Faith groups join Lummi Nation fight against coal

Faith groups join Lummi Nation fight against coal

Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship’s partnership leads to public witness event at UUA’s General Assembly in June.

Lummi Nation leaders Jewell Praying Wolf James and Jay Julius

 Jewell Praying Wolf James, director of the Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, and Jay Julius, secretary of the Lummi Indian Business Council, talk about the threat a proposed coal terminal represents to Lummi lands—and the entire Pacific Northwest (Elaine McArdle).

© Elaine McArdle

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Cherry Point is a beautiful piece of land near Bellingham, Wash., where for thousands of years the Lummi have fished for salmon and other seafood. Xwe’chi’eXen, as the Lummi Nation calls it, also has enormous spiritual meaning, with sacred burial grounds dating back at least 3,500 years.

If SSA Marine has its way, it also will be the site of the largest coal-shipping terminal in North America. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would export 54 million metric tons of primarily coal to Asia each year. A related railroad expansion also is planned.

The environmental and human impact will be catastrophic, critics say—and not just to the Lummi or the Pacific coastline. This terminal, in combination with a similar one proposed in Vancouver, Wash., would have a bigger carbon impact than the Keystone XL pipeline, said Matt Petryni of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. In addition, railcars from Montana and elsewhere will blow tons of coal dust into the air, and each year nearly 500 ships twice the size of tankers will traverse the harbor.

“While they make their profits in China, we’ll end up with a Superfund site,” said Jewell Praying Wolf James, director of the Lummi Nation’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office.

The Lummi, supported by faith, environmental, and social justice groups, including Unitarian Universalists, are fighting the proposed terminal. They are relying, among other laws, on the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, by which the Lummi gave huge tracts of land to the United States in exchange for retaining rights to harvest fish in these waters.

Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine in Seattle, has applied for federal, state, and county approval. Government agencies are coordinating on an environmental impact statement before any permitting could proceed.

Poised at the nexus of human and environmental rights, the Lummi battle is emblematic of the global fight for climate justice. For that reason it has been chosen as the public witness event for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2015 General Assembly in Portland, Ore.

Sponsored by Commit2Respond, the UUA’s umbrella coalition for climate justice work, the public witness event will feature James and other Lummi leaders in a “worshipful, ritualistic experience where we’ll honor the big, deep emotions around these really emotional issues,” said Alex Kapitan, the UUA’s Congregational Advocacy and Witness Program coordinator and Commit2Respond liaison.

The June 27 event will invite UUs to take action on climate justice in their own communities, Kapitan said. Two GA workshops will feature the Lummi collaboration as a model for other UU congregations to partner with First Nations people on climate justice.

Native Americans are the canary in the coal mine of environmental destruction, said James, a longtime Lummi leader and a nationally known master woodcarver whose healing totem poles have been erected at the 9/11 sites and carried across the country to support climate justice.

“Toxins don’t know the boundaries of the reservation and cancer doesn’t know whether it’s affecting Indians or non-tribal people,” added Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “What happens to the Indian will happen to you.”

That’s why it’s important for faith organizations, environmental organizations, and social justice groups to work with the Lummi and other First Nations fighting destruction of the land and water, said Julius, who thanked the UUs for their support, adding, “The work we do is for everyone.”

Protecting the environment is one of the most pressing issues for UUs. The 2014 General Assembly passed a resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies in the UU Common Endowment Fund. But the UUA is also promoting a shift in framing environmental activism as “climate justice,” which expands the focus to encompass social, racial, and economic justice, recognizing that people of color and low-income groups often are hit the hardest by environmental degradation.

That’s why the Lummi fight for climate justice is appropriate as the public witness event for GA 2015, said the Rev. Paul Beckel, minister of the Bellingham, Wash., Unitarian Fellowship, which is partnering with the Lummi efforts.

“This is a primary example of how working to stop the transportation of fossil fuels can be empowering to us, to help us understand our relationship to the earth, to indigenous communities, to other faiths, and help us understand our identity as a religious movement,” Beckel said.

The Lummi are one of a number of First Nations in the Pacific Northwest fighting fossil fuel industries and other industrial threats to their culture and economic survival. “If these various fossil fuel projects occur, that will have a significant contribution to whether certain deposits of oil and coal get used and burned at all—and have a significant impact on how fast and how far the earth’s temperature goes up,” said Beckel.

The battle hasn’t been easy. In 2011, Pacific International Terminals—without government permits—tore up nearly five acres on Cherry Point, destroying burial grounds and unearthing Lummi ancestors. The Lummi have asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt the entire proposal immediately, even before environmental impact statements are prepared. They’ve rejected a request by SSA Marine to meet and talk about the terminal because they say there is no way to mitigate the damage it will cause.

The Bellingham Fellowship has been a leader in supporting the Lummi, including convening 300 faith leaders and environmental and social activists in May 2013 to hear James and Julius speak. The Fellowship also has passed two resolutions supporting the Lummi, including one repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

Members Beth Brownfield and Deborah Cruz have spearheaded the efforts in their congregation with the Lummi, including helping James with a “Totem Pole Journey” in 2013 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. Brownfield and Cruz, along with James and Julius, will be part of the two GA workshops on collaborating with First Nations for climate justice and preservation of traditional cultures.

“I think the position of Lummi Nation is a good example for not just Washington but all the people of the United States as to what our government officials should stand for, because we don’t serve money,” said Julius. “We serve the people of today, people of yesterday, but more importantly, the unborn children who have a guaranteed right to have clean water, clean fish, God’s gift to us of natural resources, and not just money.”


An abridged version of this story appears in the Summer 2015 issue of UU World (page 48).

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