With impassioned calls to action for climate justice, the 2015 General Assembly public witness event Saturday featured First Nations leaders who are at the frontlines. The service emphasized the struggle of the Lummi people of Washington, who are fighting to stop the largest coal terminal in North America from being built on their sacred waters and lands.
Close to 2,400 Unitarian Universalists and special guests attended the event, which was sponsored by Commit2Respond, the UUA’s umbrella coalition for climate justice work. It featured musical performances, inspirational words, and a call for everyone present to take the message back to their congregations and focus immediately on the critical issue of climate change.
The fossil fuel industry wants to “treat the Pacific Northwest as a toxic corridor,” said UUA President Peter Morales. “This injustice must be prevented.” Thanking all First Nations people in attendance, Morales said, “It is humbling to be in the presence of those whose ancestors have called the Pacific Northwest home for so many generations.” He added that original people “have suffered greatly at the hands of those with different values.”
Describing the ongoing environmental degradation in the Salish Sea, Lummi Nation Councilman and treaty rights activist Jay Julius said, “I want to make it clear that sympathy is not what we seek. Today I hope to provide some inspiration and some courage. My hope is that after today, each of our tomorrows has more purpose.”
Noting that the Lummi were not a conquered people but entered into a treaty in 1855, by which they gave huge tracts of land to the U.S. in exchange for retaining rights to harvest fish in their traditional fishing grounds, Julius said, “Today the work we do is not necessarily for us but for future generations.”
Holding up his hands in his culture’s traditional way of offering thanks, Julius expressed appreciation to the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship in Bellingham, Washington, and especially members Beth Brownfield and Deborah Cruz, who have spearheaded the congregation’s partnership with the Lummi to stop the coal terminal. They have also worked with Jewell Praying Wolf James, a Lummi Elder and climate justice activist, on totem pole journeys in 2013 and 2014 that carried poles he carved to Native and non-Native communities that would be affected by the Cherry Point terminal and other fossil fuel extraction projects. Another totem pole journey is planned for this year, and UUs can support it through Faithify.
“We’re here to work together to form an alliance and protect the earth for the next generations,” James said. He also kidded the audience, saying, “I didn’t realize Unitarian Universalism was such an old religion. I thought it was created by hippies. You seem like you love the world, you’re kind of like flower children.”
Five members of the Chinook people of the lower Columbia River area opened the event by singing “The Changer,” a traditional song, whose lyrics can be translated: “Come here this way, Creator, thank you. All will change their minds now.”
Shamania James, daughter of Jewell James, presented her music video, “This Is My Life,” which featured typical teenager scenes as well as the natural beauty of the Lummi land. “Learn what fulfills your heart and pursue it bravely, even if it scares you a little bit,” she said to the audience, after acknowledging how anxious she felt in front of such a large audience.
Aji Piper, 14, and his brother Adonis Williams, 10, of Seattle, performed a song they wrote last year, “Danger,” singing, “Fracking oil in the ground, killing everyone around, turning grass to black and brown, there’s danger up ahead.”
Musician and environmental activist Dana Lyons, who has worked with the Lummi, played a number of his songs, including “Salmon Come Home,” written to promote awareness about two proposed mines in Alaska that would destroy salmon habitats.
Four sections of the audience were sent in groups outside the auditorium to honor the four directions. Everyone present was given a ribbon to seal their commitment to climate justice, which they could tie to a sapling in the main hall after the event was over.
In closing, the Rev. Clyde Grubbs, a Cherokee and UU minister, said, “This struggle is not just about one coal plant on sacred lands. It’s a global struggle to save all creatures on earth and in the water and in the air. As people of faith, we are called to lead this struggle.”
He urged everyone to visit commit2respond.org for specific ways to support the Lummi Nation and take next steps toward justice and right relations with the earth.