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Members of the Lummi Nation ‘draw the line’ on coal

By Mary Stamp

Lummi Tribe
Rachel Charles and Jewel James, the carver of the totempole in Riverfront Park.

Members of the Spokane Tribe and local leaders recently welcomed at Riverfront Park in Spokane members of the Lummi Nation, who carved a totem pole—called Kwel’hoy—“we draw the line”—to express their opposition to a proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham on the sacred land they call Xwe’chi’eXen.

The port would destroy Lummi burial grounds, holy sites, treaty rights, fisheries and, with fishing the basis of Lummi life, the spirit of the people.

 The Lummi have a tradition of carving and delivering totem poles to areas struck by disaster or in need of hope and healing.

Beginning Sept. 18 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, Lummi leaders began a 1,200-mile Totem Pole Journey to visit other tribes affected by coal mining, transport and export.

Through the totem pole, their goal is to offer blessing and protection, and to inspire people to speak out.  The journey followed the rail line from the coalfields of Wyoming and Montana to Southwest British Columbia, where the pole will stand guard over sacred lands.

Faith, environmental, indigenous and civic leaders joined them in ceremonies at stops along the way, beginning Sept. 18 at Otter Creek in Montana, and then to Missoula, Spokane, Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, Xwe’chi’eXen, and ending Sept. 29 at Tsleil-Waututh in British Columbia.

Lummi totem pole carver
David Browneagle greeting the Lummi Nation visitors.

The goal is to connect tribal nations along the coal corridor, bringing together different cultural communities in a common cause.

From Wyoming and Montana across the land and the Salish Sea (Pacific Ocean) to Asia, communities, livelihoods, health, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, air and water safety, natural resources and quality of life would be adversely affected, said the Lummi leaders.

People of many faiths are uniting to express their solidarity about protecting the sacred site and honoring treaty rights.  On Aug. 14, faith leaders formed Interfaith Solidarity with the Lummi Nation Protecting Cherry Point because “our sacred traditions call us to respond.”  In a brochure they prepared for the Lummi tour, they pointed out that most traditions have sacred places and they recognize that cemeteries are “hallowed places” that should not be disrupted.

Their statement also expresses appreciation that the Lummi and other indigenous peoples remind “us that we are part of a living, dynamic cosmos.  Creation has a dignity and purpose that goes beyond human quests for economic gain.  We violate this when we refuse to accept the limits of Creation and our responsibilities to it, or when we are complicit in practices that result in the further destruction of the wellbeing of the creation for all.”

Lummi totem pole
Lummi totem pole with salmon, starving child, warriors, wolf and harvest moon.

Before the presentation in Spokane, Dillon Jules, standing on the truck carrying the totem pole, explained the symbols House of Tears carver Jewell James carved and Dillon painted.

At the bottom, the salmon represents the Lummi way of life and the hope it will continue.  Next are warriors who will protect the way of life.  Over them is a child who is starving, its ribs showing, hungry for knowledge.

“We need to stand up for him,” Dillon said, “so we can have a world without toxins and pollution.”

Water represents hope that the way of life will continue;a  thunderbird, the cultural and spiritual way of life, and a wolf, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia. 

“The harvest moon at the top tells us when we can catch salmon and harvest other foods,” he said.

Twa-le Abrahamson, the air quality specialist for the Spokane Tribe, and other members of the Spokane Tribe welcomed representatives of the Lummi Nation and offered their support.  She announced the Sept. 25 hearing in Spokane on the proposal for Longview to be a coal export port, too.

“We have the power to say ‘no’ to that and ‘yes’ to future generations, salmon and our children,” she said.

David Brown Eagle, a member of the Spokane Tribe and advisor/instructor at The Community School, said everyone in each generation needs to speak out to protect the earth, because threats have come throughout history and around the world.

“We tend to want someone else to do what needs to be done, but I am here today speaking, so when my great, great grandchildren ask what their great-great grandfather did about stopping coal trains and coal export, their grandparents will tell them, “He stood up,’” said David, who brought students. 

