Northwest tribe sends totem pole on journey against coal

The Lummi Nation is opposed to proposed coal export terminals that it says threaten treaty rights, traditional life

A Native American tribe has sent a 22-foot-long, intricately carved totem pole on a journey through the Pacific Northwest to draw attention to proposed coal export terminals they said would endanger not only their traditional way of life, but also threatens to pollute the region's pristine waters which serve as a salmon habitat.

On Monday, the totem pole arrived in Portland, Oregon, where it was blessed in an interfaith ceremony. The pole’s journey began in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Aug. 21 and it will travel to communities that could be affected by the coal projects until it arrives in Lame Deer, Montana, on Aug. 30 at the site of a proposed coal mine expansion.

The Lummi Nation, a Native American tribe located near Bellingham, Washington, which carved the totem pole and organized its journey by truck, has joined with nearly 50 other tribes to opposed the proposed terminals, an organizer said.

“The Lummi Nation has made it perfectly clear that the tribes of the Pacific Northwest will oppose by any legal means necessary the construction of these ports,” Kurt Russo, a coordinator with the Lummi Nation totem pole journey, told Al Jazeera.

A truck carrying a totem pole carved by the Lummi Nation stops outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, the totem’s first stop on a journey from Canada through the Pacific Northwest to Montana.
Paul K. Anderson / AP

The tribes oppose a variety of coal-related projects including the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington, the Port of Morrow terminal on the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon, and a proposed mine expansion at Otter Creek, Montana, that would serve those terminals.

“The Gateway Pacific Terminal is proposed to go on the site of a village that has been shown through archaeological evidence to be abut 9,500 years old — it is the largest site of its kind in the state of Washington,” Russo said.

“It is also a location that is crucial for the fisheries industry in the state and in particular to the fishing lifestyle of the Lummi Indians,” Russo added.

In signing the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 with the Lummi Nation, the U.S. government promised to protect their right to continue to fish, hunt and gather on their ancestral territory as they had for centuries.

“This was the U.S. government making a promise,” Russo said. “In the view of the tribe, the people that stand with the tribe, the interfaith communities, the environmental organizations — these are the promise keepers.”

A decision on whether or not to approve the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point is in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Russo said, and they are expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.

“We are continuing to go through the permitting process looking at a number of things,” Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the Seattle district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told Al Jazeera.

The Corps had received information from the Lummi Nation regarding potential impacts to their traditional fishing practices, Graesser said, as well as a rebuttal by Pacific International Terminals — the company that proposed the Gateway Pacific Terminal. As the Corps continued to gather information from relevant parties, it was carrying out environmental impact studies, she added.

“There is really no deadline by which we need to make a decision,” Graesser said, adding that the project would also need local and state permits to move forward.

Pacific International Terminals did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

One of the next stops on the totem pole’s journey is the Port of Morrow, which lies in the heartland of the Yakima Indians on the Columbia River — an important habitat for salmon, and integral to tribal fisheries, Russo said. Ambre Energy, the company that has proposed the coal export terminal at the Port of Morrow, did not reply to Al Jazeera's request for comment. 

The Yakima tribe will bless the totem pole before it continues on its way to Montana, Russo said. As in its other stops, interfaith groups and environmentalists would also take part.

“People are standing up and saying enough is enough,” Russo said.

The majority of the coal serving the controversial terminals would come from the Powder River Basin in Montana, Russo said, where the proposed Otter Creek mine would be located.

Arch Coal, Inc., which proposed the Otter Creek mine, said it is currently in the permitting process and said it believed the region was and would continue to be a low-cost source for power generation, Logan Bonacorsi, spokeswoman for Arch Coal, Inc., told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

“Arch takes its responsibility to environmental stewardship seriously — evidenced by our track record in the Southern Powder River Basin as well as in the other basins in which we operate. It can be expected that the Otter Creek reserves will be developed in the same responsible manner as all of our operations,” Bonacorsi said.

But for the coalition of Northwest tribes, the Otter Creek mine’s approval would mean more coal moving on ships throughout their territories’ waters — a risk they oppose not only for their sakes but that of future generations.

"The ancestors expect it, the unborn demand it," was what one totem pole ceremony participant vowed, according to Russo.

And while industry argues that the projects will bring in revenue and jobs, the Lummi Nation has argued that the salmon industry itself brings in millions of dollars and creates thousands of jobs.

Any accident in waters that serve as salmon habitat would be “devastating,” Russo said.

“I have almost no doubt that these coal ports would be the end of viable salmon fisheries,” Russo said.

The proposed terminal at Cherry Point would see 407 ships — each 1,000 feet long, carrying millions of tons of coal — traverse the waters of the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean in often foggy or stormy weather up to the Bering Sea and down to Asia, Russo said.

In addition to the risk to salmon fisheries, the expansion of coal exports would exacerbate climate change, the Lummi Nation maintains. Echoing their concerns, Edelman, the public relations firm representing the Gateway Pacific Project reportedly dropped the client due to its potential contribution to climate change.

“At the end of the day, the right people will do the right thing,” Russo said. "It's the moment of truth."

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