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Lummi Youth Learn the Bigger Picture: Canoes Join Kayactivists Protesting Arctic Drilling

When Royal Dutch Shell brought its massive off-shore oil drilling rig to Seattle’s Terminal 5 on May 14 kayaks and canoes were there in protest.

Before there were roads, interstate highways, light rail systems and airports, there were... canoes. For thousands of years, Native people living on the Salish Sea, the area along the southwest coast of British Columbia and the northwest coast of the United States, used canoes not just for travel, but also as a profound form of cultural expression. Their creation and use were spiritual, teaching respect, camaraderie and selflessness. They used no fossil fuels and created no pollution. And they were powered by the most mysterious of engines, the human heart. So what could be more fitting to use when confronting a 307-foot tall giant capable of poisoning vast areas of ocean and shoreline?

That’s what happened when Royal Dutch Shell brought the massive off-shore oil drilling rig, Polar Pioneer, to Seattle’s Terminal 5 on May 14. A flotilla of Natives in canoes joined the ranks of environmental activists in kayaks that day to protest the rig’s arrival. Among them was Justin Finkbonner, a member of the Lummi tribal nation, a canoe skipper and creator of a Lummi youth program called, The Awakening. For him, the protest, which culminated two days later on Saturday, May 16, was more than just a chance to speak out. It was a powerful teaching moment for the youth in his program.

Courtesy Justin Finkbonner

Lummi youth canoe pullers salute as a banner depicting Chief Seattle can be seen in the background.

“Saturday was a little piece to a bigger picture,” he explained.

The emotional power of canoe travel was demonstrated when Finkbonner instructed his crew to paddle within a few hundred yards of the skyscraper high oil rig instead of remaining some distance away at the mouth of the Duwamish River.

“Bill Moyer, head organizer of the Backbone Campaign, said to lead the kayaks to the mouth of the river, stop and do our speeches. I said, ‘Hell no! I’m going up the river to the rig and bring the kayakers up there to surround it.’ The kayakers followed, hence the pictures.”

A picture of Finkbonner standing in a Native canoe at the base of the oil rig, surrounded by kayakers and canoe families was shared widely on social media after the protest. The passion exhibited by this bravado has roots that go back decades.

Courtesy Justin Finkbonner

Lummi youth leader, Justin Finkbonner, speaking to Native canoe families and Kayactivists at the base of the Royal Dutch Shell oil rig, Polar Pioneer, at Seattle’s Terminal 5 on Saturday, May 16.

Many Natives have painful memories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Because of the resulting loss of marine life, the subsistence lifestyle of the local Alaska Native people collapsed, resulting in long-term emotional trauma, increases in domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and damage to social relationships.

But Royal Dutch Shell doesn’t appear concerned about that tragedy, nor about the spill caused by British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Not to mention the May 19 oil pipeline rupture in Santa Barbara County that released over 20,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific. When the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently granted conditional approval for Shell to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska, the multi-national energy corporation began moving the Polar Pioneer to Seattle, where it’s currently being prepped and outfitted for drilling in the Arctic. Protesters liken this to preparing a time bomb to go off in a here-to-fore untouched and pristine environment.

“But the greater story is about the Duwamish tribe,” Finkbonner revealed.

Terminal 5 sits on land the Duwamish people had lived on for an estimated 10,000 years. In 1855 the Duwamish, and several other tribes from the area, signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, in which they gave up 54,000 acres of land in return for hunting and fishing rights and four reservations. Since then the tribe has seen the river that bears their name turned into a sewer, where byproducts of manufacturing processes were dumped indiscriminately for years.

From the Frank LaRoche Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Native canoes moored on the Seattle waterfront, ca. 1892, the original Paddle in Seattle.

RELATED: $342 Million to Clean Duwamish River Superfund Site: EPA Finalizes Plan

Finkbonner, a Lummi and resident of the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham, first became involved with the Duwamish when he worked for the Potlatch Fund, a Native grant-making and leadership development organization in Seattle. Representatives of several local foundations approached him asking if he would assist the Duwamish apply for grants to build a longhouse. He worked with Duwamish chairwoman Cecile Hansen and together they raised $1.2 million. In 2009, the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center was opened near the mouth of the Duwamish River.

“They were given [federal] recognition by the Clinton administration, but then turned over when Bush Jr. came into power and vetoed the bill,” Finkbonner said. “Now the government is holding them back for another f*#king seven to ten years from being considered.”

Finkbonner’s frustration is understandable. Gaining federal recognition as a tribe strengthens sovereignty, creating a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. and facilitating federal budget assistance and other services.

To this atmosphere of political oppression and environmental recklessness, Finkbonner brings the healing power of the Native canoe. In his program, The Awakening, young people of his tribe learn the old way of travel, pulling together as one unit to bring help and healing to another tribe. Their common destination is as much internal as it is external: “Ignite the people. Bring fire to our hearts. Cedar smoke from our collective spirit will rise to the edge of the sky, where our ancestors are dancing forever.”

Courtesy Justin Finkbonner

Members of the Lummi Youth Canoe Family promoting The Awakening, a Lummi program created by Justin Finkbonner to engage the tribe’s youth and teach survival skills.

In all the hoopla surrounding the controversy and protests, it’s good to be reminded of the bigger picture, of which the mountainous oil rig is just a little piece.

Courtesy Justin Finkbonner

Lummi youth leader, Justin Finkbonner, relaxing with his son, Liam, during a break in the protest activities.