The cornerstone of northwest Native American art, the totem pole, became a cross-cultural rallying point this morning, as an overflow crowd of more than 400 people welcomed the 19-foot totem to Saint Mark’s Cathedral. The event marks the halfway point of a 2,500-mile binational journey by members of the Lummi Nation to demonstrate the strength and diversity of opposition to a proposal by Gateway Pacific Terminals that would locate North America’s largest coal terminal at Xwe’chi’eXen, the Lummi name for Cherry Point, near Bellingham.
The journey comes just one week after Oregon denied a crucial permit for Ambre Energy’s proposed coal export facility at Boardman. In its decision, the Oregon Department of State Lands cited impacts to “a small but important and long-standing” Columbia River tribal fishery.
“The state of Oregon recognized that tribal sovereignty and treaty fishing rights must be considered in coal export decisions,” said Jewell James, Lummi elder and House of Tears master carver. “We expect the Washington state Department of Ecology to make the same considerations for Xwe’chi’eXen. Coal exports would devastate our fishery and threaten non-tribal fisheries, as well as damage one of our most important cultural sites.”
The Seattle event featured remarks from King County Executive Dow Constantine and a welcome by Ken Workman of the Duwamish Tribe in Lushootseed, the language of the Salish people. All in attendance were invited to join in blessing the 19-foot western redcedar totem pole.
The unusual juxtaposition of a totem and Christian church results from an unprecedented alliance between tribal nations and faith leaders around coal exports. Recently, 10 of Washington’s bishops and denominational executives signed a formal letter of support for the Lummi’s totem pole journey.
“Standing in protection of God’s creation is a deep and holy obligation that native tribes and faith leaders both share,” said LeeAnne Beres, Executive Director of Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power & Light. “The biblical mandate of stewardship is similar to the Native value of looking ahead seven generations when making decisions in the present. Coal export will destroy Native fisheries from day one, and burning coal overseas will poison all the Earth’s atmosphere and acidify our oceans right here in Washington. Religious people, tribes, and community members share a love of the beautiful and abundant region God has given us to call home, and we will together defend its well-being from destruction for profit by a few.”
The totem pole journey is being made in honor of the life of environmental leader and treaty rights activist Billy Frank, Jr. It began on August 22 in South Dakota, then traveled through Montana and Washington, reaching hundreds of tribal and non-tribal community members. The journey will continue into Canada, making several stops before raising the totem on September 7 at the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, which has been devastated by pollution from Canada’s tar sands.
In addition to the totem, the team travels with a mural for event attendees to paint and a letter of support from Lummi Indian Business Council Chairman Timothy Ballew II, which states: “We will stop the development of the export terminal and put in its place a plan that honors our shared responsibility to the land and waters of Xwe’chi’eXen and all our relations.”
Coal exports also pose risks to Northwest fisheries in Longview, Wash., where Ambre Energy’s subsidiary, Millennium Bulk Terminals, plans to locate another coal export facility along the ecologically sensitive Columbia River. Like the Boardman and Bellingham proposals, Longview faces fierce opposition from tribal and non-tribal communities. Coal exports have faced community opposition across the Pacific Northwest for nearly four years. Thousands of health professionals, businesses, local electeds, families and communities have stood up against these proposals every step of the way, from mine to rail and port to plant.
“It is really foolish, bordering on madness, to dig up a big chunk of North America, tie up traffic on the way through, and then ship that off to another country so they can bury us economically,” said Executive Constantine, chair of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance that is united in opposition to the shipment of coal and oil by train through our region for export. “I stand with the Lummi Nation and all those in the Pacific Northwest who are working to protect our air, our water, and our fisheries.”
James has contributed totem poles for significant events before, beginning with a commemorative totem to memorialize victims of the 2011 World Trade Center attacks.
“The totem in and of itself is not sacred,” James said. “It becomes sacred when people come together and unite for the cause it represents. We are standing with Washington’s faith leaders today to tell Gateway Pacific Terminals that the peoples of the Pacific Northwest will not accept environmental and economic destruction for their company’s profits.”
by Jace Bylenga
It was a touching morning in Spokane on Tuesday when members of the Lummi community stopped at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist with a totem pole specially carved to raise awareness about dirty and dangerous coal
and oil export proposals. The journey began in the Dakotas, and will end at the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta Canada, raising awareness at threatened communities along the way.
Kul Wicasa Oyate—(Lower Brule Sioux Country, South Dakota)
“Without water, our tears are all that is left to drink.”
The six-hour ceremony with the Kul Wicasa Oyate (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) at the Lower Brule reservation began with humor, progressed into a deeply moving ceremony and testimonial to the vision of the totem pole journey, and ended in an impassioned plea from a young Sioux woman fighting to stop the southern progress of the “black snake.”
