LUMMI NATION, Wash. – During a ceremony, members of the Lummi tribe performed a painful song about a mother looking for her long lost baby.
It is a sad reminder of when missionaries forcefully separated their ancestral families in order to Christianize their children. But on a recent night in Washington, the song took on a whole new meaning.
Lummi council member Nickolaus Lewis said that, in essence, it's the same thing hunters and aquarium owners did to Lolita. They chased her and split her family apart with dynamite, killing her siblings, Lewis said. It happened in 1970, but it still hurts Lewis and other members of the Lummi tribe.
"It's a sad part of history," Lummi council member Freddy Lane said. "You know, when they came and took her, they didn't even ask permission."
For thousands of years, these native people have called the Washington state's coastal lands and islands of the Salish Sea home. The area was also once the home of a 52-year-old-killer whale named Tokitae. She was taken from her family by whale hunters along with six other baby orcas.
Tokitae is the only survivor, and for 47 years she has lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. The 21-foot orca performs two shows a day, seven days a week, and is known by her stage name Lolita.
The Lummis have joined forces with animal rights groups, marine scientists and animal lovers. For more than 25 years, they have lobbied passionately for Lolita's return to the Salish Sea.
She has lived in the same tank for almost five decades. It is the smallest whale tank in the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General said it "may not meet the minimum size requirements under the federal Animal Welfare Act."
Although the Seaquarium maintains the tank has been certified by the USDA and does meet "the required habitat space for orcas," the Lummis claim she doesn't belong there.
"There's no way they should be getting away with putting these mammals in captivity for a show," Lummi natural resource commissioner Steve Solomon said. "Those are our brothers and sisters that were taken."
This summer, the Lummi Tribal Council unanimously approved a motion to secure the return of Tokitae despite the Seaquarium's claims that Lolita is loved, well cared for and is thriving right where she is.
According to the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, the treaty from 1855 secures the right to fish in usual custom areas, Lummi Tribal Council chairman Jay Julius said. The Lummi tribe's treaty rights have held up in court many times and brought them victories against the most formidable foes.
The Lummis won one of their biggest battles at Cherry Point when they successfully blocked shipping giant SSA Marine from building the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a $665 million project that would have turned the pristine ancestral waters, where the orcas traveled through into what would have been the largest coal export terminal in the country.
"We're fighters," Lane said. "We're defenders of the earth."
The Lummis have written to the Miami Seaquarium three times requesting a meeting, but the Seaquarium hasn't granted the request. Although management declined to be interviewed for this story, the Seaquarium released a statement.
"Miami Seaquarium has the utmost respect for the Lummi nation," the statement said. "However, members of the Lummi Business Council are not marine mammal experts and are misguided when they offer a proposal that is not in the best interest of Lolita."
The Lummis may not be marine biologists, but "orca whisperer" Ken Balcom is.
"I love these animals," Balcom said. "I relate to them and I've studied them for 40 years."
With the help of the Orca Network, Balcom has come up with what he believes is the perfect plan to retire Lolita and bring her home to a sea pen off Orcas Island, where she could eventually be reunited with her family near an ancient Lummi village.
For the tribe, this has become its sacred mission.
"She needs to come home," Lane said. "It's not a matter of if, it's when."