Students and passersby stopped en route to the Graham Center ballrooms when they saw a 16-foot totem pole of a killer whale. With a face shaped like a wolf’s, a figure of a human rider on its back and gray salmon painted on its side, the intriguing carving quickly became the center of attention, with people excitedly gazing at the totem pole and snapping photos with it.
The totem pole is part of a campaign of the Lummi Nation of Washington State, a Native American tribe, to bring Lolita – the killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium – back home to the Salish Sea.
Recently, members of the Lummi Nation set out on a 9,000-mile journey transporting the killer whale totem pole and two, 8-foot seal poles across seven cities as a way to raise awareness about the killer whale’s unique place in the cosmology of indigenous peoples, the trauma and resilience of killer whales and their importance in keeping the ecosystem balanced and thriving.
One of these events was organized by FIU students – part of the Global Indigenous Group – and hosted on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus.
“The Global Indigenous Group fights for advocacy and indigenous voices,” said anthropology major William Sanchez, the student group’s president. “This was a great way to facilitate that. It’s about making sure these people are being heard.”
The student group often collaborates with FIU’s Global Indigenous Forum (GIF) – housed within the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. GIF is the university’s hub for conducting research about indigenous peoples and organizing outreach events to raise awareness about indigenous cultures, values and perspectives.
“We try to create a space here at FIU for indigenous voices,” said Dennis Weidman, the director of the forum. “With Will [Sanchez], the enthusiasm is tremendous.”
With a proud smile, Weidman explained that he has seen Sanchez grow as a public speaker and a student leader through the club’s activities.
“This [kind of event] puts students in places of leadership. And that’s what a university ought to be doing for its students.”
The event featured presentations by Jewell James, who carved the totem pole; Adam Beach, a Native American actor and activist; Beach’s wife, Summer Tiger, who is a Seminole-Miccosukee and late Miccosukee leader Buffalo Tiger’s granddaughter; and Sam Tommy, a Seminole council member. Various prominent members of local indigenous groups, such as Lady Hummingbird, were also in attendance.
It also included several choral, flute and drum performances by the Black Hawk Singers; James and his brother, Doug James; Tommy; and Juan Pablo Orrego, a Chilean activist who won a prestigious Goldman Prize in 1997 for his environmental work.
The audience also got to hear a few words from director and producer Geoff Schaff and watch a sneak peek of the documentary he is filming about the Lummi Nation’s journey to free Lolita.
Presenters shared the story of Lolita – or Tokitae, as the Lummi know her.
When Tokitae was a baby whale, she – along with a group of baby killer whales – was taken from the Salish Sea – part of the Lummi Nation territory – illegally by hunters.
Tokitae is the only whale from that group that is still alive today. She is now about 50 years old, but, James said, she has never forgotten where she comes from or the dialect her killer whale clan speaks.
“She still sings the song of her clan,” James said. He also said that it’s time to let Tokitae retire and go home.
The Lummi are seeking approval for a plan to gradually re-introduce Tokitae back into the wild. The plan includes transporting Tokitae to a cove next to a salmon hatchery in the Salish Sea, where she would be trained to hunt salmon. The Lummi hope she would eventually reunite her with her family – who pass near the cove once a year and would most likely recognize her and hear her song.
However, many marine biologists say that a whale kept so long in captivity would not survive the trip or be able to adapt to life in the wild.
The Lummi say that bringing Tokitae back home is a way to start healing the ocean and making amends with nature – to give back a whale that was taken by force. They say it will also give Tokitae, a living being, her freedom and the chance to reunite with her family.
The fate of Tokitae is yet to be determined, but the student Global Indigenous Group, Sanchez said, is glad to have provided a space for the Lummi to share their perspectives and their journey.
For more information on the Lummi Nation’s campaign to free Tokitae, visit sacredsea.org