A 22-foot-long totem pole carved by members of the Lummi Nation is making its way from Bellingham, traveling 5,000 miles across the U.S. and Canada. The colorful sculpture is the focal point for a tribal journey meant to unify native people with their allies in the fight against increased fossil fuel exports.
On a recent stop in Seattle, supporters filled the steps of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, as tribal members burned sage, drummed and chanted in a traditional smudging ceremony.
Before them on the flatbed of a truck lay the 22-foot cedar totem pole. At its center are a wolf and a bear, coexisting peacefully, with buffalo beneath. At the top soars a bald eagle with outstretched wings and a medicine wheel on its chest.
Jewell James is head carver. He says these figures all have meaning.
“We hope that there’s going to be a lot of leaders that have eyes of the eagle, where they can see almost everything and understand it. We hope that there will be leaders that will go out and warn the people, 'You have to stand up for the environment or it’s going to be dangerous for your children,'” James said.
“'And you’ll have to have strength and stamina, like the bear. But you also have to have the belief of your traditions,' So the four sacred buffalo, talking about belief in your mythology, your traditional knowledge,” said James.
He added that the pole also depicts a peaceful warrior praying and a pipe carrier ready to send the prayers upward.
After the smudging ceremony, James played a peace pipe inside the Cathedral, part of a two-hour long rally with speeches from tribal representatives and members of environmental groups, prayers by the congregation and songs by Seattle Peace Choir interspersed.
This spring, the Lummi Tribe won its fight against a new coal export terminal at Cherry Point, near Bellingham. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed the terminal would interfere with the tribe’s treaty fishing rights. But the Lummi are anything but complacent. Jewell says they didn’t do it alone. And their fight goes beyond the Salish Sea, to communities all over the U.S.
“This is just one battle in a very large conflict. We’re talking about global warming. And you’ve got fracking, you’ve got tar sands, you’ve got major activities out there that’s destroying aquifers,exhausting river supplies,” James said. “And these are the same rivers and aquifers that feed your major populations. Don’t those people in the cities have the right to the water?”
The totem pole journey goes through communities along the way, where people are fighting for those rights. This year’s major stops on the totem pole journey include Longview, Washington; where a coal export terminal is still in play, and the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where the Sioux tribes are opposing a pipeline. It ends in Winnipeg, Manitoba; where TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline is gaining momentum as an alternative to the failed Keystone XL project.
Manitoba chiefs there will receive the totem pole with final ceremonies on September 7, as they attempt to grow a movement opposing all pipelines from the tar sands and encouraging more environmentally friendly alternatives.
You can follow the progress of the totem pole journey on the group’s website, totempolejourney.org.