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Following Tokitae's sudden death, Northwest tribes call for repatriation of orca's remains

caption: Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium orca show, 2006. She is also known by the name Tokitae.
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Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium orca show, 2006. She is also known by the name Tokitae.

Tokitae, the orca who died suddenly last week before her scheduled return to the Pacific Northwest, has been sent to the University of Georgia for an autopsy.

It was a move that the Lummi Nation, one of the groups working to bring Tokita home to the Salish Sea, said blindsided them.

The tribe is now calling for the orca's remains to be returned to the region.

Tony Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said the autopsy could provide answers about what caused her sudden death, but the transfer to Georgia happened with little warning.

“We see her as a family member,” Hillaire said. “The last thing we want to imagine or think about is what they’re doing to her without talking to us.”

RELATED: 'Toki' the orca dies in captivity before planned PNW return

Hillaire said the priority remains bringing Tokitae back home. Plans had been underway to move the southern resident orca back to the Salish Sea, from which she was captured in 1970, to spend the rest of her life.

For more than 50 years, she was the main attraction at Miami’s Seaquarium. Just a month ago, a veterinarian deemed Tokitae to be stable and in good condition. But late last week, the medical team began aggressive treatment after she showed serious signs of discomfort. Tokitae passed away Friday afternoon.

For many local tribes, her passing is personal.

In a statement, Tom Wooten, Chairman of the Samish Indian Nation said, “We celebrate her life in passing, knowing that she shined a light of humanity on the inhumane practices that will never happen again to our relatives.”

Added HiIllaire, “We’ve had children being taken away from us through bad policy; so was she, taken away from her home.”

And just like a family member, Hillaire wants to prepare Tokitae for her final journey to be with her ancestors.

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