The cultivated, kinship relationship of my people, the Lummi, with resident killer whales goes back since time immemorial. They are not wild animals, they are family.
My heart is heavy knowing that members of my community are starving, and that I am kept from feeding them. According to our Lummi traditional teachings, the southern resident killer whales are connected to my people through bonds of kinship. What happens to them happens to us. Our term for them is qwe ‘lhol mechen, which means, “our relations under the waves.”
When members of our family are hungry, we feed them. But feeding killer whales is not so simple; it requires government permission and cooperation. The Lummi Nation is calling for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other partners to help us keep our qwe ‘lhol mechen alive.
Recently, Lummi exercised our cultural rights and held a spiritual feeding for Princess Angeline (J-17), who is so emaciated that her body is peanut-shaped. As a mother and a grandmother, I feel especially connected to Princess Angeline, who is also a mother and a grandmother, a matriarch whose family depends on her. If she dies, others will likely follow.
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It was a beautiful day in January. I was part of a small crew that went out on a boat with our hereditary chief and other tribal spiritual leaders. We had one live chinook to feed Princess Angeline, and a dead one to offer the qwe ‘lhol mechen ancestors. We found a cove out in the islands that felt right. We did our ceremony, and our ancestors came to witness. We called to the qwe ‘lhol mechen then released the fish to the water.
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Although we had been told that resident orcas were far away, they found us. Our qwe ‘lhol mechen know that we have heard their call for help, that we’re here for them, and we’re going to feed them.
It’s not only Angeline who is starving. K-25 was recently thought to be close to death. Last summer, Angeline’s daughter Tahlequah carried her dead baby 1,000 miles over 17 days in a public display of mourning. The premature deaths, the low number of pregnancies, the high number of miscarriages and stillbirths are too often directly caused by lack of food.
Our qwe ‘lhol mechen live in a Salish Sea degraded by human-caused pollutions and climate change. We know that supplemental feeding for our qwe ‘lhol mechen won’t solve all the problems they face, but it will keep their spirits strong and better able to survive.
There is precedent for government action. Since 1910, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been regularly feeding elk all over the West during the winter. When the California condor was facing extinction in the 1970s, the government stepped in, and has stated: “There have been so many problems facing the condor for so long that the species was not going to survive in the wild without help from people.”
The southern resident killer whales will go extinct without help. For example, when Scarlet (J-50) was ailing last summer, we worked with NOAA, scientists and a salmon hatchery to provide emergency medication and food. Although this effort proved to be too little, too late, we were able to develop some helpful protocols.
During diminished salmon runs, hatcheries provide an immediate and reliable source of treaty-protected wild salmon for our people. In working for Scarlet, it became clear that hatchery fish will help sustain our relations as well.
My people’s cultivated, kinship relationship with resident killer whales goes back since time immemorial. They are not wild animals, they are family.
NOAA’s standard operating procedures should not apply during a state of emergency. We need NOAA to help develop a plan for immediate action to feed Princess Angeline and our other qwe ‘lhol mechen. We need to work together. We have heard qwe ‘lhol mechen’s call, and it is our sacred obligation to heed it.