Tokitae’s ashes will be transported back to the Lummi Nation, despite wishes from tribal leaders that the 57-year-old Southern Resident orca’s body would be returned intact.
The orca died in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium Friday, Aug. 18, and in the week since, members of the Lummi Nation have fought to fulfill their Xa xalh Xechnging — their “sacred obligation” — to bring her home.
After Tokitae’s remains are necropsied and cremated at the University of Georgia, members of the tribe will travel to UGA’s campus to drum for her, according to an update from the Sacred Lands Conservancy, a nonprofit that fought to release Tokitae from the Seaquarium.
Though the tribe fought for her remains to be returned intact, the necropsy process at UGA meant the orca’s body was cut into pieces Friday night, with plans to make castings of larger bones for skeletal displays, according to The Seattle Times. Veterinarians at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine, responsible for conducting the necropsy, directed questions about the cremation process to the Miami Seaquarium.
Tokitae’s ashes will fly with Lummi elder and longtime Tokitae advocate Raynell Morris to the Lummi Nation, where cultural leaders will decide how to put her to rest, Sacred Lands said Thursday morning, Aug. 24. At this point, there’s no timeline for the transport of Tokitae’s ashes.
Morris, who sits on the board of several nonprofits involved in the fight for Tokitae including Friends of Toki, has spent years pushing for the orca’s return after a directive from the tribe’s late Chief Tsilixw Bill James.
“When they stole her in 1970, it broke a strand in the web of life,” Morris told Cascadia Daily News at a prayer ceremony for Tokitae in April. “When it was broken, the only way to heal her family and to heal our people is to bring her home and start the healing, mend that broken strand.”
Tokitae performed under the name Lolita at the Seaquarium, but the tribe called her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. The tribe considers the Southern Residents their “relatives that live under the waves.” Morris visited Tokitae dozens of times in recent years, playing the drums for the captive whale.
The famed Southern Resident orca spent 53 of her estimated 57 years in captivity in an 80-by-35-foot tank at the Seaquarium. Advocates say she was just “months away” from being released into a net pen somewhere in the Salish Sea, close enough to the remaining 74 wild Southern Resident orcas, but still within reach of humans to help her hunt for salmon. Regulatory agencies, though, said that net pen proposal was likely another two years from fruition.
Members of the tribe fought to release Tokitae and other captive orcas in the decades since the infamous Aug. 8, 1970 Penn Cove roundup. That day, more than 80 orcas were herded into nets in the cove off Whidbey Island. Of those captured, five of them drowned and another seven were sold into captivity. Until her death, though, Tokitae was the oldest surviving Southern Resident in captivity and the second-oldest orca in captivity.
“We’re bringing her home,” said Frederick Lane, a Lummi Nation elder. “I called Raynell and we cried together on Friday, and I told her I’m going to do everything that I can to bring her home.”
After the news of the orca’s death, Morris flew straight to Miami and told Lane they plan to bring her home for a funeral.
Lane knew a customary Lummi funeral wasn’t possible, though — in Lummi tradition, he said, a proper funeral happens four days after death.
“At Lummi, it’s the fourth day,” he said. “If I died, they’d have my funeral on the fourth day. But due to her circumstances, we’re just preparing.”
Lane said several other Coast Salish tribes and groups have already reached out with condolences and support, and several will be in attendance when her funeral occurs.