SEATTLE - After years of fighting, the last orca in captivity was set to return home to the waters of Western Washington. Instead, members of the Lummi Nation are preparing a funeral.
On Aug. 18, an orca named Tokitae died in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. She was 57 years old and stolen from Puget Sound waters when she was only a few years old.
The orca has been called several names, but to the Lummi Nation she is Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.
Stolen from the Salish Sea in the 1970s, Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut lived in captivity for more than five decades.
"Her story has been pretty tragic and one that we can relate to at Lummi Nation," said Tony Hillaire, the chairman of the Lummi Nation.
He says for years, they fought to bring back the orca.
The Lummi Nation, as well as the community, expected Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to return home this year, but not like this.
"It’s unfortunate that this sudden, tragic event happened," said Hillaire.
Even after Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s death, the battle continued to get her back to Western Washington. Her body was dissected into pieces following a necropsy.
Hillaire says the Lummi Nation fought for the whale’s remains to be saved from usage as a display.
US Senator Maria Cantwell also requested the whale be returned to Western Washington.
"Toki’s remains should return to the Pacific Northwest. My office has been in communication with the Administration to urge them to work with Tribes to ensure their voices are heard and ceremonial rights are protected," said Sen. Cantwell.
Hillaire says they have finally come to an agreement with the owner of the aquarium, where Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut was captive, to bring all of her home.
"It’s a matter of respect. And just like any of us, or our relatives, or the people that we are closest to-- if they were to pass away, we don’t want them to be sent home in pieces," said Hillaire.
On Sept. 18, the Miami Seaquarium tweeted that Toki was cremated and that her ashes will be sent from Georgia directly to the Lummi Nation.
A necropsy was conducted and those results have not yet been released to the public.
According to the Seaquarium, Li'i, Tokitae's lifetime companion, will be relocated to an accredited facility where he can spend the rest of his life with his own species. Li'i is a Pacific white-sided dolphin.
In Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut's death, he says the Lummi Nation is not looking for sorrow, but instead hopes that people will truly understand feel their pain.
"We can acknowledge and honor the true history of her, the true history of our people, and really try and spark some changes in this world so that it never happens again," he said.