August 23, 2014
By Robin Everett, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign
Last year, members of the Pacific Northwest's Lummi Nation made a historic trip to the Otter Creek Valley of Montana with a traditional, hand-carved totem pole. Together with local ranchers and members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, they began a journey across the West, stopping in towns and cities along the way to raise the call to help fight ill-conceived coal export projects.
This month, members of the Lummi Nation have once again embarked on a totem pole journey called "Our Shared Responsibility -- the Land, the Waters, the People." The purpose of this journey is to call attention to the proposed shipment of an unprecedented volume of coal and oil from the American heartland to the Pacific Coast.
"One primary goal of the journey is to connect tribal nations along the coal corridor," says Lummi master carver Jewell James, above at left, and below with the 19-foot-tall totem he carved for this year's journey. "Tribal Nations innately understand and honor the need to protect sacred landscapes and treaty rights. Uniting the Tribal Nations is important for this particular issue and for tribal communities that would be affected by coal transport and export."
In the face of the proposed Cherry Point coal export terminal that would sit on their ancestral lands, members of the Lummi tribe are making a protest journey to unite tribal and nontribal communities whose lives intersect with the paths of coal exports and other fossil fuel mega-projects.
Endorsed by the Lummi Nation, the 2,500-mile binational trip will travel from South Dakota and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route, home to the Pacific Northwest before turning back and winding north to the Canadian tar sands.
The Lummi community is making this trip at a pivotal time. Although the Ambre Energy export proposal in Oregon received a major blow last week in the form of a critical permit denial, two export proposals remain on the table in Washington State. One of them, at Cherry Point, would sit atop Lummi ancestral lands known as Xwe'chi'eXen. The mining of that coal would also destroy Northern Cheyenne lands in Montana's Powder River Basin, and all along the way fossil fuel transport would harm the fishing and treaty rights of Native Americans.
Totem poles are one of the oldest forms of North American storytelling. "The totem itself is not sacred," explains Jewell James. "It is only when it is touched and shared by many communities standing together that the totem becomes a lasting part of our memories and a symbol of our resistance."
And that resistence is strong. Last week's denial of Ambre Energy's permit for its proposed coal export terminal on the Columbia River demostrates the real power of local communities to stop coal exports in their tracks.
Follow #TotemPoleJourney for live updates.
All photos by James Leder