On Monday August 31, a 20-foot tall, 3,000-pound totem pole reached the end of its nearly 1,300-mile journey from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Otter Creek Valley in Montana, home of the Northern Cheyenne and site of a proposed coal mine.
The totem pole was hard carved by Master Carver Jewell Praying Wolf James and other members of the Lummi House of Tears Carvers. This, the third such journey in as many years, was designed to raise awareness of the environmental devastation faced by Indigenous peoples as a result of the transport of fossil fuels. It was also designed to foster new relationships and empower resistance—among different Indigenous peoples and also among different people of faith.
“I was a witness to the journey and can say with deep conviction that this journey mattered. It mattered to those assembled, to the travelers, to the multitudes that read about it in the paper, heard about it on the radio, or saw it on TV, to landscapes and their lifeforms, and (in my mind), to the unseen forces within and around us that ask of us only our steadfast faith. This is a coming together.” —Kurt Russo, Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, Lummi Nation
The totem pole stopped along the way at the sites of proposed coal terminals in Boardman, Oregon; Longview, Washington; and Cherry Point, Washington, or Xwe’chi’eXen—an ancient burial ground and sacred Lummi site. It visited with peoples from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Tulalip Nation, Celilo Village, and Yakama Nation, in addition to Lummi Nation and the Northern Cheyenne.
And it was offered blessings in an incredible diversity of spiritual spaces, from the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church to the Celilo Falls longhouse, from the Har Shalom Synagogue to the St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, from a Yakama seven drum circle to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane.
Click here to see a gorgeous photo journal with images by photographer Paul Anderson and his assistant, Matt Fuller. (Copyright Lummi Nation)
Unitarian Universalists had a special role in this powerful journey. In June, when it wasn’t clear whether Lummi Nation would receive the support needed to go through with their plan for a third totem pole journey, thousands of Unitarian Universalists attended a Sacred Public Witness in solidarity with Lummi Nation in Portland, Oregon, and made a spiritual commitment to climate justice and partnership with communities on the frontlines of environmental destruction.
Following that act of public witness, Unitarian Universalists wrote letters to President Obama calling on him to block the proposal for the largest coal port in North America to be built on Lummi sacred lands and donated almost $14,000 to a crowdfunding campaign for the totem pole journey. This initial funding success led to an additional $40,000 being raised in the five weeks before the journey began.
“The Totem Pole Journey showed me the motivation, dedication, and commitment of the Lummi Nation to preserve their way of life and the lives of all the people and creatures of the Earth for generations to come. ‘We are all in this together.’ To touch and be touched by the Totem Pole was a powerful experience. The voice of the Lummi leaders was load and clear that the oil and coal ports be stopped. ‘No more!’” —Howard Harrison, Northlake UU Church, Kirkland, WA
And Unitarian Universalists showed up for the journey as well. UU ministers provided blessings to the totem pole: Rev. Kate Lore and Rev. Katherine Jesch in Portland, Rev. Carmen TenEyck-McDowell in Tulalip, Rev. Paul Beckel in Bellingham, and Rev. Todd Eklof in Spokane (listen to Rev. Eklof’s blessing).
UUs from many congregations organized events, raised funds, and laid hands on the totem pole, including Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship, Evergreen Unitarian Fellowship, First Unitarian Church of Portland, the UU Church of Spokane, the UU Fellowship of Missoula, Quimper UU Fellowship, and the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island.
“Our Painted Responsibilities,” a three-minute video about the creation of the mural that traveled to Portland for the Sacred Public Witness and was also carried on the Totem Pole Journey.
Cherri Mann of Quimper UU Fellowship in Port Townsend, Washington, one of the sixteen people who participated in a powerful service and learning trip to Lummi Nation earlier this year with the UU College of Social Justice, described what would happen at each stop of the totem pole, saying, “At every stop the honor goes to Lummi Master Totem Pole Carver Jewell James to speak. His message is consistent, moving, timely and authentic! It is an awe-inspiring experience to hear Jewell speak from his heart, and from all the hearts that preceded him from Time Immemorial!
“He speaks of coal and oil proposals that would change and harm Native Sovereign Nations as well as the rest of us from Montana, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho up through Canada. We touch the totem pole, give blessings, and touch each other, making a web of spiritual support and reflecting upon our responsibilities to protect our lands, trees, and waterways.”
"It is easy to lose hope when confronting the realities of climate change, yet hope is what filled my heart at this gathering. There was a palpable spiritual power that was generated from being a part of this sacred journey, a stirring deep within that reminded me that all things are indeed possible in beloved community." —Rev. Kate Lore, Social Justice Minister at First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR
In the end, it may not be a stretch to say that millions of people were reached by this journey, as more than 150 news outlets covered the story. Relationships were formed and deepened, commitments were strengthened, and resistance to the fossil fuels industry was nurtured.
Unitarian Universalists are continuing their acts of solidarity by making plans for Indigenous Peoples Day, October 12, and working to counter the Doctrine of Discovery. Take action: honor Indigenous Peoples Day and deepen your partnerships with local Indigenous communities. (Want some inspiration? Read the story of Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship’s partnership with Lummi Nation.)
Many thanks to www.totempolejourney.com for the photos that appear in this post, and for Fred Lane, Paul Anderson, Matt Fuller, and the other photographers that documented the 2015 Totem Pole Journey. Visit the website for more beautiful photos, podcasts, and dispatches from the journey.