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On totem journey, Lummi carvers call for Lower Snake dam removal

A totem pole depicting killer whale, carrying a baby on her snout loaded on a flatbed.
Kurt Russo
The main totem from the "Spirit of the Waters" totem journey depicts a 16-foot killer whale, carrying a baby on her snout. It is inspired by the true story of Talequah, an endangered southern resident orca who miscarried in 2018.

A group of native carvers from the Lummi Nation has hit the road again from Bellingham. The House of Tears Carvers will make stops in Oregon, Idaho and Washington over the next two weeks, as they call for dam removal on the Lower Snake River, through storytelling, conversation and prayer.

The group has organized dozens of such journeys over the past two decades, part of the Pacific Northwest's indigenous-led environmental movement.

“Spirit of the Waters” is the name of this year’s journey. And the main totem pole featured — and loaded onto a flatbed truck for the tour — depicts a 16-foot long killer whale, carrying a baby on her snout.

It’s the true story from 2018, of the endangered southern resident orca known as Talequah, and hertour of grief after she miscarried.

“Where that mother whale carried that dead infant for one thousand miles in 17 days,” says Jewell James, a Lummi elder who leads the House of Tears Carvers.

“That was really significant,” he says of the story that captivated global audiences more than three years ago but has since begun to fade from the media limelight.

“I mean, how can a whale tell you how dangerous humanity has become to their life, their way of life?” he says. “They're letting you know the quality of your environment and their quality of life.”  

Kurt Russo
Setting up the Whale Protectors exhibit at the University of Oregon during the 2022 "Spirit of the Waters" totem journey.

It’s dire, with the southern resident orca population now hovering around 75 whales, even after the recent births of two orca calves – the most recent reported Tuesday, the first born to the K pod family in 11 years.

But the whales suffer from too many pollutants in the water, which is known to infiltrate their blubber and mother’s milk, making the survival of the first year of a whale calf’s life extremely uncertain. They suffer from underwater noise that disrupts their ability to echolocate and find their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.

And those salmon are also endangered, increasingly scarce because of pollution caused by human development and by the escalating pressures of climate change.

The lack of food means many of the fish-eating resident orcas have become too thin– especially the southern ones, who frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

It’s believed that if their bodies burn the fat in their blubber for nutrition, they metabolize more of the toxins they’re constantly swimming through. This is especially dangerous for orca mothers – and their calves, who get high concentrations of toxins from their mother’s milk.

Jewell says the totem pole journey they’re on this year is an answer to Talequah’s cry for help.

“Wherever we go, the rivers are dying. They're becoming super shallow and they're heating up. And the fish and other life that depend on the rivers are dying of,” he says. “And these are important to all of us.”

At each of the twelve stops along the two-week journey, Jewell says they’ll talk about why they’re pushing for dam removal: because they believe it will help keep both Chinook salmon and in turn, southern resident orcas from going extinct. Through prayers and storytelling, they want to remind people that they have power to help too.

“Your voice matters. You’ve got to stand up. You've got to speak out. You've got to speak up,” he says.

Kurt Russo
Unloading a salmon carving at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., the first stop on this year's totem journey.

He says salmon and orcas are like a litmus test, or canaries in a coal mine, alerting us to the condition of the environment we all share.

The carvers and their supporters want the dams on the Lower Snake River in that system removed. But they know many people disagree, especially in areas that depend on them for shipping or where they generate electric power.

Advocates for dam removal feel there are ways to address those needs, but some who will be directly affected disagree.

Governor Jay Inslee and senior Washington Senator Patty Murray, both Democrats, say they’re listening to diverse viewpoints and will finalize their recommendations by the end of July this year.

Former Lummi Council President Jay Julius says for most people these days, it’s not an easy conversation to have. Especially because at the heart of it is a philosophical divide. “The Spirit of the Waters” refers to a belief system, rooted in the "rights of nature."

“You know, in our view, everything's alive and we're all interconnected. The right for a river to flow needs to be acknowledged. You know, the rights of the salmon needs to be acknowledged. They were here before us,” he says.

“This garden. We just need to take care of it. And we've kind of failed at that the last couple of centuries. But I think we can come together and correct that.”

Julius also notes that our survival is intimately linked to the health of our environment. He grew up in a family of salmon fishermen and still derives most of his income from that line of work, which he has passed along to a son and daughter.

Salmon Rivers, the Salish Sea, southern residents and Orcas — qwe ‘lhol mechen — they symbolize so much. And they tell us so much. They're indicators,” he says.

The Lummi word for orcas, "qwe ‘lhol mechen" means "our relations beneath the waves." Through their totem journey, the House of Tear Carvers is speaking out on shore for those relations.

When the carvers and their crew arrive with the sculptures on a big flatbed truck, it sparks curiosity. Lummi elders encourage listening and prayer.

This year’s journey will include stops in tribal nations that don’t necessarily agree that the dams should come down. The journey starts and ends in Bellingham, home to Washington State university and the Lummi nation. It’s also near an industrial area, Cherry Point, that hosts some of Washington state’s most important oil refineries – and some of that region’s best-paid jobs.

The "Spirit of the Waters" totem pole journey will be at the University of Oregon in Eugene starting Thursday and in Seattle and Tacoma on May 19 and 20, respectively. You can find more information online, at and videos from the stops on Facebook.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to