Exhibit Brings 3,000-pound Orca Totem and Outdoor Film to Vashon

This weekend, Vashon Heritage Museum will open “Whale People: Protectors of the Sea,” an outdoor exhibit developed by The Natural History Museum with the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation.

The opening program, beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 10, will feature Puyallup and Lummi leaders, drumming and singing by the Shotridge family, and the chance to view and touch a 25-foot, 5,000-pound totem pole, a 16-foot orca pole, and also see an award-winning outdoor IMAX-style film projection. The film tells the story of the environmental emergency through the figure of the Orca.

The Natural History Museum is a Vashon-based traveling and pop-up museum led by artists, activists and scholars. Its founders, Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones, moved to Vashon in 2018.

“There is no greater prism than the plight of the orcas through which we can grasp the extinction crisis we face,” said Economopoulos. “This exhibit centers Indigenous ways of relating to the natural world and invites visitors to take action to protect the Salish Sea, the orcas, the salmon, and our collective future.”

“Whale People: Protectors of the Sea,” which will run until Aug. 28, is associated with the Vashon Heritage Museum’s new exhibition “Natural Wonder: An Island Shaped by Water.” Created in partnership with the Vashon Nature Center and others in the community, “Natural Wonder” is an interactive and collaborative experience that explores how all life on the island is intricately connected and shaped by its relationship with the waters of the Puget Sound.

“We are in a pivotal moment in history when we are being called to question our dominant way of operating, especially with the environment, and to seek other stories to guide us,” said Vashon Nature Center Executive Director Bianca Perla. “These exhibits elevate stories of human connection to nature throughout human history and introduce us to the individual stories of different wondrous animals and plants that share this island with us.”

The award-winning short film included in the “Whale People” exhibit is narrated by the late Chief Bill James (Lummi), Master Carver Jewell James (Lummi), and Amy Ta’ah George (Tsleil-Waututh). The impetus for the film and creating the exhibit was the display of grief by Tahlequah, the orca mother who famously carried her dead calf for 17 days in 2020.

Outdoor installation of “Whale People: Protectors of the Sea,” at Lummi Nation’s Stommish Grounds last fall (Jason Jones Photo).

Outdoor installation of “Whale People: Protectors of the Sea,” at Lummi Nation’s Stommish Grounds last fall (Jason Jones Photo).

Economopoulos hopes the display allows people to reconcile with climate change and environmental issues, but do so in a hopeful manner.

“To see art is to move beyond facts, science, and statistics to a place that has more emotional resonance,” she said. “‘Whale People’ also allows us to shine a spotlight on the role of Indigenous traditional knowledge, values, and ways of life not based on a logic of extraction, but rather on reciprocity and intergenerational care.”

The Orca totem will remain on exhibit through August; the larger “Red Road to DC” totem will be on Vashon for one day only, on July 10. This 5,000 pound, 24-foot totem pole is traveling from Washington State to Washington, D.C. this July, as a means to call for the urgent protection of sacred Indigenous places along the way, including Snake River, Bear Ears, Chaco Canyon and the Black Hills.

Ultimately, the “Red Road to DC” totem pole will be delivered to the Biden-Harris administration with an event on the National Mall and the opening of an exhibition about the Lummi’s totem pole journeys in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

“We feel fortunate to have the ‘Whale People’ exhibit opening, as the museum reopens to the public,” said Vashon Heritage Museum Executive Director Elsa Croonquist. “This exhibit is so rich in telling the story of tribal culture and relevance to our island and the relationship we have with the Orca and the Salish Sea. It’s a gift to Vashon that we are very excited to present this summer.”

The Vashon Heritage Museum will be open to visitors from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, beginning the week of July 11. In addition, the Museum will be open from 6 to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays so visitors can experience “Whale People: Protectors of the Sea.”

For information on Museum exhibits and programs, visit vashonheritagemuseum.org.