PORTLAND, Ore. — A Native American tribe is taking a 22-foot totem pole from Canada through the Pacific Northwest to Montana in opposition of proposed coal export terminals.
A team from the Lummi Nation, from Washington’s Puget Sound region, started the journey on Friday. The pole will travel more than 1,300 miles, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Missoula, with multiple stops in Washington and Oregon.
Its journey includes blessing ceremonies at each of the proposed coal ports and in tribal communities and houses of worship along the oil train route.
The totem pole is destined for Montana’s Otter Creek Valley, the location of a proposed coal mining expansion that would serve the Pacific Northwest terminals.
The Lummi Nation and other tribes are against building coal-export terminals at Cherry Point near Bellingham, in Longview, and at the Port of Morrow on the Columbia River. Cherry Point encompasses the Lummi Nation’s ancestral sites and traditional fishing grounds.
The projects would export millions of tons of coal annually to Asia. The tribes say the terminals would disrupt treaty-protected fishing rights, contaminate air and water, and harm sacred sites.
The totem pole was created by the House of Tears Carvers at the Lummi Nation. It took four months for a team to create it, said the tribe’s master carver Jewell James.
Traditionally, totem poles use powerful symbols to depict visions, pass on tribal mythology or mark important tribal or family events, Jewell said. They’re used at ceremonies, to honor the deceased, or to record stories.
But over the past years, the tribe has put them to a novel use; tribal members have taken the totem poles off the reservation to areas struck by disaster or facing a crisis, as symbols of strength and wisdom, Jewell said.
The Lummi have delivered totem poles to New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., after the 911 terrorist attacks.
Last year, the tribe took a totem pole to Sioux territory in Northern Alberta to oppose tar sand mining, and the previous year to Vancouver to protest a proposed oil pipeline.
The symbols carved into the current totem are to encourage wise decisions that protect the environment, Jewell said.
They include a medicine wheel, which symbolizes the transfer of traditional knowledge to tribal members; a flying eagle, which stands for spiritual knowledge; and a turtle representing the earth.
“We’re all united as tribes in not wanting coal coming to our territory,” Jewell said. “The coal will contaminate the air and leak into the water supply. And it will drop as acid rain when it’s burned.”
At each stop, the tribe will present the totem pole to the community at a meeting with environmental activists, faith leaders and local residents.
The tribe will offer the totem pole to the Northern Cheyenne Nation at Otter Creek in Montana. That tribe will then take over the pole and will take it on another three week journey to oppose the coal expansion.
Afterward, it will be placed upright at a totem pole raising ceremony on the Cheyenne Nation’s reservation.