“We all come as ones, but think if all the ones come together.  We will have hundreds of people,” he said.

“If we do not listen, we will continue to do what has been done to us,” David said.  “Our ancestors knew, but now we have scientific proof that carbon emissions go into the water and kill water life.   We also know the dollar has become our God and directs much of what we do.”

He also expressed solidarity with eight members of the Nez Perce Tribal Council who recently were arrested for standing on the road to block a shipment of equipment being transported through their reservation to the tar sands in Alberta.  They believe the tar sands and related Keystone XL pipeline will bring environmental destruction.

Deb Abrahamson, a Spokane Tribe member, told of work with the SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land) Society to restore the land and water from uranium contamination after years of mining on the reservation.

“Our children on the reservation drink arsenic-laden water.  They drink water from wells with radiation and uranium,” she said.  “We have lost generations of elders who worked in the mines to cancer and other health issues.

“We have been chosen to share with our children, grandchildren, families and communities what we have heard here about coal trains and coal export,” she said.  “We are all connected.  We continue to be subjected to poisons as a result of capitalism emphasizing the ‘Almighty Dollar.’

“Our actions today are our obligation for future generations,” she said. “We need to walk together so we have a stronger voice.”

Ramona Charles, a member of the Lummi Nation, then spoke of her grief that Xwe’chi’eXen, a registered gravesite for her people, is threatened.

“I wake up from dreams, in which I hear songs from the ancestors calling us,” Ramona said.  “We need to ‘warrior up’ and protect ourselves and the next seven generations, as our ancestors in seven generations before us saved the earth, air and water for us. 

“Everything in the waters feeds us or feeds what feeds us.  When the tide is low, we go out and harvest shellfish, oysters, crabs and clams,” she said, telling of her niece coming there because where she lives, there is nothing to harvest when the tides go out because of the toxins.

She also awakens crying because she knows it’s not just white corporations they are fighting, but “the corporations have bent the ears of our people, creating fights within tribes,” Ramona said.

Speaking out for treaty rights, tribal sovereignty, religious freedom and environmental protection is not new for her husband, Jewell James, who carved the totem pole.  He has traveled the world, seeing pollution, pain and suffering among indigenous people.

Jewell, who has a degree in political science from the University of Washington and studied law for a year in California, organized a campaign from 1986 to 1989 to challenge an effort to tax reservations.  He has spoken out about proliferation of petrochemicals that can kill people in glues, paints, plastics, preservatives and pesticides in houses and foods.

“For 500 years, Indian elders have been wisdom keepers about care of the earth,” said Jewell, who saw dead rivers in Europe.

When he was told to tell the churches about the threat to Lummi land and water posed by the proposed port, he thought they would not want to help because “their faith speaks of dominating the earth, and they have done much to destroy the earth and spirit.” 

However, he learned that in 1987, 10 major Christian denominational leaders of churches in the Pacific Northwest issued a formal Declaration of Apology to tribal councils and traditional spiritual leaders of Indian and Eskimo peoples in the Northwest for their churches’ participation in the destruction of Native American customs and beliefs, sacred sites and objects.  They pledged to uphold the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

They committed to call the Christian community to recognize and respect the tribes’ traditional ways of life and protect the sacred places.  They also pledged to “stand in solidarity with you on these important religious issues.”

Jewell said for words to have meaning, they have to be put into hearts and actions.

“We believe that the earth is greater than us, that God is greater than us.  We can’t speak and act alone,” he said, telling how each photon of light needs to travel with others for there to be light.  “We as Indians know the power is beyond ourselves.  It takes all of us to create a wave.  Let’s go do something, take hands and walk and talk with someone.

“Each of you is important in creating the collective.  I hope you awaken more people,” he said.

Not having known that the Spokane Tribe was dealing with uranium pollution, he promised to tell others along the way about it, as he is telling of damage the Otter Creek  mine will do to Oglala Sioux cultural, historical and burial sites.

“We need to speak up and speak out,” he said, affirming that their rights are included in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “We won’t give up.  It’s our duty.”

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Copyright © October 2013 - The Fig Tree