Using artwork and music, the Lummi Nation’s totem pole journey celebrated past successes and highlighted ongoing conflicts with fossil fuel projects as it stopped in Seattle on Saturday.
The journey, dubbed “Kwel’hoy,” or “We Draw the Line,” is the fifth such tour the Lummi have undertaken in a quest to support other tribes and confront projects by oil and coal companies that they say threaten tribal lands, waterways and the environment.
The Lummi triumphed in 2016 when the United States Army Corps of Engineers decided not to grant a permit for a proposed coal port at Cherry Point, basing its decision on the negative impact it would have on the tribe’s treaty fishing rights.
Representatives of Sierra Club, who have partnered with the tribe to campaign against coal projects, spoke at the event and credited the victory to tribal leadership.
“The Lummi’s win at Cherry Point really has helped inspire a movement of tribal activism across North America to challenge fossil fuels,” said Robin Everett, organizing manager for Sierra Club’s Northwest Region.
The Lummi House of Tears Carvers presented the totem pole they created for this year’s journey outside University Congregational United Church of Christ, where Linda Soriano of the Lummi Nation and Ken Workman of the Duwamish Tribe led a ceremony blessing the totem in words and song.
The crowd circled tightly around the totem pole, and attendees were invited to reach out and lay hands on the carving as incense burned during the blessing.
Workman explained the connection between the carved tree, the earth and Native peoples.
“This is tremendous work; the people are still here,” he said. “Dig deep and you run into us.”
After the ceremony, guests were welcomed inside the church where a coalition of local tribal members, members of the faith community and representatives from several environmental organizations spoke about recent successes and emphasized a desire to work together against coal projects in the Northwest region.
The tribe displayed several painted panels depicting nature scenes with a wide red band running through them — a symbol of the line being drawn to protect tribal lands against the fossil fuel industry.
The Total Experience Gospel Choir sang a rendition of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful.” During the choir’s performance of Diana Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch,” audience members turned around in their seats and clasped each other’s hands.
Before the “We Draw the Line” journeys began in 2013, the Lummi House of Tears Carvers carved healing totems and brought them to disaster areas in need of support, master carver Jewell James said.
“Instead of making them for graves, we switched over,” he said, explaining that the totem poles are now being created for the purpose of drawing attention to Native lands he says are endangered by fossil fuel projects. “Our dream is to turn everything around.”
While the event was in large part a celebration of the victory at Cherry Point, or Xwe’chi’eXen — where many Lummi ancestors are buried — organizers took a moment to stress the ongoing conflicts against coal in our region.
“We, together, are stopping fossil fuel projects,” said Rebecca Ponzio, director of the fossil fuel program for the Washington Environmental Council. “We are winning, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Although there are currently no coal projects being proposed in the city of Seattle, Ponzio cautioned that projects in the greater Northwest region — including one north of the U.S.-Canadian border — could have potentially dangerous impacts on our local environment.
The proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline in British Columbia would result in a significant surge in the number of oil tankers cruising through the Salish Sea, the body of water that separates British Columbia from Washington state and includes the Puget Sound, according to Ponzio.
This additional tanker traffic, she says, would dramatically increase the risk of an oil spill in our region.
Another notable conflict is being led by the Puyallup Tribe against Puget Sound Energy’s plan to build a liquefied natural gas facility at the Port of Tacoma.
Ponzio said this new fracked gas, which PSE gets from Canada or the Rocky Mountain states, is damaging to the environment despite claims of safety.
She also pointed out that the Pacific Northwest region is often a target for coal projects because of its proximity to countries with growing economies, such as China along with its deep water ports and established railways, making it attractive to oil and coal companies looking to export their product.
The strategy advocated by the alliance of tribal and church leaders and environmental organizations at the “We Draw the Line” event was clear: interconnectedness.
Victoria Leistman, an organizer for Sierra Club, asked each person attending to think about the one thing they had to give in the fight against fossil fuels, whether it was money or time to attend meetings and hearings. “What moves us, motivates us,” she said.
“Stay engaged,” was Ponzio’s advice. “We need all of us.”
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