Building Partnerships for Justice with Indigenous Communities: One Congregation's Story

by Beth Brownfield and Deborah Cruz

The Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship (BUF) of Bellingham, WA, is a relatively small congregation with just over 250 members. Yet we have made a large impact in our local community and our larger denomination with our social justice initiatives, one of which is our Native Americans Connections Committee.

Little did we realize when we started out that the impacts of our work would be felt so far, so wide, or so deeply. We are in awe of what we’ve been privileged to be a significant part of.

Beginnings: One Passionate Advocate

The story of the partnership between BUF and Lummi Nation started with a single person. Beth Brownfield had been an Indigenous rights activist for twenty years when she moved to Bellingham, WA, and quickly took up the torch again in her new hometown. Though Bellingham sits across the Bay from Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack Indian Tribe is only 30 miles up the road, very few residents had any knowledge or experience with their Indigenous neighbors.

Beth set out to facilitate classes at a local Academy for Lifelong Learning about Indigenous history, culture, and life experiences, visiting the Lummi and Nooksack Nations for permission and to connect with Tribal members who could serve as presenters. Over the course of five years these classes reached several hundred participants and Beth met many Tribal leaders, new friends, and contacts. 

In 2006 she learned that Lummi Nation was hosting the 2007 Tribal Canoe Journey, an important event for Tribes around the Pacific Northwest to celebrate and share their cultures. Up to 60,000 people were expected to visit during the six-day event, and Lummi Nation would be feeding 5,000 of them for breakfast and dinner each day.

When it became clear that no one in Bellingham or in the Whatcom County government was aware of the upcoming event, she asked her Lummi contacts if volunteers, donations of food and money, or other services would be helpful and received an enthusiastic yes. Beth jumped into action and asked for help from her congregation.

“How Can We Help?”  A Simple Question Creates Transformation

Beth and Kara Black, another BUF member, pulled together a small group that met weekly with the Lummi Canoe Journey planning committee for six months to find out specific needs and how they could help. Thanks to their efforts, the Mayor of Bellingham agreed to host a celebration to honor Lummi Nation beforehand, where Coast Salish Nations and Peoples were officially acknowledged, for the first time in history, as the first inhabitants of the lands and waters, not only by Bellingham but also by local, state, and national government officials including the Washington State Governor and the mayors of all the towns in Whatcom County.

Committee volunteers also scoured the county for donations of food, needed items, services, and money, securing contributions of between $60,000 and $80,000 in cash, goods, and services. 10,000 people attended the landings of the canoes at the start of the event and hundreds of volunteers from the county worked over the next six days doing whatever was called for: cooking, directing traffic, picking up trash, passing out water, etc. 

The entire experience, from start to finish, was groundbreaking between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Stereotypes were shattered on both sides, friendships made, and experiences shared. The Canoe Journey was what the wider community had been waiting for, an opportunity to get to know its neighbors and show their solidarity.  The outpouring of support came as an utter shock to Lummi Nation and to other Original Nations. It was unprecedented in the county, and in the state, and opened doors for greater engagement and collaborations between Whatcom County and Lummi Nation communities.

It also officially launched the Native American Connections Committee at BUF, starting with the people who were part of the small committee that leveraged such enormous support for the Canoe Journey. In the subsequent decade it has grown to almost 70 people who are interested and supportive of native events and issues.

BUF members at General Assembly in June 2015

The First Decade: Education, New Relationships, and Denomination-Wide Justice

For the first few years our Native American Connections Committee built on what had been started with support for the Canoe Journey. We initiated and coordinated local “Coast Salish Days” in Bellingham in 2008, 2009, and 2011 in collaboration with Lummi Tribal leaders.  These were community celebrations of Coast Salish Nations and Peoples that included canoe landings, Native art vendors, speeches, stories, and more. More recently, in June 2014, two BUF members worked with two Lummi tribal members to design a “Sacred Summit,” open to the public, to celebrate the land, water, and the protection of Sacred Sites.

We also participated in “Return to the Earth,” a Mennonite-sponsored national effort to repatriate unidentified ancestral Indigenous remains, engaging forty-five BUF members in an educational series, an action, and the initiation of a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee “Just Works” camp in Oklahoma as part preparing the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Oklahoma for the ceremony and reburial of repatriated  “unidentified” indigenous remains.

