Humans Responding: The Lummi Nation’s Compassionate Action

Transient orcas in the Pacific NW. Photo by Rennet Stow, 2009. CC

CS Sherin, April 27, 2019

Environmental news, like a lot of news, can be extremely painful to take in. I have a general rule that I don’t share potentially soul-crushing or viscerally painful news unless there is a way to take action to change the situation in some way — like a petition, call to action, or steps to change things. It is important to avoid battle fatigue, and to avoid feeling triggered, while also feeling helpless about a situation. However, I am going to break my rule for this story. Not that we can’t do anything in response to this story — we can. It just isn’t as simple or straightforward as a petition kind of action. I am compelled to share this because this story is important. It is about our ocean, ocean life, food, and the strength and importance of Indigenous communities. It is about the state of our humanity while we face and respond ethically, and in time, to tragic, hospice-like chain reactions that are occurring because of exploitation, excess consumerism, corruption, fossil fuels and climate change.

What I am sharing with you today contains dynamics that are viscerally painful to me. My heart and body literally ache, knowing this, and similar situations around the world are happening. Yet, within the facts and story, the action being taken by Indigenous humans (in general, and in this story specifically), is the best of what people are meant to be, and can be. While we cannot alleviate all the suffering upon the planet, we can afford time and energy for knowing about and supporting fellow humans who are bravely standing up for the voiceless (who are enduring lengthy suffering and death). We can find ways to do the same, joining Native Americans, and Indigenous around the world, in solidarity.

Orca whales of the Salish Sea (in the Seattle and Bellingham Washington and Vancouver, Canada region) are starving to death.

This has been going on for some time, and right now, it is the worst it has been. For the orcas, their forever home, the Salish Sea, has become a forced hospice room. Forced, because the whales are not sick. They are perfectly healthy. It is their home waters that are polluted, and it is their food source that is gone — greedily taken by over-fishing and excess consumption. Their mainstay, Chinook salmon, are endangered.

Levi Pulkkinen, at The Guardian, reported about this today: in the last ten years the orca population has gone from 200 to 75, the current pod is starving, orca babies are not surviving birth, and those that do are not surviving into adulthood. The ocean was once teeming with Chinook salmon, and now the salmon are endangered. Organizations like the NOAA and Washington state fishery officials are just now beginning to work together to establish salmon in the water, so as to save the remaining orcas.

While that is a little bit of good news that the organizations of the region are acting to do something finally, that is not the amazing part of the news in the article from The Guardian.

The amazing news is that the Lummi Nation (the Native American tribe of that region in Washington state) has made a formal commitment to the orcas of the Salish Sea by way of ceremony. A salmon was released into the water, as a message to the orcas that the Lummi Nation and the orcas are family, and that the Lummi Nation will not abandon or ignore the orcas in their time of suffering and need.

The fish slipped to the orca was both a prayer and a signal to the starving whales that the tribe would not sit back and watch them vanish.

Levi Pulkkinen, “A pod of orcas is starving to death. A tribe has a radical plan to feed them”

I recommend reading the article for the entire account regarding the Lummi Nation and the orcas.

The Lummi are not the only ones sending messages. The orca have been too. Last summer an orca, whose baby had died hours after birth, carried the baby for 17 days. The way that she carried her deceased orca baby was to hold the baby above water, in order for humans to see this. Her pod left her, and she stayed there for weeks, showing humans that what they are doing, and not doing, is wrong. According to Pulkkinen’s article, the Lummi Nation agrees that the orca mother was sending a message.

It is a message they understand very well, and they want to respond to it. The Lummi tribe is calling for a mass movement to actively begin feeding the dying orcas. The orcas have always been a part of the region. The Lummi Nation is seeking immediate action to alleviate their suffering, and to stop the needless extinction.

It seems that the NOAA is not quite supportive of saving the pod’s life in this way, citing that the feeding approach is not sustainable. Other local scientists are evidently divided as to whether to support the Lummi Nation’s call to action or not. One thing that is clear, this is literally life or death for the orca pod at this point.

When it comes down to it, it is not logical to allow a group of beings to starve to death when there are sources of food available that can save lives. Yet, it is not a simple ethical issue. If feeding the orcas prolongs their lives, but they don’t have a healthy enough environment to sustain their lives, death is still imminent at some point. Or, maybe it isn’t. What if a solution can be found by the time the feedings are no longer sustainable? What if a solution comes, but no action was taken, and the orcas all starve and die. Then, we didn’t do enough.

What must we do in emergencies? For any being? We must do the atypical things. We must improvise. We must come together as family. It is a heartbreaking reality we find ourselves facing these days.

The Lummi Nation is acting like First Responders and emergency room care providers. They are trying to get the emergency supplies and actions together, in order to alleviate the emergency situation. This is logical, appropriate, and needed action for the current situation. The NOAA is looking at long-term sustainability, which is also a valid and needed perspective, but it is not as helpful in the emergency room. And otherwise healthy patients dealing with an emergency, a crisis, don’t belong in a hospice, they belong in the emergency room. In the emergency room we have to stop the bleeding, and do the emergency patching. After that, long-term management can be put in place, gradually.

These two objectives, emergency triage and long-term approaches, do not need to be in conflict with one another.

The NOAA needs to give the Native Americans of the region room to do what is right, based on relationships that are older than this United States nation. Then, the NOAA can follow-up with long-term strategies and networking. This is one of the many ways that our systems need to radically change, in order to adapt and mitigate the disasters that are before us because of climate change, consumerism, and all the rest.

“The greater society has to decide whether they’re going to help or not.”

Bill James, Lummi Nation hereditary Chief

It may seem a small act of ceremony, and unlikely movement for the orcas, that the Lummi people are performing currently, but really, it is the most powerful and best kinds of actions we humans can take. It is a major act of courage and active compassion for family and life. It is action based on compassion and solidarity, which is stronger than anything — no matter how bleak things are. Even in the midst of grief and their own severe challenges, the Lummi Nation have a voice, and it is strong. This is the strength, fire, and heart we must act with, and take with us everywhere.

The Lummi Nation are also sending a message to all of us with their words and actions. What will we do? How will we respond?

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