Tahlequah’s Trail of Tears

The Dorsal Spin

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By the 18th day, anguished mother Tahlequah (J35) finally released the frail, tattered body of her dead baby girl. She probably had two failed pregnancies between the births of her son Notch (J47) in 2010 and the sickly female delivered on July 24th. Imagine the devastation of birthing a live baby, only for the tiny, precious soul to expire thirty minutes later. “Experts” worldwide speculated about why Tahlequah, with help from her devoted J17 family, would cling to the lifeless form for so long. As First Nations people, mothers, and descendants of matriarchal clans, we understand – completely.

Western culture has pathologized and compartmentalized death. In aboriginal societies, keeping company with the body of a recently transitioned loved one is not considered abnormal. Even white folks once shared their parlors for a few days with their dearly departed.

Our friend and research partner Mark Sears discovered newborn Tahlequah (J35) with her exquisite mama Princess Angeline (J17) off Shilshole in the winter of 1998. He contributed input on J35’s name: something regional, Tahlequah for Vashon’s ferry terminal. J35’s name, however, has deeper resonance.

Tahlequah is a Tsalagi (Cherokee) phrase for “two is enough.” During forced removal from traditional homelands in the Southeastern US, our Five “Civilized” Tribes ancestors carried dead babies on the Trail of Tears. The Anitsalagi (Cherokee People) — one of the Five Tribes — walked their 800-mile Trail in the winter of 1838 – 1839. Up to 8,000 died from disease, starvation, exposure, and exhaustion. At the final destination in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Cherokee Nation named their capital Tahlequah.

Non-indigenous humans in the Pacific Northwest have extracted horrendous sacrifices from their killer whale neighbors, particularly the Southern Residents (SRKW): their lives, their family members, their food sources, their unspoiled habitat. Sounds like a SRKW Trail of Tears, doesn’t it?

After decades of abuse, J Pod members staged an organic protest on their own terms. 24 orcas – J Pod with Onyx (L87) – traveled 1,000 or more miles around their traditional territory with a dead infant and an emaciated toddler in tow. These highly evolved, sentient beings embody vibrant culture, rituals, and ceremonies that mystify most two-leggeds. Mother Tahlequah (J35) and 3 ½ year-old Scarlet (J50) epitomize courage in the face of adversity. The young Kéet heroines riveted the world’s attention on the Southern Residents’ suffering for several weeks – at least until a troubled dude stole a plane at SeaTac.

Heartbroken people are asking for a “simple” list of how to help critically endangered Scarlet, Tahlequah, and their relatives. The “simple” list fell by the wayside decades, maybe centuries, ago. The threats confronting the SRKW are interwoven. The work before us now is daunting, complex, and politically unpopular – but not impossible.

Much discussion has concentrated on large scale actions – all worthy — that include restricting the Chinook salmon harvest; stopping the Kinder Morgan TM pipeline and other ill-advised fossil fuel projects; a permit system or limited entry for whale watch boats; reducing vessel speeds and, thus, underwater noise; breaching obsolete dams, to name a few. Scapegoating seals and sea lions for eating salmon is a misguided effort.

Yes, we must all reduce, reuse and recycle. We must all seek alternatives to plastics and toxic household chemicals. How you vote matters. Sure, call your elected officials. Submit input to the Orca Recovery Task Force and to NOAA’s page for J35 and J50 at Killerwhale.help@noaa.gov.

Less discussion has focused on what we can do personally. The “simple” list derives from looking in the mirror and examining your daily life. What are you willing to sacrifice to prevent the extinction of the SRKW?

Do you waste food? My beloved grandma chided us with this chestnut, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” Scarlet is going hungry; how dare you waste food?! Food production is extremely resource intensive.

How much meat do you eat? Let the sight of grieving Tahlequah and starving Scarlet inspire you to consume less planet-warming mammal and poultry flesh – especially the factory-farmed kind. That “artisan charcuterie” isn’t helping the orcas, either. Do you eat Chinook salmon not caught by your own hands? How about unsustainably farmed Atlantic salmon?
You might be the turd in the punch bowl if you defile the nearshore by flicking cigarette butts on the beach, or by allowing your dogs to rampage unsupervised, defecating everywhere and terrorizing seal pups. The nearshore is the foundation of the food chain for salmon and orcas.
I can think of additional third rail topics – say, overpopulation and gentrification — but those are for another time. Hold Scarlet and Tahlequah in your hearts and minds. Act boldly — do not let their Trail of Tears be in vain.

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. Seal pup season is here. When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report to us, send sightings and photos to Vashonorcas@aol.com. Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes. Do not assume we will randomly find stuff posted online. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.