TOPPENISH, Wash. — On a chilly Sunday morning, about a hundred members of the Yakama Nation gathered to bless a totem pole symbolizing tribal opposition to coal-transport projects proposed for the Northwest.
The totem pole is traveling across the West to raise awareness about the potential impact of the coal projects on tribal life. Currently two are under state review — one at Longview and another at Cherry Point near Blaine, close to the Canadian border.
The pole, which stands 18 feet tall, was made by the House of Tears Carvers from the Lummi Nation, situated next to the proposed Cherry Point export terminal. They named the totem pole Kwel hoy’, which means “we draw the line.”
“We know the tribes of the Northwest have stood up and said no to the coal going through,” Lummi carver Jewell James told the crowd assembled under a tent outside Legends Casino. “It’s impossible to mitigate the damage, that’s why we have to prevent it.”
Because the domestic market for coal is soft, coal mined in Montana and Wyoming would be destined for export to Asia via the Northwest. Proponents say the projects will create sorely needed jobs and tax revenue for many smaller municipalities along the route. They also say they have state-of-the-art equipment to prevent coal dust from escaping rail cars.
But tribal groups and environmentalists are skeptical, and say the coal dust and increased rail and barge traffic could damage fish habitat and air and water quality.
The Yakama Nation is just one stop on the totem’s long journey from coal country in Montana back to the Northwest coast. James said the goal of the totem is to connect people worried about their own part of the earth and to bring their prayers and stories together.
In a two-hour ceremony of drumming and singing, the Yakama people added their prayers and blessings.
“Even though we may practice a different religion, we understand and support the purpose and mission of their totem,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin said. “It’s really about protecting Mother Earth.”
Earlier this year, the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians, which represents 57 tribes, adopted a resolution opposing proposals to increase transportation and export of fossil fuels through the Northwest. Tribal unity on this position is complicated, however, by the fact that some tribes, including the Crow Nation from Montana, have coal and thus an interest in making money from their natural resources.
“We recognize that they have a need to economically protect their people,” Smiskin said of the Crow Nation. “We said to them, go ahead, mine your coal, but don’t ship it through our area.”
The House of Tears Carvers have a tradition of creating healing totem poles for those in need, including one that honors the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. James said that concerns about the potential damages of coal transport across sacred lands motivated them to carve the totem for healing and protection. At the base, salmon swim in blue water and above, warriors kneel around a child who is hungry for knowledge, James said. Above them, a wolf holds a salmon and a harvest moon rises at the top of the pole.
The final home for the totem pole will be with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Canada, whose lands are located in tar sands territory.
The Yakama Nation is also speaking out against a coal transfer station proposed along the Columbia River in Longview. The project, planned by Millennium Bulk Terminals, would move almost 50 million tons of coal a year by rail to the river.
Smiskin said that the Millennium project threatens salmon runs in the Columbia and traditional fishing sites. Beyond that, he has public safety concerns about significant increases in rail traffic.
The tribes aren’t alone in their opposition to new transport projects. The public comment process for the Millennium project in Longview is underway. Thus far, the state Department of Ecology has received more than 7,700 comments, the majority opposed or expressing serious concern. The 183 people who wrote in support of the project pointed to job creation and economic growth. The 7,517 opposed cited concerns ranging from local public health and safety to impacts on the climate. The comment period remains open through November and several more public meetings are scheduled.
Sunday’s Yakama ceremony closed with people gathering around the totem and children climbing up for a photo. After lunch, the totem continued on its journey, going next to Portland, Seattle and then back to Cherry Point.