Lakota George is a flutist and flute maker, a man of deep cultural knowledge, and more than a little good humor. He told of his plan to someday write a book based on his experience touring the United States, entitled: “What Not to Ask an Indian When You Are on a Vacation.” Among other things, he told us he was once asked: “How long have you been an Indian?”
But humor gave way to a sacred ceremony and the thoughts of the members of the tribe on their plight, and their fight, against the Keystone Pipeline~the “black snake.” A young woman spoke of her dream in which the snake was approaching from the north, consuming the water, killing all life, and making the people ill. Standing against the snake first were the women, then the men, then the traditional leaders, and behind them the children. Those who were made sick were being passed back to be healed.
Other tribal members spoke of the “corporate espionage” and the corrupting influences of efforts to buy off tribal leaders, divide the community, marginalize those who oppose the pipeline, and divide the tribes against each other. “It’s an old story,” Jewell James of the Lummi tribe said, when he rose to speak,” as old as the first efforts to steal our land, your land, and silence us. Their greatest fear is that we will unite.”
Despite the challenges, the tribal members attending the blessing ceremony left no doubt that they, and most of their community who understand the issue, firmly oppose the pipeline proposal that would devastate and denature their homeland. Their passion and spiritual connection to the water was evident in the ceremony down on the Missouri River (“muddy water”). The Kul Wicasa tribal people and the Lummi stood in the waters of the Missouri as the prayers were offered and water was gathered for the travelers to take on their journey to eventually place in the Salish Sea.
Returning to the site of the ceremony the lead speaker asked that all those assembled join in a prayer for the land, the water, the people and all our relations, and that the pipeline be defeated. “You can use any words you want to use, in any way you choose,” he said. As the prayer and the round drum invoked this ceremony, the sun broke through the clouds over the ceremonial grounds. After the prayer a Kul Wicasa person told of a vision of a battlefield. During the battle the field was suddenly illuminated and the warrior woke up to the light to see more clearly and deeply the way to success and victory. “They have profits,” another tribal speaker said, “but we have prophecies.” The passionate words of the young Sioux woman warrior at the end of the day spoke to the spirit of defeating the “black snake” and corporate injustices, of uniting the tribes and their non-Indian friends and neighbors, and setting the stage for a new era in our shared responsibilities to the land, to each other, and to the Creator.
There was no question that this grassroots movement in this part of Sioux Territory would secure victory. Their passion, their understanding that others stand beside them, their humility, pride in their heritage, and great love of their homeland would guide and protect them. Jewell James let them know that the Lummi stand beside them, reading a letter from Timothy Ballew, the Chairman of the Lummi Nation.
“Our commitment to place, to each other, unites us as one people, one voice to call out to others who understand that our shared responsibility is to leave a better, more bountiful world for those who follow,” the Chairman wrote in his letter.
Photos from the ceremony with the Kul Wicasa Oyate and that day’s journey:
Story by Kurt Russo, photos and captions by James Leder
On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the House of Tears Carvers visited the reservations of the Ihanktonwan Oyate (Yankton Sioux) in South Dakota. While there, the journey met with elders leading the fight to protect sacred waters from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and other fossil fuel megaprojects. Carvers put finishing touches on the totem pole and shared gifts with the elders of the Ihanktonwan Oyate people.
Along the way to the Dakotas, carvers came across coal trains from the Powder River Basin.
All photos are by James Leder (organizer with the Students for Renewable Energy and activist for decolonization).
Musings from the Road–Kurt Russo, Journeyer
Since leaving Bellingham on August 17 we have covered 1500 miles in four days to get to Ihanktonwan Territory in South Dakota, where I am writing from now. Crossing the Columbia River we learned of the victory at the Port of Morrow and offered prayers of thanks. In Billings we stopped to watch the passing of numerous mile-long coal trains headed west from the Powder River basin.
While in Ihanktonwan Oyate (Yankton Sioux) Territory the Lummi will touch up the totem pole, meet with tribal leaders and take part in ceremonies and a blessing of waters that would be poisoned by the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Waters from the San Juan Islands of the Salish Sea, traditional Lummi territory, will be mixed with those of the Missouri River in Ihanktonwan Territory as the totem pole is taken to Spirit Camps for prayers and blessings for all our relations, and for the Creation that is our shared responsibility and sacred obligation to witness, honor and protect.
LUMMI NATION — The cornerstone of northwest Native American art, the totem pole, served as both inspiration and rallying point this morning as over 250 residents of Whatcom and Skagit Counties, both tribal and non-tribal, gathered at the Lummi Nation to launch the totem pole journey. The focus of the event was the announcement by six major Christian churches in the Pacific Northwest that they would join the fight to block North America’s largest coal terminal at Xwe’chi’eXen, the Lummi name for Cherry Point.
