Only elders remember the last time the Lummi tribe shared a whale, about 80 years ago. So the whale delivered by the waters of Portage Bay was considered a good omen.
Tribal members prayed, danced, sang and played flute Friday by the 31-foot, 15-ton whale, which beached itself at the reservation Thursday and died despite rescue efforts.
Its arrival offered the tribe a rare chance to conduct a long-dormant rite - the blessing and distribution of a whale.
“You younger people, I hope this stays in your minds the rest of your lives,” said Ben Hillaire, a Lummi spiritual leader.
At first, only a few men stepped up to cut and peel away big sheets of the whale’s protective layer of wrist-thick blubber, revealing tons of deep red flesh. Ed Kamkoff, 53, was the first to take a knife to the black back of the whale, though he passed up a sample of the blubber.
“Just like bacon,” said Ray Olsen Sr., 64, one of the first to try it. “I’ve seen this on TV, but this is the first time I’ve tasted it.”
In the end, scores of Lummis sampled blubber and carried off steaming 30- and 40-pound slabs of meat bigger than cinder blocks. Generous portions were given to non-tribal bystanders, as well.
Like eagles and salmon, whales are featured in Lummi art, stories and songs, an integral part of the tribe’s religion and culture.
Tribal leaders consider the whale a positive omen, a call to exercise sovereignty, strengthen bonds with nearby tribes and resolve family problems, said cultural teacher Jack Cagey.
“The coming of the whale is a message to our people,” he said.
Makah Indians from the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, who have more recent experience with whales, helped the Lummis with the ceremony. The prized dorsal fin was given to Lummi Chief Don Lewis, who handed it over to Henry Cagey, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, to preserve.
The whale, stranded in a channel of the bay when the tide went out, was thinner than normal for a minke but otherwise appeared normal, said researcher Jeffrey Rash.