By DOUG ESSER
SEATTLE — A large pod of orcas swam around a Washington state ferry that was carrying tribal artifacts to a new museum at the ancestral home of Chief Seattle, and some people think it was more than a coincidence.
Killer whales have been thrilling whale watchers this week in Puget Sound, according to the Orca Network, which tracks sightings.
But they were especially exciting Tuesday when nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded the ferry from Seattle as it approached the terminal on Bainbridge Island. On board were officials from The Burke Museum in Seattle who were moving ancient artifacts to the Suquamish Museum.
The artifacts were dug up nearly 60 years ago from the site of the Old Man House, the winter village for the Suquamish tribe and home of Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle. The Burke, a natural history museum on the University of Washington campus, is known for Northwest Coast and Alaska Native art.
Also on board the state ferry was Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman who happened to be returning from an unrelated event. As the ferry slowed near the terminal, it was surrounded by the orcas, Forsman said Wednesday.
“They were pretty happily splashing around, flipping their tails in the water,” he said. “We believe they were welcoming the artifacts home as they made their way back from Seattle, back to the reservation.”
The killer whales have been in Puget Sound feeding on a large run of chum salmon, he said.
“We believe the orcas took a little break from their fishing to swim by the ferry, to basically put a blessing on what we were on that day,” he said.
Forsman believes there’s a spiritual tie between the tribe and the orcas. “They are fishermen like we are,” he said.
It was an auspicious arrival for about 500 artifacts that The Burke Museum had held for nearly 60 years, Suquamish Museum Director Janet Smoak said.
They include tools, decorative items and bits of bone and rock that date back 2,000 years.
The Old Man House — the largest known longhouse on the Salish Sea — was located at Suquamish on the shore of Agate Passage, about 13 miles northwest of Seattle. Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named, is buried there.
The longhouse was burned down by the U.S. government in the late 1800s. The artifacts were collected by a University of Washington archaeological investigation in the 1950s, according to the Burke museum.
In 2012, the tribe completed its new museum, which includes a climate controlled environment. The artifacts will be displayed to illustrate Suquamish culture in an exhibit called Ancient Shores Changing Tides.
Everyone was talking about the orcas at the Tuesday museum blessing ceremony and feast, Smoak said.
“Everyone was really excited and moved by the event,” she said.
The orcas, identified from their markings as members of the J and K pods, were seen this week along several routes between the Seattle area and the west side of Puget Sound, according to Howard Garrett of the Orca Network at Freeland.
He thought their intersection with the ferry carrying tribal artifacts was uncanny.
“I can’t rule out somehow they could pick up on the mental energy that there is something special there. Or it could be a coincidence,” he said. “I don’t know.”