“I am honored to be here to speak for the promises that need to be kept, and our promises yet to be made,” said Reverend Charis Weathers, a Lutheran pastor who delivered the announcement to leaders of the Lummi Nation. “We hope that this journey will call people to action, that the eyes of those who have not seen what is happening to the land and waters will be opened, and the ears of those who have been deaf to the cries of the earth will finally hear.”
The ceremony began with a statement from Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew that endorsed the 5,500-mile totem pole journey. The journey will visit churches all over the Pacific Northwest that have signed onto the letter opposing coal export proposals. Lummi tribal member Freddie Lane delivered the Chairman’s statement to the assembled crowd. “Already, coal export officials have shown breathtaking disrespect for our heritage,” the statement read. “To those who would sacrifice the way of life of all peoples of the Pacific Northwest, we say: take notice, you will not win this battle. Enough is enough!”
Master Carver Jewell James spoke to the need for, and the intentions of, the totem pole journey. “The people must be awakened to what is happening,” he said. “The salmon are dying. The starfish have disappeared… Coal exports would add hundreds of ships thousands of feet long through a narrow passage in Alaska were some of the only salmon remain.” James explained that he hoped the journey would strengthen relationships and community alliances. “I remember as I was taught by elders who said it’s not the totem pole that is sacred, it becomes treasured from the gathering of the people around it, from bringing families together.”
Those in attendance also heard from Chief Tsilixw, hereditary leader of the Lummi tribe, who spoke to what he felt was the responsibility of people of all faiths to uphold a shared responsibility to the land and water, and to future generations. Other speakers included Jay Julius, a Lummi Councilmember and fisherman, Swil Kanim, a Lummi tribal member and performing artist, and Doug James, a Lummi tribal elder and member of the House of Tears Carvers. Pledges of continued support were offered by representatives of local environmental organizations: Matt Petryni, Clean Energy Program Manager for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and Stephanie Buffum, Executive Director of Friends of the San Juans.
Following the remarks of speakers, members of the crowd were invited to join in blessing the 19-foot red cedar totem pole, which ultimately will be presented to First Nations battling tar sands proposals in their homelands of northern Alberta. The journey brings together an unusual alliance of First Nations, environmental organizations, and faith communities in a combined effort to protect the sacred sites of the Lummi Nation and the communities of the Pacific Northwest. The journey was launched this morning at the ceremony and will take approximately three weeks to complete, with the final ceremony scheduled for September 6 in Alberta.
All the event photos from James Leder:
We are pleased to announce the final schedule for the US portion of this year’s Totem Pole Journey, which will be launching next Sunday from the Lummi Nation, west of Bellingham, Washington. Most ceremonies are free and open to the public, but accommodations vary. Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about a specific event.
Sunday, 17 August, 9:30 am: LUMMI NATION — Inaugural Blessing at the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, 2665 Kwina Road.
- Thursday, 21 August and Friday, 22 August, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm: WAGNER, SD — Spirit camps hosted by the Yankton Sioux.
- Saturday, 23 August, Noon – 5:00 pm: LOWER BRULE, SD — Blessing ceremony at the Lower Brule Reservation.
- Sunday, 24 August, 5:00 pm: BILLINGS — Blessing ceremony at Riverfront Park, 7334 S. Billings Boulevard.
- Tuesday, 26 August, 11:00 am: SPOKANE — Blessing with faith leaders at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, 127 E 12th Avenue.
- Wednesday, 27 August: YAKAMA NATION — Ceremony and events, hosted by a tribal community but are open to the public.
- Wednesday, 27 August, 1:00 pm: OLYMPIA — Blessing ceremony and celebration of the legacy of late tribal leader Billy Frank Jr., to be held at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge.
- Friday, 29 August, 10:30 am: SEATTLE — Blessing ceremony at St. Marks Cathedral on Capitol Hill, 1245 10th Avenue East.
- Friday, 29 August, 7:00 pm: SAN JUAN ISLAND — Ceremony and event at “English Camp,” San Juan Island National Historical Park.
- Events in Canada to follow, including a ceremony in Vancouver on August 31. Please check back at this site for further details.
This Wednesday at 7:00 pm, the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship is graciously hosting a public introduction and benefit in support of Our Shared Responsibility: A Totem Pole Journey. This is a special opportunity for community leaders, people of faith, and local activists to learn more about this year’s journey and how they can stand with the Lummi community in support of their work to stop the coal terminal and protect sacred tribal sites. Here are the event details:
A Sacred and Shared Responsibility: Introducing and Supporting the Totem Pole Journey
Wednesday, July 23rd – 7:00 pm
Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship
1207 Ellsworth Street, Bellingham, Washington