The two Lummi Nation tribal members who have said they will sue to free an orca from the Miami Seaquarium and bring her home to the Salish Sea announced they now have legal representation from Earth Law Center.
Raynell Morris and Ellie Kinley announced their intent to sue last July.
On Wednesday, June 10, they said during a virtual news conference that Earth Law Center will join them in their renewed effort, which is supported by the tribe, to push for the release of the orca the Lummi Nation has renamed Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut.
“You might ask why two individuals are doing this. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. No one should have to spend 50 years in captivity,” Kinley said during the news conference.
“She was taken when she was 3 years old,” she said. “She’s been in that tank for 50 years. We feel it’s enough. She needs to be returned home to the waters that her family is still in.”
Earth Law Center is still developing a strategy and hasn’t filed a lawsuit, Michelle Bender, its ocean rights manager, told The Bellingham Herald.
The Miami Seaquarium calls the orca Lolita, which the Lummi refer to as her stage name. Tribal members also called her Tokitae before renaming her last summer.
Lummi Nation has said that returning the killer whale to the Puget Sound waters she was taken from — near Penn Cove — was a sacred obligation.
Her 1970 capture was part of a roundup of killer whales off Puget Sound, according to a March 13, 2018, article in The Miami Herald, which noted that she is the lone survivor of the 50-plus whales caught on Aug. 8, 1970.
Lolita has been at the Seaquarium since 1970, where she is the star attraction.
The Seaquarium has refused to release the orca, and previous public campaigns and a lawsuit to force it to do so have failed. It didn’t respond to a Bellingham Herald request for comment.
The orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut is a member of Sk’aliCh’elh, which is an ancestral name that the Lummi Nation gave to the endangered southern resident killer whales last summer.
Sk’aliCh’elh is the ancestral name for Penn Cove area, the tribe said then, and the name affirmed the J, K and L orca pods as members of the Lummi family.
“The Lummi people are bound by culture and kinship ties to Sk’aliCh’elh, and have been in a reciprocal relationship with them since time immemorial,” according to a release announcing the partnership with Earth Law Center, which is providing its services without charge.
Bender said Earth Law Center will look at the notice of intent to sue filed by the two Lummi women in July 2019 and build on that.
Bender, who is a Western Washington University alum, said legal justifications Earth Law Center could emphasize include:
▪ The orca must be released and returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which formed the basis of the two tribal members’ notice in July.
“NAGPRA requires certain institutions to return Native American ‘cultural items’ to culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations,” Bender said. “And we believe NAGPRA mandates the return of Tokitae, who is sacred to the Lummi and has historical and cultural importance central to the Lummi People, as they consider orcas relatives and even refer to themselves as People of the Sea.”
Lummi tribal members have referred to orcas as qwe’lhol’mechen, which means “our relations under the water.”
▪ A new approach called rights of nature that could be applied for the first time in the ongoing effort to have the Seaquarium release the killer whale.
The argument would be: “That orcas, as living beings, and Tokitae in particular, have inherent rights that we must respect, which is a reality that the Lummi People have already recognized,” Bender said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
“There is a growing global movement to recognize the rights of nature, which many believe is necessary to reverse the global environmental crisis. Our current approach of treating nature as mere property or an economic commodity has put the planet on the brink of collapse,” she added.
“Rights of nature is emerging in the form of constitutional amendments, law and policies, judicial decisions and treaty agreements in over 20 countries. This is a powerful tool with precedent that has yet to be tried to free Tokitae.”