Mike Ogden, left, and Doyle Foster,
both Squaxin Island tribal members,
steam-clean whale vertebrae atop a
barge at Hartstene Island. The
Bryde's whale washed up on the
tribe's fishing beach.
Wilson Johns, left, and Larry Ross,
the Squaxin Island tribe's
archaeologist, trim away tissue
still clinging to bones of the
Bryde's whale. Eventually, the tribe
intends to hang the reassembled
skeleton in its museum in Shelton.
Terry Patton further cleans the
whale bones in a container of
boiling water. The bones will then
be soaked, dried and sealed for
Tribal member Wilson Johns
places tagged and cleaned bones
of a Bryde's whale in a
watertight compartment where
they'll be further cleaned and
bleached. The Bryde's whale has
never been documented before in
In January, a visitor from distant waters
arrived in Puget Sound. The Squaxin Island
tribe did what their ancestors taught them:
they welcomed an honored guest.
The visitor was a dead Bryde whale. Bryde
whales live in tropical waters and have
never been reported north of California.
"We felt very sure it was a gift from the
Creator," said David Lopeman, Squaxin tribal
chairman. "And we were going to treat it
Usually when a dead whale washes ashore,
federal officials tow it out to deep water
to decompose. But Squaxin Island tribal
members believe the whale chose to die there
because it would be treated with respect.
They were granted permission to keep the
The whale was just under 39 feet long, and
young. 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 on samples from the whale will help
scientists learn why it died and what
brought it here.
"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
Tribal members are washing the flesh from
the whale's bones, and paring the last bits
away with a knife.
Next the bones will be soaked in hydrogen
peroxide, then dried, then sealed. The
whale's reassembled skeleton will be hung in
the tribal museum for all to share.
"This is everyone's whale," said Rhonda
Foster from the Squaxin Island Tribe's
Cultural Resources Department.
The Squaxin Island people have long and deep
ties to whales. Fire pits at their
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
The tribe had a feast for this whale. They
served elk chili and homemade biscuits
covered with a wild blackberry sauce and
vanilla ice cream.
Like their ancestors, today's 1,022 Squaxin
members still depend on the oysters, clams,
geoduck and salmon for food. Their lives
revolve around the seasonal gifts of Puget
This whale isn't their first surprise. The
Salish Sea often carries in unexpected
things. Recently, it brought in 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 loud downpour began and
rattled the tent over their work area. As
the last whale bones were packed away for
safekeeping, a great gust of wind blew up
the beach, and sent the tent flying.