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Washington's Lummi people mourn the death of the last captive Southern Resident Orca

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For a period of more than a dozen years in the '60s and '70s, a unique kind of whale hunter operated in the United States. Orca hunters captured and sold whales to aquariums, primarily from the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, the practice became illegal. And the last of these southern resident orcas, known by her stage name Lolita, died earlier this month in an aquarium in Miami. Many of the Lummi Nation in Washington state considered her family. From member station KNKX, Bellamy Pailthorp reports.

BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: Hundreds of people gathered over the weekend at a beachside park on San Juan Island for a celebration of the orca's life. They burned sweetgrass, laid flowers and feathers, artwork and signs around a big, colorful carving of her. One of the artists, Lummi carver Doug James, shared a whale song for healing.

DOUG JAMES: (Singing in non-English language).

PAILTHORP: The event was originally planned as a dedication ceremony for the story pole, but after her unexpected death, it became a kind of memorial. Part of the ceremony included recordings of what is thought to be some of the orca's last calls from her tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE CALLING)

PAILTHORP: Those calls brought tears to the eyes of many gathered on the beach, still processing the shock of her death.

TONY HILLAIRE: I mean, the last time we got an update, she was coming home, and there were plans for that to take place.

PAILTHORP: Tony Hillaire is chairman of Lummi Nation. The tribe called her by the name SkaliChelh-tenaut. Until recently, they were calling for her release into a net pen sanctuary. Hillaire explains that the tribe's teachings say orcas are their relations under the sea.

HILLAIRE: They're our elders. They are the ones who guide us, the ones who teach us how to navigate these waters, how to fish and hunt and live this way of life.

PAILTHORP: He says now SkaliChelh-tenaut's spirit is free. And people can take comfort in knowing that soon her cremated remains will be brought home by Lummi elders. But the day after she died, the dolphin company who owned her sent her body out for a necropsy. The tribe says they weren't consulted.

HILLAIRE: Like any family member, you know, we want to be talked to when decisions like that are made.

PAILTHORP: He says they view her as a lost relation. She survived in a tiny tank for more than 50 years after being trapped with underwater bombs and nets and taken from her family when she was just four years old. He says there are still many unanswered questions about how and why she died.

HILLAIRE: So we're trying to find balance between, you know, finding those answers as well as making sure that there's a better process moving forward.

PAILTHORP: SkaliChelh-tenaut's whale family is what scientists call the L Pod. Biologist Deborah Giles was out on the water with them the day that she died. Giles says they were unusually social, vocalizing above the water with lots of breaching. Some thought this orca family somehow sensed that her spirit had been released.

DEBORAH GILES: You know, I like to think about what other people have said - that they envision that she came back and that she was swimming with them.

PAILTHORP: Giles started following the efforts to bring SkaliChelh-tenaut home nearly four decades ago, when she was just 16 years old. She says these spiritual theories are comforting at a time of great loss.

GILES: You know, my brain doesn't really go there very easily, but I'd like to. You know, it's like a waking dream.

PAILTHORP: It's not just this one whale she's grieving. This species of orca is endangered, with a dwindling food supply of salmon and other environmental hazards. There are only 73 of them left in the whole world. Giles warns unless something drastic changes, these whales could soon go extinct. For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in the San Juan Islands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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