Four Washington Native American tribes won’t let international borders stop their voices from being heard.
Representatives from the Salish Sea’s Lummi, Suquamish, Swinomish and Tulalip tribes traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, to give testimony against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to the Canadian National Energy Board on Nov. 28.
Speakers cited concern for the whales, loss of culture and the overall health of the region as reasons against the pipeline expansion.
“We are here to say that our way of life can no longer be pushed to the wayside. Your decision has big impacts on tribal lives, tribal culture, tradition,” Tandy Wilbur of the Swinomish tribe said during his testimony. “We are here to protect that and share with you our story of our way of life. We are a strong people, and we fight, and we’re here to pass on that message.”
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the expansion on Nov. 29, 2016, with the stipulation that the company must meet 157 conditions laid out by the National Energy Board in its May 2016 approval. The Canadian federal government offered to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from its Texas-based owner Kinder Morgan for 4.5 billion Canadian dollars in May.
The Canadian Federal Court of Appeals overturned the country’s approval to move forward with construction of the controversial oil pipeline on Aug. 30.
The Canadian government referred the decision back to the National Energy Board on Sept. 20. The board will continue to hear testimony from regional First Nations groups through Dec. 6, and will decide in January.
The board will hear testimonies from more than 20 First Nations communities on the damaging repercussions to their culture from the pipeline expansion.
Lyne Mercier, chairwoman of the reconsideration board, said that spoken testimonies are a reminder of regional tribes’ tradition of oral history and that the information, “cannot always be adequately shared in writing.”
Chief Bill James of the Lummi Nation emphasized how the pipeline expansion would affect entire ecosystems of the Salish Sea, from the orcas to the humans. He said that Tahlequah, the orca mother who mourned the loss of her calf by carrying it on her head for 17 days earlier this year, is saying the orca population cannot handle any more stressors in their environment.
“She’s giving us a sign – our native people know how to read that. She’s giving us a sign to stand up and tell the world that we’ve got to be getting ready. The blackfish [orcas] are dying around us; we tried to feed them the best we could,” James said, referencing the efforts of the tribes to increase hatchery production. “My values are entirely different than your values are because culturally, and spiritually, and through our genealogy, we know who we are. … I talk to your spirit. I talk to your spirit and I hope your spirit will understand what I’m saying. You know your spirit will understand.”
Danger of spill
The pipeline transports bitumen from Northeastern Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands to Burnaby, British Columbia. The current Trans Mountain pipeline can transport 300,000 barrels per day (one barrel equals 42 gallons). With the proposed expansion, the pipeline’s transportation capacity would increase to 890,000 barrels per day.
“I’m here today because my people – all of these people – are depending on sustaining our way of life,” said Lisa Wilson, Endangered Species Act manager and policy representative for Lummi Natural Resources. “So we know that the impact on vessel traffic, we know the impact of the noise, and we know the impact if there was an oil spill, the major devastation that’s going to wipe out all of the species in the Salish Sea. So I come to you today to protect what we have left.”
Wilson said the people of the Salish Sea have come to a crossroads and they must change their way of life to protect the orcas.
“We’ve got to stop taking and taking and taking and we’ve got to turn the tides, literally, to make sure that we can actually save a species if we all put our efforts together,” she said. “Unless we all do something, then we’re going to lose this — we’re going to lose the orca and that will be on our watch and that will be on our conscience if we let that happen.”
Lummi Nation fishing has declined over the last 100 years, creating a hardship for a tribe dependent on ocean catch for food and commerce, Wilson said. There has been debate over ancestral fishing lands and that the potential of an oil spill caused by increased tanker traffic through the sea is too high and would forever affect her tribe’s culture.
Jeremy Wilbur is a member of the Swinomish Tribe and a member of the tribe’s fish and game commission.
“But I think most importantly, which means the most to me in my lifetime, is I am a fisherman. And that’s what I’ve done for a majority of my life,” he said. “That’s what my father has done, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather has fished the Salish Sea.”
Jeremy Wilbur explained that he and his fellow tribal fishers have lost much of their ancestral fishing grounds and thousands of dollars worth of gear annually to oil tanker traffic. He said the tankers rarely stay in their designated lanes and take shortcuts through the water, making fishing difficult.
“Adding another amount of vessels to the Salish Sea is something that is not favorable to mother nature, for the Salish Sea itself and the area tribes,” said Tandy Wilbur, assistant fisheries manager and active commercial fisherman. “We, as a people, look to the water for survival. It’s our lifeline; everything that we are taught comes from the water. Everything that we do and teach and pass down there is some form of teaching from the water.”
“Our cultural teachings tell us that we have a responsibility to future generations. Today, the Salish Sea cries out to us that it can’t take any more of the impacts that human beings continue to inflict,” Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribe Marie Zackuse said. “Today, our treaty rights in the Salish Sea are experiencing a death of a thousand cuts. Human beings continue to put additional pressures on the Salish Seas one proposal at a time. But we have reached a tipping point. This Trans Mountain expansion may just be the project that brings us past the point of no return.”
Executive Director of Natural and Cultural Resources for the Tulalip Tribes Ray Fryberg recounted a Tulalip oral tale of how five brothers turned into orcas to find their way home after becoming lost in the fog. He then told the story of his spiritual connection with the orcas – his experience of having an orca “speak” to him in its native tongue.
“He’s saying, I don’t have a voice. I need someone to stand up and speak for me. You’re my brother. You need to get up and say things are not right in the water for our family,” Fryberg said.
The board will hear from more First Nation groups before their final decision in two months. Mercier thanked the tribes before they exited with a traditional song.
“I would really like to acknowledge the Swinomish Indian Tribal, the Tulalip Tribes, Swinomish Tribes and Lummi Nation, first for traveling this far, and then for sharing your history, your current challenges, your stories and your traditional knowledge that you have shared with us today,” Mercier said in closing.
This story originally appeared in The Journal of the San Juan Islands, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.