As the program grew, so too did our efforts. In addition to many stand-alone educational and justice events, in 2013 we initiated a cross-cultural discussion group with forty people from the community including seven Indigenous members. Attendance varied between 15 and 20 participants. Originally started as a book group that read In Light of Justice by Walter Echohawk, the group now meets once a month at BUF, during the school year, to discuss topics of mutual interest. We also collaborated with a Lummi videographer to create a documentary of interviews with four Lummi Tribal members about how non-Indigenous people can become partners and allies.

Starting in 2007 we began engaging as a religious community with the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. We reached out to every Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Pacific NW district, as well as eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association President and Board of Trustees. Our efforts, joined with the efforts of others, led to the Doctrine of Discovery becoming a key issue at the 2012 General Assembly, where delegates voted to officially repudiate the Doctrine. As a result, more and more UU congregations have gotten involved with their Indigenous neighbors and their needs, and BUF was one of nine congregations that received small seed grants from the UUA national office for work to mediate the current-day effects of the Doctrine.

We used the grant to host a teacher training for an HonorWorks curriculum that honors Indigenous peoples as well as initiating and co-sponsoring with Bellingham Friends Meeting a workshop with Quaker Paula Palmer from Colorado and providing three “Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change” workshops to over a hundred community members including two City Council members, six non-Native teachers from Lummi School, faith leaders, and more.

Indigenous Rights + Environmental Concerns = Collaborative Environmental Justice

In 2010 a single event started a chain reaction that would lead to many new and deepened relationships for justice. SSA Marine submitted a permit application to build the largest coal port in North America at Cherry Point: the Gateway Pacific Terminal.

BUF’s Green Sanctuary Committee immediately got involved in education and opposition to the project, and began working to organize other faith communities to rally a faith-based response, in addition to working with environmental organizations in Whatcom County such as Earth Ministry, Washington’s Interfaith Power and Light chapter.

As a result of this initial coalition, an interfaith educational forum was held in August 2012, and Hereditary Lummi Chief Bill James was one of the speakers. He discussed the impact the terminal would have on Lummi Nation, speaking to the cultural and historical significance of the lands and waters of Xwe'chi'eXen (the Lummi name for Cherry Point), the site of an ancient Lummi village and burial grounds dating back 175 generations, as well as the potential destruction of the Lummi Way of Life posed by the terminal’s threat to Northwest First Nations’ fishing grounds.

Only about thirty people were present, but it was the beginning of a movement that would grow to international proportions. The first step for BUF was that our Green Sanctuary Committee organized and hosted four community educational forums on the various impacts of the proposed terminal (aquatic, health, climate, and economic) at the same time the scoping hearings were taking place in December and January.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies bless the hand-carved totem pole during the 2014 journey


Then, in April 2013, Lummi leaders contacted BUF’s Native American Connections Committee and requested assistance in bringing the Lummi message about the terminal to the rest of the Whatcom Community, especially the faith community.  Using our connections from the 2012 breakfast event, BUF, Lummi Nation, and other community members planned two presentations by Lummi Nation about the Gateway Pacific Terminal: a morning session for leaders from thirty-two faith communities and an evening session for representatives of forty-four social, environmental, and activist communities.

The greater community’s response to Lummi Nation’s presentation was unprecedented; the groundswell of support was positively overwhelming. One immediate result was that members of the faith community developed an “Interfaith Statement of Solidarity with Lummi Nation,” which has been signed by Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist boards, councils, congregations, and leaders both locally and regionally. 

Next Lummi Nation began organizing a series of Totem Pole Journeys to raise awareness and make connections with other Nations. Each enormous, healing totem pole was carved by Master Carver Jewell James. In the summer of 2013, the first totem pole started its journey in Lame Deer, MT, site of one of the proposed largest coal mining projects at Otter Creek, and made several stops along the coal train route, receiving blessings from Native and non-Native communities alike that would be impacted by the Gateway Pacific Terminal and other fossil fuel extraction and exportation projects, ending its journey where it now stands as sentinel over North Vancouver Island, British Columbia, home of the Tsleil-Waututh, who are also being adversely impacted by fossil fuel extraction and exports projects. 

