Armed With Recent Victories, The Lummi Totem Pole Journey Heads to North Dakota

Could the Lummi’s win over the Cherry Point coal battle influence the debate in N.D.?

For Jewell Praying Wolf James, Head Carver of the Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers, the Lummi totem pole journey is all about alliances.

“All we are is part of a larger movement,” he told the crowd gathered at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Thursday afternoon, an early stop on the Lummi’s fourth annual, nearly 5,000-mile pilgrimage across the West to protest fossil fuel projects. “We’re hoping we’re creating an atmosphere where enivronmental groups and citizen groups and church groups are all hearing each other,” he said. “They’re all talking about the same thing.”

And then, to huge whoops of applause: “There’s no stopping the people! They will talk — and they will expose what’s going on. We believe that.”

The ceremony at St. Mark’s was full of passionate speeches like James’, as well as burning sage, drums, ancestral and choral music, hugs, and handshakes. Some attendees wore traditional Lummi garb; some wore the Sierra Club’s red “Beyond Coal Exports” T-shirts. Many came forward to touch the 22-foot long totem pole, carved out of western red cedar, topped with a blue-eyed bald eagle and flanked by a wolf, a bear, and four white buffalo heads, among many other symbols, rife with ancient stories. The Seattle event was one of a dozen-plus on the totem pole’s 19-day journey (on Friday, for instance, it landed in Longview, the site of Washington’s last remaining coal export terminal proposal).

This year, though, Lummi organizers have reason to feel particularly emboldened.

On May 9, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a federal permit required to greenlight what would have been the largest coal export terminal in North America because the project violated an 1855 treaty that protects Lummi fishing rights. That decision killed the bitterly contested proposal — and prompted the Whatcom County Council to issue a temporary moratorium on all fossil fuel projects at the sacred site, known to the Lummi as Xwe’chi’eXen. (Activists’ goal now, says Sierra Club lead organizer Robin Everett, is to make that moratorium permanent).

The Lummi win was not the first of its kind — a similar, smaller proposed coal project was killed in Oregon due to tribal fishing rights, too — but it set a huge precedent, one that the Standing Rock Sioux, now protesting an oil pipeline project in North Dakota, is certainly eyeing.

“We will be going down to Standing Rock,” James says, following a request from tribal leaders there. The Lummi will, in fact, cut a few stops out of their planned itinerary to hightail it to the Camp of the Sacred Stone, near Cannon Ball, N.D., to support hundreds of indigenous activists in what looks to be an increasingly tense standoff.

Members of nearly 90 tribes are now blocking construction on the 1,170-mile Dakota Access pipeline project, which abuts the Standing Rock reservation and runs under the Missouri River, which, activists argue, could threaten crucial water supplies. In July, the Standing Rock Sioux sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the agency violated the tribe’s rights in permitting the pipeline; in turn, the Texas-based developer behind the project sued the Standing Rock Sioux for blocking it. A federal judge is expected to rule on the dispute in September.

“The Army Corps of Engineers did set a precedent with their opinion on the Lummi on May 9, and I know the Sioux tribe are very much aware of that opinon,” James says. “They want to have the same respect given to them. They felt their voice isn’t being heard… [and that] the Army Corps is totally ignoring them.”

He calls North Dakota officials’ response to the protest — removing demonstrators’ drinking water supply, for example — “outrageous” and points to both federal and international law that does (or should) protect indigenous rights. The 2008 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he says, gives tribes “the right to free, prior, and informed consent before those projects are implemented.”

In the Pacific Northwest, many fossil fuel export proposals floated in the past few years have folded. Part of that is due to the precipitous collapse of the U.S. coal industry, part to the groundswell of opposition from tribes, environmental groups, activists, and political leaders. And more and more, it seems, when tribes are on board, they win.

“I do have to say that the coal industry has given us a gift,” says the Sierra Club’s Robin Everett, who came to the Northwest in 2009 specifically to battle two now-defunct coal plants, and attended the totem event Thursday. “They have united us in a way we have never been united before. Our partnerships with the Lummi and other tribes… our parterships with doctors and elected officials … it’s really a unique coalition,” she says. “That’s the reason why they’re going down.”

There are several Washington-based coal and oil projects that are still alive, though, that the Lummi and other groups are bound and determined to keep fighting. Among them: A proposed three-mile rail spur in Anacortes, which would enable the Shell’s Puget Sound refinery to bring in crude oil by rail, instead of by ship (this fall, the draft EIS will be available for public comment); Millennium Bulk Terminals, the coal-export proposal in Longview; and the Tesoro-Savage oil-export proposal in Vancouver, which, in a few months, should see an Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council recommendation, one way or the other. After that, it’s up to the governor to approve or veto the project.

And so for the Lummi, who now see allies across North America, from Cherry Point to Standing Rock, these fights are far from over.

While the defeat of the Cherry Point proposal was a “huge victory,” says Shasta Cano-Martin, secretary of the Lummi Indian Business Council and president of the Lummi Cultural Arts Association, “one of the things that our elders keep telling us is that we can’t let our guard down. We still need to protect it. There are still other industries that have their eyes on that sacred site… it’s not over.”

Adds James: “Everywhere we look, there’s been a lot of victories. We’re wininng some battles, but we haven’t won the war. We have to remain vigilant.”