1. Introduction
  2. A Sea of Risks
  3. The Sacred Summit
  4. The Totem Pole Journey
  5. Strategic Alliances
  6. What Happens Next
  7. Credits
Amber Cortes

Treaty Rights and Totem Poles

How one tribe is carving out a resistance to coal.

Treaty Rights and Totem Poles
How one tribe is carving out a resistance to coal.

With more oil pipelines and coal trains in the works, and convenient shipping export routes by sea to China and India, the Pacific Northwest is on the brink of becoming North America’s 'fossil fuel gateway.' But indigenous tribes from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, whose land and waters are imperiled by these expansions, are at the forefront of blocking this gateway.

One tribe, the Lummi, has taken an uncompromising stand against the largest proposed coal export terminal in the country, the Gateway Pacific Terminal. If built, the Gateway Pacific Terminal would export 48 million tons of coal a year from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. The terminal threatens the ecological health of the Lummis' fishing grounds, their economic survival, and their spiritual schelangen, or way of life.

On Aug. 17, the Lummi people will launch a pivotal protest. The totem pole journey, as the mission is called, will bring together indigenous tribes from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest for a unified front against Big Coal and Big Oil. The Lummis want to spark awareness and dialogue about the environmental and cultural impacts of the Gateway terminal. If successful, the journey will rally enough public support to keep the Gateway terminal at bay. 

The Lummis have a lot working against them. Pacific Terminals, the company behind the project, is a subsidiary of SSA Marine, one of the largest shipping terminal operators in the world: a giant corporation with deep pockets, political push, and power.

But the Lummis have a power of their own: They are a sovereign nation within the United States, a self-governing community with control over their land and water. Big environmental groups, which view the pending coal terminal projects as the next target in the fight against climate change, recognize that power and have sought out the Lummis and other local tribes as key allies. By forging such strategic alliances  and using their sacred traditions as a way to protest  the Lummis have been able to fight back.

And so far, they’re winning. 

A Sea of Risks

The Lummis are a maritime people. The tribe lives on a small, 21-square-mile reservation north of Bellingham, Wash., on the Salish Sea. This inland network of coastal waterways, stretching from the San Juan Islands to the South Puget Sound, is where they have fished for over 2,500 years. The sea’s salmon, halibut, and crabs contribute to a fishing industry that now generates more than $15 million a year for the tribe. Fish like the chinook salmon adorn their carvings and totem poles, appear in their myths and legends, and are honored in sacred seasonal ceremonies.

The Lummis have a unique traditional way of fishing for wild salmon. Fishermen hang reef nets (made of cedar or, these days, nylon) from large cedar canoes. When a school of salmon swims by, the fishermen raise the nets to catch the fish, and then let them tumble gently onto the boat’s deck.

Reef netting in the Puget Sound

Reef netting in the Puget Sound

Archival drawing courtesy of Lummi Nation/Archives and Records

At Cherry Point, the site of the proposed coal terminal, the water is great for fishing: the depth of the sea bottom drops off quickly from the shore and attracts fish like surf smelt, sand lance, and herring that come to feed and spawn. It’s one of the reasons Cherry Point is so special, and a state aquatic reserve.

Bathymetric chart of Cherry Point by Gary Greene

That very deep water, so close to shore, is what makes Cherry Point so special to Pacific Terminals and SSA Marine, too. You can’t bring tankers and bulk carriers that draft in excess of 50 feet deep into just any old port.

“But what’s good for the shipper is critical for the fish,” says Fred Felleman, a marine biologist who consults with Pacific Northwest tribes and environmental groups about shipping impacts on the marine environment. 

He says that of the all the proposed coal export terminals in the region, the terminal at Cherry Point is “the big battle” for the coal industry. That’s because plans for other terminals in the Pacific Northwest have fizzled.

The proposal for a terminal at the Port of Grays Harbor, Wash., was withdrawn in 2012. Three coal export proposals in Oregon are not doing too great, either: Morrow Pacific in St. Helens is facing similar indigenous resistance, Kinder Morgan abandoned plans for its Port Westward coal terminal in 2013, and Project Mainstay in the Port of Coos Bay lost its main investors. (The Millennium Bulk Terminal in Longview, Wash., is now entering its public comment period.)

Says Felleman: “Before a lot of these other ones sort of dropped off the map, I always believed that if all else fails, this is the one that they want more than all of them.” 

The deep waters of Cherry Point also sustain a genetically distinct stock of herring that spawn in the spring instead of the winter. As Felleman points out, the herring are a crucial part of the local ecosystem: “Everything eats it  it can be salmon food, it can be seal food, it can be bird food, or it can be whale food.”

