Since the beginning, the Lummi people have harvested and lived near the shorelands, tidelands and waters of Xwe’chi’eXen, known today as Cherry Point.
Ancestors’ remains rest here at Xwe’chi’eXen. Their descendants are still stewards of this place, which is of cultural and traditional importance to them, a place that nurtures them physically and spiritually.
The Lummi people fought hard for at least five years to protect Xwe’chi’eXen’s aquatic lands and uplands from a proposed coal export terminal; the permit application was denied in May by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And now Xwe’chi’eXen is further protected by a decision by the Washington Department of Natural Resources to add 45 acres of aquatic lands to the state’s Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, one of eight such reserves in the state.
In announcing the expansion of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve on January 3, DNR Commissioner Peter Goldmark also announced the denial of a proposal by Millennium Bulk Terminals to sublease state aquatic lands elsewhere – on the Columbia River.
“These decisions are in the best long-term interest of Puget Sound, the Columbia River and the people of Washington," Goldmark said in an announcement of the decision. "They are informed by years of study and consideration, and represent the best way to protect and conserve our state’s waterways.”
Lummi Nation Chairman Timothy Ballew II said the decision is “historic” for the Lummi people, their treaty rights and future generations.
“Across the country, from Xwe’chi’eXen to Standing Rock, Native people are celebrating the protection of our ancestral lands,” Ballew said in an announcement praising the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve expansion.
Ballew told ICMN on January 12 that the work to protect Xwe’chi’eXen is an example of patience and perseverance winning the day for what is right. “As tribal leaders, we are accountable to our children and have to make sure the decisions we make reflect that.” The lesson to other Native nations working to protect their lands and waters: “Stay persistent and that will happen.”
He added, “It’s an honor to fulfill the promise to our elders, who asked us to protect Xwe’chi’eXen forever.”
The coal export terminal was opposed by First Nations in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, particularly those who share the Salish Sea. The risk of coal and oil spills was too great, they said, and they contended that coal dust from the railway and terminal would affect the health of marine waters and nearby communities. They also contended that increased shipping would result in substantially increased ballast water discharges, which would introduce invasive species to the local marine environment.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the waters off Cherry Point are considered critical habitat for king salmon, bull trout, rockfish, and three pods of killer whales. Other endangered or threatened species found here are Puget Sound steelhead, Stellar sea lions, humpback whales, leatherback sea turtles, marbled murrelets and spotted frogs. Herring, important forage fish for salmon, spawn here.
The successful fight for Xwe’chi’eXen upheld to doubters and the unknowing the authority of treaties as supreme law of the land under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution – that a treaty between the United States and an indigenous nation has the same weight as a treaty between the U.S. and a foreign nation. The U.S. acquired lands from the Lummi Nation in the Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, but Lummi reserved the right to harvest marine resources throughout its usual and accustomed territory. The 1974 Boldt Decision, aka U.S. vs. Washington, upheld those treaty rights and established treaty signatories as co-managers of the state’s fisheries.
The Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit for the coal export terminal, saying environmental degradation would affect fisheries and would therefore violate the treaty rights of the Lummi Nation and other signatories.
“Growing up, there was an expectation that we would understand the treaty,” Ballew said of himself and other Native leaders. “Our current efforts are helping others understand that too.”
Other Native leaders praised the decision to include Xwe’chi’eXen in the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve, which gives the area more environmental protection “through preservation, restoration, and enhancement designed for specific sites,” according to the Department of Natural Resources. The public will have more input in conservation management, and local, state, and federal governments and Native Nations will collaborate to develop and implement a management plan.
“The expansion of the reserve today is just as significant to the Lummi people as the Corps’ decision,” Lummi Nation Council member Jay Julius said in an announcement of the aquatic reserve expansion. “In May, we protected Cherry Point from a single project. Now it’s protected from any projects in the future.”
Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy said the decision to protect Cherry Point has a direct impact on Yakama. “Coal trains that were destined for Cherry Point would have had to travel through the Columbia River Gorge and directly through the Yakama Reservation, which would be a direct violation of our treaty rights,” he said in the announcement. “The Yakama Nation will continue to stand with our fellow treaty tribes to protect our fish and cultures.”
Swinomish Tribe Chairman Brian Cladoosby, who is also president of the National Congress of American Indians, thanked Goldmark and the Department of Natural Resources “for acknowledging the importance of traditional lands to treaty tribes. Our rights, cultures and way of life revolve around the land and water and the resources that has sustained us since time immemorial. We are excited to work with Commissioner-elect Hillary Franz and will support her strong partnerships that the Department of Natural Resources has with Washington treaty tribes.”