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Church leaders support Native rights in fossil fuel transport

Lummi Nation members came through the region on a totem pole tour to educate people from South Dakota back to their home at Cherry Point to protect the environment.  Their tour uplifts the impact of open pit coal mining, coal trains, construction on sacred lands, water pollution and air pollution from burning coal in China.  Their repeated visit and challenge is a reminder of the need for tenacity to protect the environment from plans of corporations to earn a profit.

“It’s not that First Nations own this land and you don’t,” the Rev. Martin Elfert of St. John’s Cathedral pointed out in opening comments, “but that land is unownable.”  He pointed out that even in Christian tradition, people are given “dominion” over the land.  He understands that to mean that “we are to be stewards of a gift from God we have for a while, care for and give to the next generation.”

Martin was proud in 1987 and 1997 when his denomination was among those whose Northwest leaders signed documents of apology to Northwest indigenous people.  Those apologies acknowledged “historical disrespect of Native American spiritual practices and traditions” and pledged “to defend the rights of Native Peoples, including access to and protection of sacred sites, and an end to political and economic injustice against tribal communities.”

On August 26, in a parking lot near the cathedral, Episcopal Bishop Jim Waggoner, Jr., and Lutheran Bishop Martin Welles signed a new document of solidarity.

That means they and about 250 others who gathered will work to deepen the relationship between Native Americans and the people in their congregations.

The document recognizes that the new threat is the mining, transport, burning and disposal of fossil fuels related to proposed coal export terminals.

It recognizes that coal export would damage native fisheries protected by treaties and “poison our shared air and water.”  The coal trains would cross lands “sacred to indigenous peoples, and impact the health of those communities.”  They acknowledge that use of fossil fuels creates “terrible threats of climate disruption,” and acidifies and pollutes the ocean, harming “all God’s children, especially the poorest.”

Tribal leaders asked faith leaders to keep past promises to stand with them.  This statement was signed by United Church of Christ, Sisters of Providence, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist and Episcopal bishops and denominational executives.  It calls on the Northwest Congressional delegation, other elected officials, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior and all people of goodwill to uphold the treaty rights and consider all the environmental and cultural harm to Native lands and peoples in making decisions about the mining, transport and export of coal and other fossil fuels.

The leaders call for protecting “the life we have been given and the Earth we call home,” recognizing, too, that “our greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.”  They commit to and call others to commit to putting this ethic into action by standing in solidarity with Native neighbors “to safeguard the traditional lands, waters and sacred sites of their peoples from destruction.”

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart also pledged his support because of the “threat to our river from rail transport of fossil fuels,” not trusting corporate pledges to make trains safer, and challenging “our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Jewell James of the House of Tears Carvers with the Lummi Nation, while saying that churches in the past undermined the idea that the earth is sacred, welcomed the statement.  The totem pole this year, he said represents women, who in Lummi tradition pass on the culture.  “We are to protect people who do good work to protect the air, water, land and earth,” he said.  He called for sharing the message in churches and communities of the region.

Mary Stamp - Editor

Copyright © September 2014 - The Fig Tree