Cherry Point herring

Cherry Point herring

Felleman believes that the light, noise, and deposits created by the Gateway Terminal would be the “last dock” to break the herring's back, sending devastating effects up the marine food chain.

In fact, the herring population at Cherry Point has already been declining, quite rapidly: Once the most abundant fish species in the state, herring numbers have dwindled to a startling 92 percent over the past 40 years or so, and nobody really knows why

Felleman attributes the population decline to an oil spill in 1972. In 1979, the Lummis ceased fishing herring to bring the population back, losing out on an estimated $100 million in fishing income.

There’s also the risk of coal ship spills, like the one two years ago at Westshore Terminals in Vancouver. “Bulker” coal ships, the type that would be used to ship coal at the Gateway Pacific terminal, are wider and deeper than oil tankers, making them less maneuverable. And unlike oil tankers, they don’t require tug escorts, an extra layer of safety in case something happens.

With the largest ferry system in the United States, the third largest container port, a large naval presence, and an international border, the Puget Sound is one of the most complicated waterways in the country for vessel traffic. Felleman believes this could be a recipe for disaster. “One of the things that bulk carriers are unfortunately famous for,” he explains, “are catastrophic structural failures.”

The Sacred Summit
Getting the canoe ready at the Sacred Summit

Getting the canoe ready at the Sacred Summit

Photo by Daniel Thornton

It’s a sunny morning in June, and everybody is gearing up for the day’s events: two prayer staffs will be taken on an eight-mile journey across the Lummi reservation, one carried by runners on a land race, and one on a canoe by Lummi youth.

Prayer staffs

Prayer staffs

Photo by Daniel Thornton

The group gathered at the beach is small but diverse: activists from local environmental groups like Power Past Coal and the Backbone Campaign, Lummi tribal elders, members of other tribes including the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Vancouver, and concerned Bellingham citizens. They’re all here for the Sacred Summit, a conference organized by the Lummi to discuss the impacts of proposed energy development projects on indigenous lands and waters. 

This small patch of shoreline along the Salish Sea looks like any other Pacific Northwest beach, with washed-up logs and uneven rocks that grate beneath your feet. But to the Lummi people, this place is sacred: It’s the site of a 3,500-year-old village and an ancestral cemetery.

Chief Tsilixw William (Bill) James, the Hereditary Chief of the Lummi Nation, has walked further up the beach, away from the group. When he returns, he walks slowly, deliberately, along the edge of the tide. He holds two feathers in his hand.

As the spiritual leader of the tribe, Chief James conducts sacred ceremonies and often serves as a “witness,” speaking at important tribal events. He’s worried about Cherry Point, the place the Lummis call Xwe’chi’eXen, because he made a promise to protect it:

Chief Bill James

Chief Bill James

Photo by Daniel Thornton

“Years ago, I walked with my elder, my granduncle, born in the 1800s. I walked with him right on this beach here. During that time, he taught me about all the burial practices of our people. Our people were buried in the trees. Our people were buried in the ground in the fetal position. Our people were put onto the water in the canoes that had holes in them. He was the man that told me: I want you to protect this area up here; because this is the homeland of the ancient ones, not just the old people. But the ancient ones; the ancient ones are here.” 

Chief James explains that he carried that knowledge for over 40 years, before “all that’s going on today.”

What’s going on today is a struggle that has been years in the making. When the terminal plans were announced in 2010, the Lummis created a multidisciplinary team to handle the decision-making process, getting input from tribal members while generating a study about the ecological and economic impacts that the Gateway Terminal would have on the tribe. 

As for residents in the communities surrounding the Lummi Nation, some citizens were interested in the jobs and economic advantages the terminal would bring, but most residents of liberal Bellingham had their own concerns: The terminal would bring in up to nine coal trains a day that would travel right through town.

Then, in June 2011, Pacific Terminals bulldozed an area of the wetlands at Cherry Point without obtaining the proper environmental permits. Nor did they bother to consult with the Lummi or other local tribes about it. 

The plot that was bulldozed also happened to be a registered state archaeological site, with 3,000-year-old human remains and old hunting and fishing tools. It was an ancient burial site for Lummi ancestors.

That was the last straw.

So two and a half years ago, Chief James stood on this very beach, along with tribal council members and hundreds of others from the Lummi Nation, and burned a large, symbolic, “non-negotiable” check that gave a very clear, media-ready message to the masses (and SSA Marine): No amount of money will buy off this community. 

