‘Ancestral Waters’ documents Puyallup fight against massive liquefied natural gas plant

Frank Hopper

Puget Sound Energy’s 8 million gallon liquefied natural gas plant threatens salmon in the tribe’s ancestral waters. “No LNG in 253” has been the rallying cry of the Puyallup’s fight

On March 10 the documentary “Ancestral Waters” about the Puyallup tribe’s fight against a liquefied natural gas plant being built on treaty-protected land, premiered at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. The film, produced by Standing Rock Sioux member Benita Moore and her British husband Darren, skillfully captures the spirit of the tribe’s 3-year fight against the plant.

Perhaps most impressive is how it includes the moment when the fight becomes personal for one young tribal member. It comes about midway through and provides a moving emotional center to the film. But this moment sneaks up on you as the first half documents the history of the struggle.

No LNG in 253

The area code for Tacoma is 253. It is also the area code of the Puyallup Indian Reservation. Since 2016, “No LNG in 253” has been the rallying cry of the Puyallup’s fight against Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant currently under construction in the Puyallup River estuary.

“Ancestral Waters,” tells the story of the Puyallup, who signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854 along with several other tribes. In exchange for ceding vast areas of land to the U.S. government, the Puyallup were given a small reservation and several other benefits, one of which was the right to fish in their usual and accustomed waters.

It is this treaty-protected right to fish that is being threatened by Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant. The Puyallup River estuary where the tribe fished and lived for thousands of years has been turned into an industrial cesspool.

World War II caused a surge in shipbuilding activity in the area. The now-defunct lead smelter owned by the Asarco Company contaminated much of the ground with arsenic. Gas refineries dominate the area with huge storage tanks. The mouth of the river that bears their name would now be unrecognizable to their ancestors. The final straw was the LNG plant.

In 2016, Puget Sound Energy, a private company providing power for much of the region, announced plans to build a huge liquefied natural gas plant in the Puyallup River estuary. Although this area is outside the Puyallup reservation boundaries, it is within the area protected by the Medicine Creek Treaty.

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The plant would bring fracked natural gas in through a pipeline that crosses reservation land. This gas would then be cooled to minus 260 degrees below zero. At that temperature, it becomes a liquid that’s 600 times more concentrated than regular natural gas. The plant would then store this volatile liquid in an 8 million gallon storage tank that would fuel container ships traveling to Alaska.

According to the documentary, liquefied natural gas burns hotter than jet fuel. In this earthquake-prone area, a pipe at the plant could easily rupture and release a vapor cloud. Even the tiniest spark would then instantly ignite this vapor cloud turning it into a massive fireball. Burning at 3,000 degrees, this fireball would melt anything within a third of a mile.

In addition to the dangers of a leak, if the 8 million gallon tank of liquefied natural gas were to explode due to an industrial accident, the blast would be nearly ten times stronger than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Anyone within a third of a mile would be killed and those within a mile and a half would receive life-threatening third-degree burns. Over 100,000 people are within the radius of this blast zone.

ancestral waters blast zone
A map created by the Puyallup Tribe shows the blast zone of a potential industrial accident around Puget Sound Energy’s liquified natural gas plant. In addition to the tribe’s reservation to the southeast, a large population of homes and businesses to the northeast would also be affected. (Courtesy the Puyallup Tribe of Indians)

Standing up to this threat are environmental activists, the Puyallup tribe, and as shown in the documentary, a young Puyallup warrior.

The birth of a warrior

Puget Sound Energy began construction of the plant and the pipeline without proper permits. The tribe and its allies marched and rallied against it, among them a young Puyallup warrior named Dakota Case.

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Dakota Case, Puyallup, relates the story of his arrest in the documentary ‘Ancestral Waters’ produced by Darren and Benita Moore of Native Daily Network. (Screen capture)

The film shows Case and many other tribal leaders such as Anna Bean, Robert Satiacum, Chester Earl, Annette Bryan, and Ramona Bennett speaking at rallies and participating in marches against the plant. At one point, Bryan, who is on the tribal council, announces at a rally the tribe has issued a Stop Work Order to keep PSE from building the pipeline across reservation land. The gathering, including Case, cheer loudly.

“In April of 2017 I showed up on the scenes of the LNG fight,” Case says in the documentary. “I didn’t really know much about LNG… When I saw Anna Bean’s post about the LNG fight down in the Port of Tacoma I said, ‘There’s my opportunity right there to be somewhere, to actually be on the frontlines and protect Mother Earth.’”

The showdown

The documentary shows how on September 5, 2017, Case receives word construction on the pipeline has secretly begun under the cover of darkness. Knowing the tribe has issued a Stop Work Order, Case and fellow water protectors Anna Bean and Chester Earl drive down to the construction site and block work trucks from entering the area.

“It was a full moon. And you know me, I’m from the wolf clan, so it makes me act up. That full moon really makes me act up. I remember my spiritual energy went through the roof and I felt the charge around me like the air was electric.”

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Tribal members sing the Women's Warrior song

The film shows Case confronting a foreman of the work crew, telling them they are on tribal land without permission.

“What this comes down to,” he tells a City of Fife police officer who has responded to the scene, “...is this is our home. Our ancestors have lived here for thousands of years and we still have to be here, you know what I mean? We don’t want this here on our reservation. What they’re doing is a disrespect to our sovereignty and a disrespect to our ancestors. And they have police enforcement down here to protect them.”

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Puyallup Water Protector Dakota Case is taken to jail after blocking construction of a natural gas pipeline on tribal land in 2017. (Courtesy Valerie Ruth Mason)

Slowly, other tribal members begin showing up in support of the water protectors. Case becomes more confrontational and makes the decision to be arrested if necessary to stop construction.

Oops! No, wait a minute…

Case then explains how they realized the Stop Work Order they thought they were enforcing was actually something else.

“Chester has some paralegal training,” Case explains to the camera, “so he grabs the paper and starts reading through it. He goes, ‘Hey, this is a request to stop work. This isn’t an official Stop Work Order.’”

Although the Stop Work request is not legally enforceable, Case and Earl resolve to stay. Case explains how one truck drove toward him but he stood his ground, forcing a Puyallup Tribal police officer to jump on the truck and pound on the window to get him to stop.

The documentary then shows Case and Earl being taken to jail. The unenforceability of the Stop Work request doesn't matter to them. They are enforcing the Treaty of Medicine Creek. Treaties are the supreme law of the land according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution and their ancestors had fought and died for the Medicine Creek Treaty.

That’s when it becomes personal. Case transforms at that moment into a protector, a warrior, fighting just like his elders did decades before in the Fish Wars of the 1970s. He fights for his tribal family. That's the essence of Native resistance.

“Ancestral Waters,” produced by Darren and Benita Moore of the grassroots Native news site Native Daily Network, is a unique record of the Puyallup’s fight against the LNG plant, which continues to this day. Their documentary combines knowledge, respect, and affection into a fascinating example of embedded Native journalism.

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.