Updated Aug. 29, 2023
The celebration of life for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (Ska-lee-CHUCK-ten-aught) on Aug. 27 at Jackson Beach on San Juan Island’s Griffin Bay was as much a call to action as a remembrance. The Southern Resident orca — also known as Tokitae and Lolita — died Aug. 18 at the Miami Seaquarium after 53 years in captivity, even as plans were being made to return her home to the Salish Sea.
Hundreds of people attended the celebration of life — and signed petitions for the removal of dams, particularly on the Snake River, and heard presentations about humans’ responsibility to protect salmon habitat.
Messages on signs and clothing called for all captive orcas to be freed. “They don’t belong to us,” one speaker said. “They belong here, where their ancestors are from.”
A dinner of cooked crab and salmon provided a reminder of what’s at stake for all who depend on salmon — Indigenous cultures, Native and non-Native peoples, orcas — if humankind fails to protect the environment that sustains it.
As sage burned in an abalone shell, Jay Julius of the Lummi Nation placed eagle feathers on an orca story pole installed here by the Port of Friday Harbor. Ceremonies began with a welcome by Jess Newley of Friends of the San Juans.
Julius explained the significance of the story pole. It was carved by Lummi master carver Jewell James and the House of Tears Carvers to depict the orca Tahlequah carrying her dead calf in 2018. The pole has come to symbolize the survival challenges faced by all orcas.
Lummi Nation Chairman Anthony Hillaire spoke of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s leadership in life and after her passing. In life, she brought people together to work for a common cause, and raised awareness of the plight of captive marine mammals and the challenges faced by their relatives in the wild.
“What a great leader she was to bring the whole world together and give us this opportunity to look at ourselves — as individuals, as governments, as groups and agencies and policy makers: ‘What can we do better?’ ‘How can we be better?’,” he said in an earlier interview. “We could not be at this place of change without her.”
Despite her passing, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut continues to bring people together, Hillaire said. That was obvious by the size of the crowd. This is not a time for expressions of sympathy, Hillaire said, but for a showing of empathy – for people to understand and share the feelings of others so they may work together in a good way.
Poets and artists shared their tributes.
Young dancers with the Lummi Nation Blackhawk Singers, wearing woven cedar headbands and dresses fringed with carved cedar paddles, and other singers and drummers performed traditional songs.
A woman, standing near the beach away from the crowd, faced the four directions and offered a private prayer. Someone made a memorial to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut on the beach, using driftwood to spell out “Tokitae” and create an image of an orca.
Rep. Deb Lekanoff (D-Bow), who is Tlingit/Aleut and one of three Indigenous members of the state legislature, spoke about the importance of protecting salmon for future generations. Salmon are indicators of a healthy environment, she said. Without a healthy environment the salmon suffer, the orca suffer, all people who depend on salmon for cultural and spiritual needs suffer.
Those in attendance included Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, a founder of the Tokitae Foundation, which became the Orca Conservancy; and his uncle, Howard Garrett, who heads the Orca Network. They and Balcomb-Bartok’s father, the late Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, were long-time advocates for the release of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut from captivity.
Al Scott Johnnie, former cultural director at the Lummi Nation, spoke on the history of the Lummi, or Lhaq’temish, people and their ties to the San Juan Islands, noting that San Juan Island is the Lhaq’temish people’s place of origin. There’s evidence the eye can see of the Indigenous presence here since time immemorial: the sweeping American Camp prairie that the ancestors maintained for the cultivation of camas and other food plants, the shoreline middens that show the abundant shellfish that fed the people.
There are signs that the eye cannot see: the histories and the stories and the cultural resources that Lummi Nation protects throughout its historical territory, including San Juan Island.
And there are the contemporary visible signs that help tell the story: the return of Coast Salish canoes here as part of the annual Intertribal Canoe Journey; the house posts, carved by Musqueam artist Susan Point, which stand at Jack Fairweather Park overlooking Friday Harbor Marina; the Reefnet Captain story pole, carved by Temosen Charles Elliott of Tsartlip First Nation, and two salmon story boards carved by Jewell James, installed at English Camp, site of a Lummi longhouse until the arrival of British Royal Marines in 1859; and now, the orca story pole at Jackson Beach.
One longtime advocate for Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s release was not able to attend the celebration of life. Raynell Morris, a Lummi environmental advocate and co-founder of Sacred Sea, a nonprofit that had worked to bring Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut home alive, was reportedly in Miami, waiting to receive Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s cremains and bring them home for ceremony and return to the orca’s natal waters.
— Reporting and photos by Richard Arlin Walker