The Totem Pole Journey

Totem Pole plan

Totem Pole plan

Drawing by Jewell James

The totem pole will stand at 19 feet tall when completed. Carved into the pole is Mother Earth, lifting a child up to receive the teachings of the heavens. On the bottom of her dress are four warriors who are guardians of the sacred earth-power, and a snake, representing the power of the earth traveling upwards.

This totem pole is a symbol of protest against the fossil fuel industry. On Aug. 17, the pole will begin a three-week journey through pockets of indigenous resistance to Big Coal and Big Oil across North America. The goal of the journey is to bring together far-reaching Indian tribes, draw media attention, and spark more protests across the country.

The journey’s starting point: Cherry Point.

Jewell James is the man charged with carving the totem pole. James is a Lummi tribal member and the director of the Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, and a master carver with the House of Tears Carvers, a nonprofit Lummi organization dedicated to preserving traditional carving practices in the community.

Today, he’s teaching an apprentice, Andre. Carving is hard work. Both men break a sweat as they chip away at the trunk and smooth out grains. James and his apprentices have carved over 100 totem poles over the years for various tribes, commercial projects, and communities.

Many of the pieces are what James calls “healing totem poles,” donated to tribal boarding schools, assisted living facilities, and hospitals across the country — places, James says, “where people need healing.”

Jewell James' totem pole at the National Cemetery

Jewell James' totem pole at the National Cemetery

Photo by Tim Evanson

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, James and the House of Tears Carvers raised a totem pole in New York City, then another one in Shanksville, Penn., where Flight 93 crashed, and finally, a three-piece totem pole at the National Cemetery in Arlington for the victims at the Pentagon.

“What we’re doing is we’re using it to call people to gather,” says James. “It’s when people gather together that the sacred exists.”

These days, James uses his healing totem poles as a form of protest and a way to spread the word about indigenous environmental causes. He calls the totem pole journey “a media event,” adding, “it is an attempt to call people together — environmental NGOs, citizens groups, local folks.”

According to James, people are responding. He says that last year, when they made a similar totem pole journey to Otter Creek in Canada, the trip generated media attention, created new partnerships, and brought more dialogue to the table. “We know up in Vancouver, with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, they had over 7 million hits on their website as a result. And we think that we did have some influence on the hearings at Longview and here at Cherry Point.”

Last years Kwel Hoy' totem pole to Otter Creek

Last years Kwel Hoy' totem pole to Otter Creek

Photo by Paul K. Anderson

This year’s journey starts with an inaugural blessing at Cherry Point, then on to South Dakota to be among the Sioux, who oppose the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. From there, the pole goes up to the Spokane Indians in Idaho, through the Yakama Nation and up to Seattle and Vancouver, then, finally, ends at the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation in Alberta, Canada, where it will be raised in the tar sands.

James hopes that the totem pole journey will be a galvanizing and unifying force for tribes and environmental groups fighting against the fossil fuel industry. He knows that the Lummis and other tribes have a lot more people to convince, but he has faith in spreading the message. 

“We have a long ways to go, but we know that the public is intelligent,” says James. “And public opinion does matter. This is a country where you elect your officials, and hold them responsible.”

Strategic Alliances

The Lummis, like other indigenous tribes in North America, have one thing that environmental groups don’t: power over their land and water.

That power derives from the treaties that native tribes have signed with the federal government. Such treaties declare that a tribe can govern as a sovereign nation. This unique control over the land has led to more and more environmental groups and local communities aligning with indigenous tribes — and forming some surprising partnerships.

Like many Native American tribes in the United States, the Lummis have seen their share of broken treaties, forced relocation, oppression of their language and culture, and denial of basic rights to manage their own natural resources, like fishing. In fact, the Lummis do not actually own the land at Cherry Point. It was lost to them in a treaty dispute involving white squatters in the late 1800s. The land is owned by SSA Marine and Pacific Terminals.

But the Boldt decision in 1974 was a huge step for Washington state tribes to assert their rights to fish in their “usual and accustomed places,” awarding them 50 percent of all catchable fish in the Puget Sound.

In 1996, the Lummi tribe was able to leverage the Boldt decision to stop a commercial fish farm near Lummi Island. The Lummis successfully argued that the salmon pens would interfere with their tribal fishing rights by physically blocking access to their “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds. Ultimately, the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to grant the permit. (The Army Corps of Engineers also has the final say in issuing permits for the Gateway Terminal.)

The Lummi tribe has been using this same argument as a basis to fight against the coal terminal as well. It’s a matter of right to access: If coal ships are there, then they can’t get out to fish.