The second Journey a year later was organized by Lummi, BUF, and activist community members. BUF hosted several events before and during the Journey, as well as a fundraising concert. In total $7,000 for the food costs of the Journey. With a kick-off in Bellingham at BUF, this time the Totem Pole journeyed to areas impacted by coal mining, tar sands, oil refining, and export facilities in South Dakota, Montana, Washington, British Columbia, and finally to Alberta to the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, where it now stands sentinel over the Canadian tar sands.

Stops were again made along the way at many Native and non-Native communities, where people offered blessings and shared their stories about the struggles against the fossil fuel industry. A 20' x 216' mural was also part of the Journey, allowing community members to paint their sorrows and hopes into a piece of art that is a stunning display of voices and messages.  This time, Unitarian Universalist congregations were invited to attend and participate in the Blessing stops along the Journey. The support was overwhelming and many ties were forged that now no longer abide by man-made political boundaries. 

As part of the Journey, “A Public Declaration to the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the Native Peoples of the Northwest” was drafted, signed by several regional faith groups and read at several Totem Pole Journey Blessing stops, and in June the UUA Pacific Northwest District Board become a signatory.  

 

BUF members join with the larger community during the 2014 Totem Pole Journey and Sacred Obligations Summit


Over these years, BUF’s Native American Connections Committee continued to lead regular educational, spiritual, and justice events and actions for both the congregation and the larger community, including Sunday services with Native themes and speakers, hosting an annual Native American Heritage Day the day after Thanksgiving, a special Sunday collection for an Indigenous non-profit at least once a year, and a food collection four months of the year to Lummi Food Bank, a “Native Events Email” sent out regularly to over 500 people throughout the county, congregational resolutions and letter-writing campaigns, and much more. 

We also regularly send BUF members to regional and national events. Two members attended a Grassroots Conference on Environmental Justice in Idaho on the Nez Perce reservation in 2014, and two others attended the UU United Nations spring seminar on Indigenous rights. And in September BUF and other UU congregations from around the region joined forces with First Nations and other activist and faith communities in the U.S. and Canada to participate in a solidarity event coinciding with the Peoples Climate March in New York. 

Today Efforts Bear Fruit: From Local, to Regional, to National and Beyond

The authentic, mutual relationships between BUF and Lummi Nation have had amazing impacts on both sides. 

Since 2007 we have continually reminded groups, organizations, and governmental bodies to include Indigenous members in their processes and worldviews. Because of our connections and access, this has resulted in a blossoming of recognition and inclusion of Tribal members and culture among everything from peacemaking and social justice organizations to film and theater centers to regional museums. We were particularly gratified when a BUF member was instrumental in encouraging the Bellingham City Council to change the focus of Columbus Day to Coast Salish Day last October. 

We also serve as a bridge from the larger community to Lummi Nation. Students doing research projects, groups and teachers looking for speakers, people who have cultural questions, and all sorts of other inquiries come to us during the year, and we are able to help connect people across boundaries.

This is not to say that it has all been easy. Racism and ethnocentricity are alive and well. There are people in our county, state, and nation who believe that American Indian Nations shouldn’t exist anymore. Some believe Indigenous Peoples should assimilate to make life easier for themselves and non-Native people. Others worry that if we honor Original Peoples it will cause other ethnic and cultural groups to demand to be equally recognized.  For still others, the history is so confrontational and painful that they do not want to think about it, the past is the past so “just get over it.”  

But the work is worth it. In 2015 our dreams came true when the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship was able to help initiate and organize new collaborations between the entire UU denomination and Lummi Nation, and we were recognized with the 2015 Bennett Award for social justice. 

The first collaboration, initiated by our Native American Connection Committee, was a new UU College of Social Justice service/learning program at Lummi Nation; the inaugural five-day trip was attended by sixteen people who got a powerful immersion experience. The second was the collaborative “Sacred Public Witness,” which took place at the UUA’s General Assembly in Portland, OR, in June and was attended by 2,500 people who witnessed in solidarity with Lummi Nation, made spiritual commitments to climate justice, and were called on to take action, take it home, and support a third Totem Pole Journey

We have unconsciously planted many seeds in the community, in the county, in the state, in the nation, and beyond. It is amazing to think that simple efforts could have such a profound impact, and make such a difference in the place where we live and out into the world. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Beth Brownfield and Deborah Cruz are members of Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship in Bellingham, WA, and leaders of BUF's Native American Connections Committee. 

 


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