Members of the Lummi tribe brought a totem pole to Riverfront Park on Sunday afternoon to raise awareness about a proposed deep-water coal port near the Cherry Point refinery in Washington state.
“We’re mainly calling attention to unite and protect the Earth from the horrific damage we’re doing to it,” said Jewell James, head carver for the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation.
The proposed area for the port lies just a few miles north of the Lummi reservation and south of the Canadian border in Birch Bay near the town of Blaine, Wash. It would serve as a major export site for coal to Asian countries.
The tribe’s subsistence hunting relies heavily on fish harvested from water near the area and tribal members believe their lands and food sources could be tainted by the port’s development.
It also would be built on sites that were formerly roamed by the Lummi people before they were moved to their reservation, he said. “It’s right on top of our village and our cemetery.”
The awareness campaign began in South Dakota and stopped in Billings as it heads west through Montana, Washington and then into British Columbia and the pole will be installed at the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta.
Their journey is intended to protest the Cherry Point project, but it also is intended to begin a dialogue about the negative impacts energy extraction can have on the environment.
“We’re hoping that the people of Billings recognize that the coal that’s going shipped through the city is toxic to their health, and that the city will resist it going through,” he said.
James and other tribal artists carved the totem this spring from a 100-year-old second-growth cedar tree.
The pole begins with a coiled snake which symbolizes Earth’s power. Above the serpent, a woman, the symbol for life, holds a child. The child signifies that he has been taught the teachings of Earth by holding a turtle above his head.
The ceremony included speeches by James and Northern Cheyenne artist and activist Alaina Buffalo Spirit. The Lummi also conducted a blessing ceremony for the totem pole.
There was also drumming, dancing and free burgers for the crowd of about a hundred people who attended.
For Northern Plains Resource Council, the group that sponsored the event locally, the conservation message is important for every Billings resident to hear, said Larry Bean, chair of the council’s Coal Export Committee.
“It’s about public knowledge and public sentiment,” Bean said.
He pointed to a study called “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” which warns that train traffic could increase from 28 to 32 coal trains each day to between 40 and 60.
The extra train traffic, while potentially creating more jobs, could snarl traffic more frequently and perhaps delay emergency vehicles from getting across the tracks.
“There are impacts to you from what will come from this,” he said.
Bean hopes that people will stop and think about what the consequences of increased train traffic could mean for Billings before supporting increased coal extraction in the region.
“It’s substantial even now. It’s staggering to see a single coal train go by,” he said. “To see that increase exponentially, it’s kind of sobering.”