By Emi Okikawa, Digital Communications Fellow
From The Sierra Club, Washington State Chapter Journal – “The Crest” Volume 38, Issue 1
The Story of Tokitae
Three thousand miles away from Seattle,
a lone Southern Resident orca swims in a tank. To visitors at Miami Seaquarium
her name is “Lolita,” but to the Lummi Nation she is Tokitae. It’s a Chinook
name, given to her the day she was kidnapped from our waters.
At 51 years old, Tokitae has spent the majority of her life–47 years– in
captivity, confined to a tiny swimming pool with no other orca for company. She
is the age of an elder matriarch and should be the mother of her own family. But
instead, she is all alone.
Tokitae was taken from her family in the infamous Penn Cove capture of 1970.
In the brutal attack, a group of men used boats, planes, and explosives to
corral frightened and panicked orca families into nets to separate them, using
long sticks to push mothers away from their calves. In the end, the remaining
orca could only watch as their stolen babies and relatives were helicoptered
away to be distributed to various marine parks around the country. According to
the Lummi, the orca have since avoided Penn Cove because it’s still the site of
such painful memories.
Of the original Penn Cove orca that were captured, only one remains:
Tokitae. And despite this incredible hardship, Tokitae remains strong and
healthy. This, to the Lummi is a sign of her resilience, one that they see
reflected in themselves.
According to Kurt Russo, The Lummi Nation’s political strategist, this is
deeply personal to the Lummi and ties into their very identity. “According to
Lummi traditional knowledge, the Blackfish (qwe lhol mechen) is a relative,”
Russo said. “Not in the evolutionary sense, but in the sense of direct
family–[it] means ‘the people that live under the water.’ It is a very
different world-view, but one with a long history, and a history that guides
their beliefs today.”
The Lummi have been fighting to bring Tokitae home for over ten years.
The Totem Journey
In 2018, the Lummi planned a cross-country totem journey from Seattle
to Miami to raise awareness for the
plight of Tokitae, and to call for her immediate release from the Seaquarium.
The Tokitae Totem Pole was carved by the House Of Tears Carvers (Jewell James
and his brother Doug James) specifically for this journey.
Now, in 2019, they’re making the trip back. “The upcoming 2019 Totem Pole
Journey is dedicated not only to the return of Tokitae, but also to the Lummi
tribe’s work to help bring healing to the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW)
population,” said Russo. “The totem pole will be present at each of these
events where presenters and performers will bring attention to the importance
of returning Tokitae to her SRKW family, the urgent care we need to provide to
the SRKW to restore them to vigor, and what we all can do to help restore and
protect the Salish Sea and our other sacred lands and waters.”
A Daunting Challenge
But recovering the Southern Resident orca population is a daunting
challenge. The era of Tokitae’s capture has led to catastrophic impacts that
reverberate throughout the Salish Sea
to this day.
The NRDC estimates that “at least 45 Southern Resident killer whales were
captured and delivered to marine parks between 1965 and 1973.” This decimated
their population to the point that now, Southern Resident orcas are one of the
most endangered marine mammals in the world. Currently, they are at a 30-year
low with only 74 individuals remaining. Their situation is extremely
precarious; they are swimming on the brink of extinction. From noise to
pollution, the southern residents face pervasive and extensive challenges in
their fight for survival.
The Chinook salmon populations these whales once relied on, particularly
those in the Columbia-Snake River
Basin, are just a remnant of their former
numbers, leaving these whales with far less food to eat. The Columbia
and Snake River Chinook were once the largest and most abundant salmon species
anywhere on the west coast, providing Southern Residents with a critical winter
The decline of salmon populations across the Northwest is complex, and a
significant factor is the degradation of salmon habitat–particularly the
damming of rivers. Dams and their reservoirs slow adult and juvenile salmon migration,
making them increasingly susceptible to predation and lethally warm water.
Large reservoirs on the Columbia
and Snake rivers make it difficult for young salmon to quickly and safely
migrate to the ocean where they can mature into adults.
A Legislative Priority
This year, the fight for orca survival was an important piece of the 2019
state legislative session. The Washington State Sierra Club has been working
with Tribal Nations like the Lummi to advocate for the passage of orca-friendly
legislation in Olympia, and we’ve
seen considerable success. Sierra Club worked with partner organizations and
tribes to pass better protections for near-shore habitats, important oil spill
prevention legislation, and legislation to prevent toxins from entering Puget
We’ve also spent time in Olympia
working to secure funding for a) increasing spill over existing dams to aide
juvenile salmon survival, and b) convening a stakeholder forum for Snake
River communities to identify potential issues and possible
solutions if the four lower dams are removed. Both were finally funded in this
year’s state budget, which is very good news.
Because our southern resident orcas migrate south to feed near the Columbia
in the winter and spring, a focus on the Columbia
and Snake River system salmon will be a key to orca
survival. Decades of scientific research and observation have shown that
increasing spill– the amount of water spilled over the federal dams–is the
safest way for young salmon to migrate past dams and reservoirs to reach the
ocean. Higher levels of spill also result in larger adult salmon returns in
subsequent years, meaning more food for orca.
The science also strongly supports dam removal as the most effective
recovery action for Snake River salmon. A stakeholder
forum would assure equitable representation and participation to identify
issues that need to be addressed if the dams were removed. It is essential that
we create space to hold discussion and dialogue to identify solutions that work
for people, communities, and our iconic Northwest species.
The Grief of Tahlequah
Last year, the world collectively grieved with the mother whale, Tahlequah,
who held her dead baby aloft for 17 days, across hundreds of miles. The orca
calf was the first to be born in three years and lived for only about a half an
hour after its birth.
That day on the water–the birth and death of Tahlequah’s calf, was a
landmark moment. In some ways, it became a rallying point for many and opened a
conversation about the very real impact we, as humans, are having on the
environment around us, especially on the most innocent. The image of a mourning
mother holding the body of her child seemed to captivate the whole world, and
for many, it was impossible to look away.
Just a Stone’s Throw AwayOne of the final things Russo tells me before we
part is that Tokitae’s enclosure is just a stone’s throw away from the ocean,
meaning than she can hear the waves crashing, and smell the ocean life just out
of her reach–she remembers where she came from.
He pauses briefly, before continuing, “She still sings, you know?” Every
night, alone in her tank, Tokitae will listen to the sound of the waves and
sing her L-pod song—the song of her family. For years it has stretched out into
the night, only to be met with silence.
But maybe we’re finally ready to listen.
Message From The Chapter Chair
Alone in Her Tank, an Orca Sings
The Sierra Club in Washington State, along with many others and especially
the Lummi tribe, are working to help restore habitat and salmon runs
for starving, weakened Puget Sound resident orcas. And yet, one living member of the L-pod isn’t even here. Tokitae, captured from Puget Sound in the 1970s, is in an orca tank at
This is her story, along with that of the Lummi people who have never forgotten she is there.