Master carver Jewell James of the Lummi Nation brought a colorful 22-foot healing totem pole to Olympia on Tuesday as part of a 1,700-mile journey over 16 days that he and other carvers are making from Wyoming to British Columbia. The trip is a rolling protest against the potential export of Wyoming coal to China via Northwest ports.
The pole — mounted on a flatbed truck — has been hauled along the path that coal trains would follow to the proposed shipping docks at Longview and Cherry Point in Western Washington as well as other fuel export sites in British Columbia.
James, along with tribal drummers and speakers, called for help to block both proposals. James said the Cherry Point area is sacred because Lummi ancestors are buried there. He said treaty-protected fish runs also might be harmed and that the health of tribal members all along the routes is at risk.
“We need to do what we can to increase the audience that hears their voice and concerns,” James said in an interview, explaining why the Lummi carvers are making the trip to draw attention to the environmental damage he expects to see from coal exports. “We hope the federal government will look at the folly of these proposals and deny the application.”
Backers of the projects say coal exports can create jobs by selling coal to China, India and other Asian markets. But Beth Doglio, director of the advocacy group Climate Solutions’ Power Past Coal campaign, said the proposal to ship 48 million tons of coal a year from Cherry Point puts at risk “140 acres of wetlands that’s essential to protecting the Lummi’s and other First People’s fishing rights.”
The totem pole tour was sponsored by the Native American Land Conservancy, an intertribal organization, under the theme “We draw the line.”
About 75 people stood in sun and rain at the Capitol Campus to hear speakers on the topic, including Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela and Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum. Both reminded the crowd that their local governments are on the record opposing the export proposals backed by rail and coal interests.
The Lummi tribe is already on record as opposing SSA Marine’s export dock, the Gateway Pacific Terminal, at Cherry Point on the grounds it could harm its treaty-protected Puget Sound fisheries. It is not clear whether the Lummi objections can block the project outright, but the Army Corps of Engineers says the tribe’s objections carry some weight when it is deciding permits.
“The Corps understands the Lummi Nation opposes the proposed bulk commodity terminal in many regards. Most significant to the Corps’ regulatory decision-making authority and process are the Lummi Nation’s concerns about impacts to usual and accustomed fishing rights reserved by treaty,” Corps spokeswoman Patricia Cook Graesser in Seattle said in an email. “There is established case law supporting a tribe’s ability to assert and the Corps’ ability to consider more than de minimus impacts to treaty rights in our permit decisions.”
SSA Marine is organizing the export dock project at Cherry Point, where some of the Lummi said they have ancestors buried. SSA Marine agreed to pay $1.65 million to an activist group in 2011 to settle a lawsuit related to land clearing done without proper permits, and James said he doesn’t trust the company to follow the law in the future.
But Bob Watters, senior vice president and spokesman for SSA Marine, said his organization has been trying to work with members of the Lummi tribe. “Actually we’ve been working very hard with the Lummis and are very supportive of maintaining and working with them to maintain both their way of life, their fishing industry and their cultural way of life,” Watters said by telephone. He said they also are working with the state Department of Ecology on ways to lessen vessel traffic.
“A lot of this is going to be worked out over time as the studies by the state and Corps determine how the project is going to work in the local surrounding and environment.” Watters said. “But they (the Lummi tribe) are important for us. We do respect their way of life and cultural aspects. We want to work diligently to maintain that.’’
James and the totem pole began their voyage in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming where the coal would be exported, and they have stopped in Otter Creek Valley in Montana as well as in Spokane, the Celilo Indian village near the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, and Portland. The pole and carvers move on Wednesday to St. Leo Catholic Church in Tacoma, then to Seattle, Cherry Point (just north of Bellingham) and British Columbia. The pole will be permanently installed in North Vancouver, James said.
He said many in the communities along the way feel isolated and alone in their fight against the coal proposals. But he says he believes the totem pole — which he designed and was carved by Lummi members from a 300-year-old red cedar tree — is bringing attention and letting people know they have hope of prevailing.
The event drew tribal members from throughout the region, including drummer Ray Krise of the Skokomish and Puyallup tribes, Grace Ann Byrd of the Nisqually, Robert Satiacum Jr., and two major actors in the tribal fishing rights battles of the past half-century — Hank Adams and Billy Frank Jr., who were jailed for their efforts to win recognition for treaty fishing rights.
Many linked the coal effort to past sovereignty and environmental battles waged by tribes over the decades.
“This is nothing new for us,” Frank said. “We have been on the Capitol steps for 50 years.”