is headquarted in Anacortes, has a special kinship with the southern resident orcas, often hosting naming ceremonies for orca calves in J pod. Among the names it’s bestowed: Sxwyeqólh (pronounced Swee-a-kosh), also known as J-59, meaning “reason for hope child”; T’ílem Ínges (pronounced “teelem eenges”), aka J-49, meaning “singing grandchild”; and Suttles, aka J-40, named for the late anthropologist Wayne Suttles. 

“Whales are our relatives beneath the waves, and we mourn Lolita / Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s passing,” Samish Nation Chairman Tom Wooten said. “She was the face of the obstacles that our orcas face from humans and while we hoped for her safe return home, we know she is now with her ancestors. We will continue to honor these orcas and champion their safety.”

— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker

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