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September 05, 2014

Our Shared Responsibility -- A Journey Against Coal and Oil


2,500-mile totem pole trip unites tribal and non-tribal communities across two countries

By Robin Everett, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

With the rallying cry of, "Warrior Up!" members of the Lummi Nation embarked in late August on a totem pole journey which they called Our Shared Responsibility: The Land, The Waters, The People, to oppose the proposed shipment of an unprecedented volume of coal and oil from the American heartland to the Pacific Coast.


That's Lummi elder and House of Tears master carver Jewell James, speaking above at the journey's kick-off ceremony in Bellingham, Washington, and below with the totem pole he helped create for the journey.


The mining, transport and burning of coal and oil threaten the lands, waters, resources and human health of all of us who live in the Northwest, but none more so than the indigenous people who sit right in the path of destruction. The proposed Cherry Point coal terminal would sit right on the ancestral lands of the Lummi Nation known as Xwe'chi'eXen, below.


The mining of that coal would also destroy Northern Cheyenne lands in Montana, and all along the way fossil fuel transport would harm the fishing and treaty rights of Native Americans. This is only one of several ill-conceived coal and oil shipment proposals for our region.

A 19-foot red cedar totem pole, carved by the Lummi Nation House of Tears carvers was at the heart of the journey as a reminder of our place within nature, our responsibility to future generations, and our connections to each other and to our communities. Totem poles are one of the oldest forms of North American storytelling.


The journey commenced just one week after Oregon Department of State Lands denied a crucial permit for Ambre Energy's proposed coal export facility in Boardman, Oregon. Ambre's dirty coal project would have sent hundreds of coal trains through the region, thousands of coal barges down the Columbia River, and further disrupted our climate with dangerous carbon pollution.


The historic decision deals a severe blow to all coal export proposals in the Northwest and marks the first time a Pacific Northwest state agency has formally rejected a permit for one of the proposed coal export terminals. The Sierra Club has been working for years as a member of the Power Past Coal coalition to rally public support against the terminals.


In its decision, the Department of State Lands cited impacts to "a small but important and long-standing" Columbia River tribal fishery.

"The state of Oregon recognized that tribal sovereignty and treaty fishing rights must be considered in coal export decisions," said Jewell James. "We expect the Washington State Department of Ecology to make the same considerations for Xwe'chi'eXen. Coal exports would devastate our fishery and threaten non-tribal fisheries, as well as damage one of our most important cultural sites."

After the kick-off event in Bellingham, below, where over 200 people came out to wish the travelers well, the totem pole journey began in earnest on August 22 in South Dakota, and then traveled through Montana and Washington before making its way up to Canada. At every stop along the way, hundreds of supporters including religious leaders, elected leaders, local tribal members, and environmentalists stood up with the Lummi Nation to oppose dirty and dangerous fossil fuel projects.


In South Dakota, below, we met with the Yankton Sioux and Nebraska and South Dakota ranchers fighting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline who call themselves the Cowboy Indian Alliance. We were reminded that tribes and communities across North America are threatened by dangerous, polluting fossil fuel projects. 


In Billings, Montana, below, 150 people including ranchers, environmentalists, and members of the Northern Cheyenne held a beautiful blessing ceremony at Riverfront Park.


In Spokane, below, 200 people gathered at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist Spokane, including City Council president Ben Stuckart, who offered strong words of support for the Lummi Nation in its opposition to the proposed coal and oil projects. Tribal leaders from the Spokane, Nez Perce, and Colville tribes also spoke in support of the Lummi Nation's efforts. (Read this account of the event by Spokane-based Sierra Club organizer Jace Bylenga.)


Jewell James ended the ceremony with a moving speech, flute playing, drumming, and laughing to explain the importance of the fight against fossil fuels and for the earth along with other members of the House of Tears Carvers. (Hear some of what James had to say in this video, which also includes remarks by Jace Bylenga.)

In Yakama, we celebrated the recent victory against coal exports, won in large part due to the efforts of the Yakama Tribe. In Olympia, there was a small but moving ceremony honoring the life of environmental leader and treaty rights activist Billy Frank, Jr.

In closing the American leg of the totem pole journey, nearly 500 people packed the St Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, below, where leaders from 10 northwest religious communities, including the bishops of Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, and United Methodist dioceses in Washington, presented a letter that formally supports the stance of Northwest tribes against coal exports and other fossil fuel megaprojects.

Lummi-Totem-Pole-JourneyPhoto by Alex Garland

Dow Constantine, King County Executive and leader of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, stated, " It is really foolish, bordering on madness, to dig up a big chunk of North America, tie up traffic on the way through, and then ship it off to another country so they can bury us economically. I stand with the Lummi Nation and all those in the Pacific Northwest who are working to protect our air, our water, and our fisheries." That's Constantine speaking, below.

Dow-ConstantinePhoto by Alex Garland

The journey then continued into Canada, making several stops before raising the totem on September 7 at the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, which has been devastated by pollution from Canada's tar sands. To learn more about the journey visit totempolejourney.org


Photos by James Leder except where noted.

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