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Totem Travels 1,300 Miles to Sites Threatened by Coal Terminals in Northwest

Totem pole crafted by Lummi Nation master carvers travels along proposed coal-terminal routes to protest rail transport from Crow Reservation.

It traveled nearly 1,300 miles, a 3,000-pound Lummi Totem Pole hand-carved from old-growth cedar, carried with ceremony and blessing to the sites of proposed coal rail terminals along the Oregon and Washington coast. On Monday August 31 it reached Otter Creek Valley in Montana, site of a proposed coalmine opposed by Northern Cheyenne tribal members.

RELATED: Railroad to Disaster? Inland Tribes Fight to Avert Coal-Train Destruction

Jewell James and other members of the Lummi House of Tears Carvers designed and crafted the totem and transported it to the Northern Cheyenne Nation to raise awareness of the environmental harm coal transport has on tribal fisheries, health and traditions.

Photo: Jacqueline Keeler

Master Carver Jewell James

The transport coal from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming arose from the Crow Nation’s agreement with Cloud Peak Energy, one of the largest U.S. coal producers, to mine 1.4 billions tons of coal, valued at $13.5 million, over five years. Due to a weak domestic market the coal would be hauled by train to proposed terminals in the Pacific Northwest, destined for China.

RELATED: Crow Tribe Inks Partnership to Develop Washington State Coal Port

The largest proposed port is the Gateway Pacific Terminal, which would be built on traditional Lummi Nation land at Cherry Point, Washington. Cherry Point is known to the Lummi as Xwe’chi’eXen and is a site of ancient Lummi villages, burial grounds, and fishing and spawning beds for endangered fish. While preparing the site, the developer, SSA Marine, outraged Lummi leaders when bore holes were drilled without a permit through archaeological sites that contain 3,000-year-old Lummi graves.

RELATED: Documents Reveal Coal Exporter Disturbed Native Archaeological Site

The Totem Pole caravan, Our Shared Responsibility, stopped along the route at the sites of proposed coal terminals that include the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon and another in Longview, Washington. At each stop the Lummi carvers were greeted by hundreds of supporters—including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales in Oregon.

Hales, recently returned from a climate change meeting at the Vatican, where he met Pope Francis, spoke at the Totem Blessing at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in support of the Lummi Nation’s fight against coal transport through their lands promising to present a divestment policy on fossil fuel exports. He noted that the Pope had invited mayors of 70 major cities from around the world to convene at the Vatican because he recognized the huge impact major cities can have in reducing carbon emissions and climate change.

Leaders of several tribes impacted by the increased transport of coal through their lands including the Yakama, Umatilla, Quinault, the Cowlitz and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs attended the blessings and voiced their opposition.

“We have gathered in that area to express our unified voice on opposition to coal export happening on Nch’i-Wàna, our river,” Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy told Indian Country Media Network. “We do it because we think it is a direct threat to our resources—to the water, the fish and the land—and because such things go hand in hand with the Yakama Nation identity. We take it as a direct threat to our existence. We are left with no alternative to fight with everything that we have.”

Photo: Jacqueline Keeler

Close-up section of the totem pole, which traveled 1,300 miles.

Goudy expressed confidence that Oregon’s Department of State Lands' denial of the Port of Morrow Terminal permit in August 2014 would be upheld on appeal in December.

RELATED: Treaty Victory as Northwest Tribes Celebrate Oregon Coal Train Rejection

When asked to comment, Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s office referred ICTMN to a speech she had given in May in which she reiterated her support for the state’s Clean Fuels bill. The bill would aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, she said, represents "a collaborative effort between Oregon, Washington, California and British Columbia, which, combined, make up one-fifth of the world’s economy.”

This unified front worried Wyoming Governor Matt Mead when he traveled to meet with Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

“When you start getting into this global impact, then that causes us some heartburn because I think it's difficult to measure,” he told the Associated Press in May.

Photo: Jacqueline Keeler

The totem pole was accompanied lovingly along its route, by flatbed truck.

The Powder River Basin coal extends into Wyoming, and a hefty amount of Mead’s state income is derived from coal. In March, the Wyoming legislature approved a $1 billion bond to finance coal transport ports in Washington State and Oregon.

And it has been estimated by the Western Organization of Resource Councils that Washington State will be forced to spend at least $424 million in mitigation for coal transport. Already, the state legislature has approved $87 million to build a rail overpass for the city of Longview; the city faces being cut off from all incoming traffic (including emergency vehicles) several times a day by mile-long coal trains. Cities from Spokane to Seattle to Bellingham face similar mitigation expenditures.

And despite all this, past coal export schemes have had a poor track record. The Port of Portland and the Port of Los Angeles both lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s when demand in Asia disappeared after costly coal terminals were built.

This year coal usage in China has fallen, and major coal producers in China and Indonesia are operating in the red. Here in the U.S., coal demands have fallen as demand for low-cost, cleaner-burning natural gas has surged. Many of the coal companies backing coal mining on the Crow Nation and the building of these ports are also in the red.

“With the coal and the oil we are fighting it desperately at Quinault,” said Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp at the Totem Pole Blessing ceremony in Longview. “You do wrong to a river system, you do wrong to yourself. We can never buy back a fish that has become extinct, we can never buy back a fresh ocean, we can never buy back clean river systems. We’d better be making good public policy decisions, not decisions that just negligently, recklessly and carelessly destroy our environment without consequence.”

Treaty rights are also at stake, wrote Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January.

“The impacts on the [Lummi] Nation’s treaty rights associated with this project cannot be mitigated,” he wrote. “As part of the permitting process for this project, the Corps is required to ensure that the Nation’s treaty rights are not abrogated or imprinted upon.”

RELATED: Lummi Nation Asks Army Corps to Deny Permit for Coal Export Terminal

Lummi Chairman: We Will Fight Coal Terminal ‘By All Means Necessary’

In May the Lummi invited Crow tribal leaders to their lands to explain the dangers this project would pose to them. But Crow Tribal Chairman Darrin Old Coyote was not swayed.

“They are ignorant,” he told the Los Angeles Times in July, referring to the Lummi. “They're ignorant to the point where they don't want to understand where we're coming from.”

Unemployment on the Crow Reservation is near 50 percent. In August, the Crow Nation announced that it had acquired a five percent stake in the proposed terminal on Lummi fishing grounds, according to a joint media release from SSA Marine and Cloud Peak Energy.

RELATED: 9 Billion Tons of Coal: The Crow Coal-to-Liquids Project

Despite all that, totem carver Jewell James was adamant that the Totem Pole Journey be seen as a protest “not against the Crow Nation but against coal coming through our territory.”

Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) Executive Director Paul Lumley also spoke at Portland’s Totem Pole Blessing ceremony. He recalled the original instructions the people of the Northwest received.

“Take care of these first foods, and they will take care of you,” he said. “Our tribes stopped the Port of Morrow [development] because in this we are bearing all of the risk and none of the gain. Leave it in the ground where it belongs.”

Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer living in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur, Earth Island Journal and the Nation and interviewed on MSNBC and DemocracyNow and Native American Calling. She has a forthcoming book called “Not Your Disappearing Indian” and podcast. On twitter: @jfkeeler