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Got Treaties? Lummi 1, Coal Terminal 0

Invoking the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott was risky for the Lummi, but its success in fending off a coal terminal at Cherry Point, known as Xwe'chi'eXen, paid off.
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For years, beginning in 2011, environmental groups fought to prevent construction of what would have been the country's largest coal export facility. The half-billion-dollar Gateway Pacific Terminal would have brought 50 million tons of coal per year into one of the last pristine deep-water ports in the Pacific Northwest, Cherry Point, known to the local Lummi people for thousands of years as Xwe'chi'eXen, pronounced "Woo-chee-ah-ken." In May 2016, this indigenous nation accomplished what environmental groups could not. The Lummi stopped the project dead in its tracks and killed it. What was the weapon they used?

The Treaty of Point Elliott, between the Lummi Nation and the U.S.

The Treaty of Point Elliott, between the Lummi Nation and the U.S.

The 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott.

Not For Any Price, a new film by Washington state's Northwest Treaty Tribes, celebrates this victory.

Not For Any Price

"The fact that they used this treaty to slay this dragon was phenomenal," Crina Hoyer, of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, says in the film.

The 15-minute documentary includes interviews with tribal members and also representatives of additional environmental groups like Earthjustice and Power Past Coal. Beautiful, high-definition shots of the land and water highlight their stories, shot by John Harrison of North 40 Productions. But the true beauty of the film comes from the Lummi people and the treaty they sacrificed so much for and how that treaty came to their aid more than a century after they signed it.

Lummi Council Member Jay Julius explains how the tribe gave up vast areas of land when they signed the treaty.

"We got little reservations, but we also secured some rights, fishing, access to usual and accustomed grounds. That should be treated with so much respect because of the sacrifice that was made."

Although SSA Marine first began applying for permits back in 2011, the Lummi didn't invoke their treaty rights until 2015. Putting their treaty on the line was a big risk. If their treaty rights were not upheld, it would weaken treaties throughout Indian Country. But early on, SSA Marine did something that just plain stepped over the line.

Oops! Sorry! Was That Your Grandma?

Ellie Kinley, a Lummi tribal member, relates in the film how a county councilman was walking his dog at Cherry Point in the summer of 2011 and saw evidence of unauthorized road building activity.

"He could see that bulldozers had made a road right through our most ancient village site."


Without any permits, SSA Marine had drilled 37 boreholes throughout the area, testing whether the ground could support the proposed multimillion-ton facility. Without consulting any state or federal agencies, or the Lummi tribe, they bulldozed roads to bring in the heavy equipment needed to drill the holes. One of those roads crossed over a sacred site that was also being studied by Western Washington University, known as site 45WH1, where ancient artifacts and even graves had been found that were thousands of years old.

SSA Marine said it was an accident. They paid some money for the damage, but came away with the information they needed without having to apply for permits and without submitting to public debate.

"Seventy-five generations of people lived there, died there and were buried there," Kinley says. "And it is listed by the State of Washington as a cemetery site. SSA Marine's answer to that was they weren't going to disturb it. They were just going to place 70 acres of coal over the top of it. So I guess my great-great-great grandma's grave would be safe because it would have 70 acres of coal over the top."

In the face of such a heartless, multinational corporate machine, the Lummi stood up for who they are, a fishing people, whose right to fish is guaranteed in writing by the President of the United States.

A Victory for Everyone

The Gateway Pacific Terminal would have brought nine coal trains, over a mile long each, into and out of Cherry Point every single day and more than 450 quarter-mile-long coal ships into and out of the port every year, bringing coal dust, diesel emissions, potential marine disasters and untold environmental damage. As portrayed in the film, on May 9, 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Lummi Council and informed them SSA Marine's application for a permit had been "denied without prejudice" on the grounds it violated the Treaty of Point Elliott.

Bas-relief of Chief Chowitshoot, who signed the Treaty of Elliott Point in 1855 on behalf of the Lummi people.

Bas-relief of Chief Chowitshoot, who signed the Treaty of Elliott Point in 1855 on behalf of the Lummi people.

"All throughout this continent, all throughout this world," Council Member Jay Julius says, "the indigenous people's victories are everybody's victories."

SSA Marine withdrew its permit applications and closed its offices in nearby Bellingham. The monster Gateway Pacific Terminal vanished into thin air, vanquished by a piece of paper 162 years old, a paper signed by people devastated by alcohol and smallpox, herded onto small reservations and subjected to forced assimilation practices and boarding schools. They endured all that while at the same time holding steadfastly to their right to fish as their ancestors did. And even this right has been gradually whittled away, as attorney Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice points out in the film.

"It's been whittled away by pollution, by habitat destruction, by stormwater run-off—by all these things, until the right almost doesn't exist anymore."

A treaty is a promise, and the Lummi kept their part. The film and the story it tells reminds Native people everywhere of the immense power we hold just by honoring our past and remembering the sacrifices our ancestors made for us.