Squaxin Island tribe pays tribute to rare whale

By Lynda V. Mapes
Hartstene Island, Washington (AP) Feb. 2010

Here on this inlet in far South Sound, a visitor recently arrived from distant waters, and the Squaxin Island tribe did what their ancestors taught them: They welcomed an honored guest.

That the visitor was a dead whale made it the more important; that it was a Bryde’s whale, never before documented in these waters, clinched it.

“We felt very sure it was a gift from the Creator,” said David Lopeman, Squaxin tribal chairman. “And we were going to treat it right.”

Bryde’s whales are usually found in tropical waters, and they are not known to travel north of California. There have been several sightings since early January of a mystery whale in Puget Sound. And two weeks ago, this whale washed up here.

Usually when a dead whale washes ashore, federal fisheries officials tow it to deep water to decompose.

But Squaxin tribal members decided this animal chose this place to die because it would be treated with respect. They asked, and were given permission, to keep the whale.

Scientists from the nonprofit Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, as well as state and federal agencies, extensively sampled the carcass.

First reported dead on Jan. 16, the whale was just under 39 feet long, and immature. It had a tough life: There were healed prop scars on its back, and marks on its flukes from an entanglement.

Neither injury seemed to have played a role in the animal’s death. Instead, it seems to have starved. No food was found in its system, and its blubber was thin.

Tests will be run on samples from the whale over the next several months to gain more insight into why it died and what brought it here.

Some tribal members thought the tribe shouldn’t bother with the whale, since it was not from their waters. But others were certain the whale’s landing in their territory was meant to be.

“It is a mammal, like us. And we are people of the water,” Lopeman said. “It’s special. Maybe it was sick and it wanted to go and die in a safe place and knew we were going to treat it well. And so it gave itself to us. And we decided we are going to treat it right, so our children could always say we did.”

For the past two weeks, tribal members have been pressure-washing the flesh from the whale’s bones, and paring the last bits away with a knife, the blade making a soft scraping sound against the great, white bones.

Next the bones will be soaked in hydrogen peroxide, then dried, then sealed. Eventually, the tribe intends to hang the reassembled skeleton in its museum, near Shelton, for all to share.

“This is everyone’s whale,” said Rhonda Foster, director of the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Cultural Resources Department.

The Squaxin Island people have long and deep ties to whales. Fire pits at a South Sound archaeological site included bits of cooked whale bone, Foster said.

If this whale had washed ashore 300 years ago, her people would have celebrated with a feast.

They did a version of that Feb. 12, inviting guests to watch the last of the bones being cleaned, and serving elk chili and homemade biscuits split open and covered with a sauce of tiny wild blackberries and vanilla ice cream.

Many members of this tribe, with 1,022 members, still depend on the oysters, clams, geoduck and salmon their ancestors did, their lives revolving with seasonal gifts of the Sound.

This whale isn’t the first surprise they’ve had; the Salish Sea is forever bringing something unexpected in on its green tides, most recently a six-foot sturgeon, caught in a fisherman’s net.

But even the ordinary feels special in this place that has nurtured them for so many generations, tribal members said.

“It is our life,” Foster said of the Sound. “Our ancestors said all life begins here. “As she spoke, a tumultuous rain began to fall in great silver curtains. It rinsed tribal members who had been pressure-washing the bones clean, and rattled the tent put up over their work area.

Then, as the last of the whale’s bones were packed away for safekeeping, a great gust blew up the beach, and sent the tent flying.

It was an emphatic punctuation point ending the first chapter of a whale tale that likely will be retold in this tribe for generations to come.