Empowered by the Boldt decision, other tribes have been asserting their treaty rights to protect and conserve their resources over the years as well, leading to environmental victories and habitat protection in Washington state. The Quinault Indians of Gray’s Harbor managed to reverse permits for two crude oil terminals there, citing tribal fishing rights as a major concern. The Nisqually near Olympia, Wash., are enacting salmon protection plans through the watershed management authority honored by both state and local governments.

“I think if the Boldt decision had gone the other way, western Washington would be far more polluted and industrialized and destroyed than it is,” says Zoltan Grossman, a professor of Native Studies at Evergreen College in Olympia.

Grossman edited the 2012 book Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis, and he’s currently writing a book about treaty conflicts and environmental cooperation between Native American and rural white communities.

"Cowboys and Indians" coalition

"Cowboys and Indians" coalition

Photo by Jay Mallin

Grossman says that, within the environmental movement, “Native American communities are not just protesting; they’re asserting their sovereignty. And there’s a difference. They, in effect, are the ones who are exercising power, and not just protesting against power.”

What kind of power? For one, tribal sovereignty gives a much more direct authority and tie to the federal government. Native American tribes can call in federal agencies when they need to, in a way that local and even state governments can’t.

And, says Grossman, when Native Americans reach out to non-native communities on these issues, like the Lummis have done, they provide strong leadership, and often become the core of that alliance. “It becomes an extremely powerful alliance that basically says: This is our home, this is our common home, and we are the insiders in this place, we’re the ones that live here, and the outsiders — be they corporations, be they government agencies — they can’t dictate what we can and can’t do.”

Sometimes these alliances come from places you’d never expect, like the recent “Cowboys and Indians” coalition that is protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Another unlikely partnership is between Lummi and local commercial salmon fishermen in Bellingham, who realize that the terminal would compromise their economic opportunities as well.

Puyallup Indian fishing protest, 1968

Puyallup Indian fishing protest, 1968

Photo by Stephen Lehmer

“Some of the commercial fishermen seem to be the ones who are most powerfully in support of the Lummi,” says Grossman. “Since it’s pretty clear what the terminal would do.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Fish Wars raged in the Salish Sea. Lummi fishermen, in an effort to obtain fishing rights that were denied to them by the state, participated in acts of civil disobedience known as “fish-ins,” enraging local commercial and sport fisherman as well as waterfront property owners.

Violence ensued: fishing nets were cut, boats were rammed, and there was gunfire and threats. 

“I don’t think anyone 20 years ago would have thought that the Lummi and commercial fishermen and a bunch of people from Bellingham would unite together,” says Grossman, “but the Lummi have really paved the way and have catalyzed the rest of the community into taking a stand.”

What Happens Next

The future of the Gateway Pacific Terminal is unclear. On one hand, coal is an uncertain market in the United States, but in the export market, its value as a commodity has been steadily increasing since 2005. 

One of the terminal’s biggest investors, Goldman Sachs, which had a 49 percent stake in the project, recently pulled out altogether, a sign that Wall Street sees coal as a risky investment. But another investor, a Mexican businessman, has stepped in to take Goldman’s place.

As far as the state of Washington goes, opinions seem to be divided as well. A recent poll conducted by EarthFix found that more people in the state support the coal terminals than oppose them (47 to 41 percent). 

But at the local level, last fall, four democratic, anti-coal candidates, backed by environmental groups, were voted into Whatcom City Council over SSA Marine-backed candidates, which will make the permitting process for the Gateway Terminal a hassle over the next couple of years. 

A recent draft of the environmental impact review by the Army Corps of Engineers recommended that Gateway present an “alternative plan” to mitigate wetland and environmental damage. Gateway Pacific, in response, offered a new design that attempts to lessen the environmental impacts and decrease the reduction to wetlands impacts by 50 percent. According to this new plan, the terminal would be fully operational by 2019.

The Lummis, as expected, do not approve, saying this latest plan will have the “same impact” on their tribal fishing rights and cultural heritage.

Regardless of whether the coal terminal project gets approved, the Lummis have solidified their legacy as a symbol of triumphant resistance. The tribe has opened up partnerships with environmental groups and local governments and has found creative ways to change the dialogue about fossil fuels. The Lummi have asserted their sovereignty and right to the land and sea. They have created a blueprint to fight against Big Coal.

In many ways, the Lummis have already won.


Photos and video by Daniel Thornton

Black and white drawing of canoes courtesy of Lummi Nation/Archives and Records

Master Carver cover photo by Amber Cortes

Jewell James video by Amber Cortes

Strategic Alliances cover photo by Dan Thornton

What Happens Next cover photo by Zoltan Grossman