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Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest
nbrennan@mcclatchy.com

Lummi Tribal citizens and Native communities across the Pacific Northwest gathered with faith leaders, activists and neighbors for the Spirit of the Waters Totem Pole Journey launch Tuesday, May 3, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship.

The 2,300-mile journey highlights the vital role of the Snake River, salmon and orca to the lifeways and identities of tribal communities in the region. The updated pole, created by House of Tears Carvers, will travel for 17 days through tribal and metropolitan communities in Washington, Oregon and Idaho to advocate for the removal of dams on the Lower Snake River and for the health of salmon and orca.

Sponsored by Se’Si’Le (pronounced saw-see-lah) — an inter-tribal nonprofit aimed at reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate change and the environment — the Spirit of the Waters Totem Pole Journey informs and engages Pacific Northwest communities through inter-generational voices, ceremony, art and science, spirituality, ancestral knowledge and cross-cultural collaboration.

The pole builds off the House of Tears Carvers’ 16-foot pole created for the journey to Miami to advocate for the repatriation of southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut in 2018.

In addition to a fresh coat of paint, the pole — which has been displayed at the Stommish Grounds on the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham — features two 8-foot salmon representing the 150-pound “June hogs,” an extinct salmon of the Columbia River, master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James explained.

“We’re recognizing that all the way from the Chinooks at the mouth of the river to the people of Celilo Falls, Umatilla, Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce — we’re all salmon people. From the Columbia River to the Snake River to the Salish Sea,” James said in an interview with McClatchy. “The Salish Sea is being destroyed, life is dying and there’s more than just human beings that depend on it.”

Lummi Tribal citizen and master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James speaks at The Snake River to Salish Sea Spirit of the Waters totem pole journey launch Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship in Bellingham, Wash. James, of The House of Tears Carvers, has carved poles that have traveled thousands of miles across the country to bring awareness to Indigenous issues and climate change. (Photo by The Bellingham Herald)

The salmon replaced two seals from the original pole, which represented the food source of the transient orca pod.

A third 9-foot salmon featuring splashing water and a human on the side will join the totem pole on its journey. JoDe Goudy, Se’Si’Le board member and former chairman of the Yakama Nation, brought the piece along the Columbia River for various blessings.

At the tip of the pole’s central orca nose is an addition of a small orca, representing the calf of Tahlequah — a southern resident killer whale who garnered international attention after pushing her dead calf more than 1,000 miles in 2018. James said the red spot on the calf, which was originally carved by accident, now serves as a reminder that ship traffic is a danger to the whale population.

(Related: A Lummi matriarch tells her story)

The new additions were carved from cedar from the Lummi Nation culture department. James estimates the updated pole weighs in at about 3,500 pounds.

Speakers at the event included Lummi Tribal citizens Siam’el wit and Douglas James joined by fly angler Gian Lawrence.

“We need to restore the salmon run. We need to replenish the food for our orcas, our beloved relatives, our qw’e lh’ol’ me chen,” Siam’el wit said, advocating for the removal of the Lower Snake River dams.

In Xwlemi Chosen, the language of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) people, orca are called “qw’e lh’ol’ me chen,” meaning “our relations who live under the water.”

“It’s time to restore Mother Nature back to how it is intended — as falls should fall, as rivers shall flow,” she said.

In a speech, Se’Si’Le founder, Lummi Tribal citizen and former chairman Jay Julius thanked James for his activism for the climate and Indigenous peoples and asked the community to follow his example.

“One thing we all have — all of us — is a treaty. An immigrant sovereign came together with my family in 1855... It’s been a struggle,” he said. “It’s your treaty too. It’s not just an Indian thing. It’s all of ours. It’s our hope. It’s our future.”

Julius and Santana Rabang — who is of Coast Salish and Stó:lō Nation heritage — presented at the first-ever Indigenous Earth Day event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April. Rabang spoke on behalf of Indigenous youth at the totem pole launch.

“These fights are going to be left to us and they’re showing us the way,” Rabang said about the elders and Indigenous leaders of the journey.

The launch featured songs from Lummi drummers and singers, music from Native flutist Peter Ali and a choir performance. Various local faith leaders blessed the pole’s journey and supported its message, including Echoes Pastor Emma Donohew — whose ancestor was an Oklahoma dam builder.

The event concluded with the community surrounding the pole to offer a group prayer.

The pole’s 17-day journey will continue in Oregon, then Idaho and will conclude in Washington:

May 5-7 at Erb Memorial Union Gumwood Room at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.
May 9 from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Towler Hall at Clatsop Community College hosted by Chinook Indian Nation Tribal members in Astoria, Oregon.
May 10 at 6 p.m. at Ecotrust’s The Redd on Salmon Street in Portland, Oregon.
May 11 at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Celilo Park in Celilo Falls, Oregon.
May 14 at the Tamastslikt Cultural Center hosted by Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Tribal members in Pendleton, Oregon.
May 16 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Hell’s Gate State Park hosted by Nez Perce Tribal members in Lewiston, Idaho.
May 18 from noon to 1:30 p.m., location to be determined, hosted by Shoshone-Bannock Tribal members in Fort Hall, Idaho.
May 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House at University of Washington in Seattle.
May 20 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at St. Leo’s Parish in Tacoma.

For more information on the pole’s journey or to access virtual events, visit spiritofthewaters.org.

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps. 

This article was published via AP Storyshare.