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A man from the Lummi Tribe sings a traditional song in Spokane/Tracy Simmons - SpokaneFAVS

Totem Pole brings “No Coal Exports” message to Spokane

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A 19-foot totem pole rests on a flat bed as it makes its way through Spokane/Tracy Simmons - SpokaneFAVS
A 19-foot totem pole rests on a flat bed as it makes its way through Spokane/Tracy Simmons – SpokaneFAVS

On Tuesday a 19-foot totem pole, made from western red cedar, rested on the back of a flatbed truck behind St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, pausing from its ongoing journey, so it could be touched, photographed and blessed.

The totem is in the middle of its 12-day, 2,500-mile journey from the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, Wash. to Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Canada, where it will be erected. The pole, and its carvers, are stopping along the passage to discuss the meaning and mission of the totem: No coal exports.

“This is a journey to raise up the voice of all those threatened by fossil fuel transportation, whether by rail or ship and export terminals, or pipeline; a journey to safeguard the traditional lands, waters and sites of tribes and first nations,” said Thomas Soeldner, on behalf of Earth Ministry.

Gateway Pacific Terminals has proposed using Cherry Point in Whatcom County to export 54 million tons of coal annually, mostly to China. Cherry Point, is a 3,500 year-old village complex where 60 percent of Lummis have direct ancestral ties. To get the coal to the terminal, nearly 20 uncovered coal trains would have to pass through the state and back daily – spewing coal dust as they make their way across the state. Spokane is on the route.

The Rev. Martin Elfert, of The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, stood with the Lummi tribe on Tuesday and said Christians have often misunderstood God’s words when he gave man dominion over the earth.

“What if we misunderstood?,” he asked. “What if dominion instead means something closer to what we mean by stewardship? What if it means it’s our job to take care of it for awhile and then it’s our turn to give it away, to give it to another generation?”

Christian leaders in Washington State have acknowledged their role in harming sacred land and in 1987, again in 1997, and again this year, have apologized to the native peoples for disrespecting Native American spiritual practices and traditions.

Totem Pole Carver Jewell James accepts a declaration from Bishop James Waggoner and other clergy, showing the churches' commitment to the environment
Totem Pole Carver Jewell James accepts a declaration from Bishop James Waggoner and other clergy, showing the churches’ commitment to the environment/Tracy Simmons – SpokaneFAVS

Ten faith leaders from across the state, including Bishop Martin Wells of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod ELCA and Bishop James Waggoner of The Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, have signed a public declaration strengthening their commitment to work with indigenous people to protect the Earth, and specifically to oppose the mining, transport, burning and disposal of fossil fuels.

“Today’s reception and the blessing of this totem is a tangible way to both remember the apology and to reaffirm our commitment to defend native rights of access and protection for sacred sites,” Wells said.

Jewell James, of House of Tears Carvers, who created the totem with his family, said the tribes can’t resist coal exports in Washington without the help of the faith community and environmental groups, adding that apologies are important in moving forward.

“Here we are coming together with the interfaith community and taking action. We’re protecting the Earth, as if God created it. The next generations have to live in the aftermath of our decisions and that’s what we’re here for,” he said.“Imagine what it would be like if churches and environmental groups and cowboys and Indians all said no in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon all together.”

Last week Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said no to coal exports by denying a permit to Ambre Energy for its proposed coal export project.

James said he hopes the totem pole journey will inspire people locally to speak up — by standing on street corners with signs, or by calling their friends — whatever it takes to get Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s attention so that he too, will say not to coal exports.

“This will have no meaning if we don’t take action after this,” he said. “We know we will pay the ultimate cost. We know there will be changes from fossil fuels, wind energy and renewable energy. We know the cost, but we have to do it now.”

Additional photos can be viewed on our Facebook page.

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About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons, who teaches journalism at Gonzaga University, is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 13 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and for the Religion News Service.

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  1. Liv Larson Andrews

    It was such a hopeful event and a powerful testimony to people power over corporations. As I listened to so many speakers describe the way coal “comes back” and harms us, from mercury in fish to acid rain, I recalled that two members of my little flock died of cancer this summer. So often we reach for reasons to understand those before-their-time deaths. I realized that standing up to coal is standing up against cancer too.
    Thanks again, Tracy, for your coverage of the event.

  2. Tracy Simmons

    Thanks Liv! There was a lot of powerful information shared there yesterday.