The Puyallup Tribe was well represented at the Tokitae Totem Pole Journey Stop in Tacoma on Friday, May 11. Gathering at Tacoma First United Methodist Church, the crowd included a diverse array of environmental activists, members of various tribes and concerned citizens in support of the totem pole journey to bring home the last remaining orca kidnapped in 1970 from the Salish Sea and held prisoner at Miami Seaquarium for the past 47 years – Tokitae, also known as Lolita.
Tacoma was the second stop on the totem pole journey that began near Bellingham on May 9 – a 9,000-mile, 25-day journey across five states and scheduled to end near the Miami Seaquarium on May 27. Many stops are slated along the way – Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Houston and more – to raise support in bringing Tokitae home to Penn Cover, near Coupeville on Whidbey Island. This was where the 1970 whale roundup happened, called “a massacre” by Lummi Nation’s Jewell James. A respected master carver, Jewell James is Lummi Nation House of Tears head carver with his older brother, Douglas James, as assistant. Both men were at Tacoma First United Methodist Church that evening escorting the 16-foot, hand-carved totem pole that they helped create.
In describing the symbolic nature of the totem pole, Jewell James said that at the front, the whale head is carved like a wolf head because orcas are known as the wolf of the sea. Salmon on each side of the whale represent food, and the two seals represent the food of the transient orca population that comes in to the Salish Sea. Ravens on the tail are leaders and teachers. The whale rider in some stories is a woman and in others is a man. In either case, this figure marries into the orca and its offspring and their children became the children of that clan.
“We are on a political journey to secure the freedom of a fellow being, and we hope that symbols here will gather people, intrigue them, to wonder how they can participate,” he said.
“Each and every one of you, you’re here by no mistake,” Douglas James said to the gathered crowd. “There was a tugging on your heart and you followed through with it. Each one of you, even the little ones, all took time from your lives to be here today – you set everything aside to show your presence here today. That’s a great statement. You’re saying I believe in what’s taking place. I believe that this is a worthy cause – being of one heart, one mind.”
Jewell James pointed out that during the whale roundup horror, 15 adult orcas were killed and more than 60 juveniles were stolen from their families. Now, only Tokitae remains, waiting to be reunited with her orca family and her mother, who still swims the same waters as she did when Tokitae was stolen from her.
“Tokitae knows her mother’s song,” he said.
Before going into the church for the program, everyone gathered in a circle in front of the totem for songs, drumming, prayers and a blessing by Puyallup Culture Director Connie McCloud. Once inside, people took their seats and heard good words from various speakers, including Puyallup Tribal Councilmembers David Bean and James Rideout on behalf of Puyallup Chairman Bill Sterud and the rest of the Council.
“Thank you for supporting the journey to bring Tokitae home. Thank you for standing up for our relatives, our lands, our waters and all that is so important to us as people who have lived for generations on the shores of the Salish Sea,” Councilman Bean said to the crowd.
“Once again the Lummi Nation, led by Chairman Jay Julius, is at the forefront of the protection of the Salish Sea for generations to come. The Puyallup Tribe will support your efforts in any way we can.”
Councilman Rideout expressed great honor that the Puyallup reservation was one of the stops on the totem pole journey.
“I appreciate all of our solidarity,” he said. “As we stand united, we are more powerful than ever. We’re grateful to the Lummi Nation for their efforts to protect our homelands.” Councilman Rideout spoke too of the need to continue fighting to block Puget Sound Energy’s (PSE) liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant from being completed on the Tacoma Tideflats.
Puyallup Elder Ramona Bennett was invited to speak, and she zeroed in on LNG. “This PSE LNG is nasty and if it ever is allowed to operate, it’s going to drop 200 tons of airborne poison on our Salish Sea and on us – all living things. We can’t let our guard down.”
Ramona Bennett also talked about the need to control the number of seals and sea lions that are killing salmon in untold numbers, thereby denying young orcas of sustenance.
“It’s not ‘if’ she comes home, it’s ‘when’ she comes home,” she told the cheering audience, “and we’d better get busy. Our hatcheries are raising salmon to feed the seals and the sea lions and we really have got to get active on rescinding the Marine Mammal Protection Act because we have a mess of nasty water dogs that are just running in packs. Every single seal and sea lion can tear the stomach out of 40 salmon a day, and they do. They just eat the belly and leave the fish mortally killed and go on to the next ones. Our baby orcas are dying. When she comes home, she’s going to find that we really let our Salish Sea down. We have not been able to protect it.”