For the past three months, six craftsmen of the Native American Lummi tribe have sculpted a 175-year-old western red cedar tree into the likeness of Miami Seaquarium’s lone orca, Lolita. The result is one vibrantly colored, 16-foot totem pole that is due to arrive in Miami today.
“The blackfish in Lummi [are called] qwe lhol mechen, meaning ‘the people that live under the water,'’’ says Kurt Russo, a friend of the tribe who helped transport the totem pole across the country from Washington state. “In Lummi cosmology, they were and are people and family.”
Members of the Lummi tribe say that Lolita, who is also known as Tokitae, sent them "a message" asking them to bring her home. The massive totem pole and its journey to South Florida was their response. Throughout the several-thousand-mile road trip, “She is coming home” was the transport crew's mantra, Russo tells New Times.
Russo, like many of his Lummi friends, believes the totem pole's arrival in Miami will help advocate for the orca's return to Washington. In 1970, Lolita was captured near Puget Sound and has been on display at the marine park largely ever since.
"Her capture and her captivity is one chain of cruelty," Russo says. "She sings her family song, calling out in the night. Her mother is now the matriarch of the pod."
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"It will be an inspired and inspiring experience for everyone, including Tokitae, who we've been assured takes comfort in our arrival," Russo adds. The group will bless the totem at Brickell's Miami Circle this Saturday, May 26, and exhibit the carved black, red, and teal work to locals.
Despite years of animal rights protests and PETA lawsuits, Lolita remains on display at the Seaquarium. Animal advocates say her enclosure, the smallest in the nation, does not meet the minimum requirements required by the Animal Welfare Act. But officials at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service claim her tank meets space requirements despite a report from the Marine Mammal Commission saying otherwise. Seaquarium staff have maintained they believe the orca will suffer if reintroduced back into the wild.
But the Lummi haven’t given up on the dream of reuniting Tokitae with her pod in the Pacific Northwest. “The Lummi will not stop until she is returned to her family,” Russo says. “All they have to gain is the satisfaction of the end of her suffering.”
Tokitae Totem Pole Blessing. 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 26, in the Miami Circle at Brickell Point, 465 Brickell Ave., Miami; sacredsea.org/events.
Tokitae Totem Pole Journey Miami. 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 26, at Florida International University Graham Center Ballrooms, 11200 SW Eighth St., Miami; sacredsea.org/events.
Tokitae Totem Pole Journey Virginia Key. 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sunday, May 27, at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Key Dr., Key Biscayne; sacredsea.org/events.