A New Wind Blowing in the Pacific Northwest

By Florence Caplow, 2014-15 intern minister at Quimper UU Fellowship, Pt. Townsend, WA. She chronicles the launch of the Lummi Indian Nation’s 5000-mile Totem Pole Journey to the Canadian tar sands to draw attention to the negative effects of fossil fuel extraction on many Native American lands. Several members of the Lummi Nation participated in two General Assembly workshops and led our Public Witness. All photos by the author; taken on August 24, 2014, at the blessing of the Lummi Nation Totem Pole Journey.

On a soft, gray August day last year, I sit in the pews of the high-vaulted St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, with 450 other people: native, white, black, Asian, Christian, secular, Buddhist. We are there to honor and bless the 5,000 mile Totem Pole Journey of the Lummi Indian Nation, joining with them in their fight to protect treaty rights, sacred places, and the land and water of the Pacific Northwest.

The journey, led by master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James, who also carved the 19 foot totem pool that is journeying with them on a flatbed truck, is a protest against an enormous proposed coal port, one of the largest in the world, which would destroy a 3,500 year old Lummi village site and important native fisheries in Northwest Washington, near the Canadian border.

But the Lummi and other native peoples in the Pacific Northwest are fighting for more than that: they are fighting for our future, for all of us. That is what has brought these 450 people to the church on a weekday morning. We are united in our desire for a future.

We listen to the impassioned words of tribal leaders, spiritual leaders, and political leaders, all facing, together the juggernaut of energy development and energy transportation that threatens the environment of the Pacific Northwest and the world.

It is easy to feel despair about the state of the climate and the seeming relentless drive toward ruining our planet, but I am surprised to realize that I feel genuine hope, welling up from the ground, from the beat of the drums and the faces around me.

Paul Hawken, in his groundbreaking and hopeful book, Blessed Unrest, wrote that he believes that if indigenous people and environmentalists came together, we could turn the tide of destruction. On that morning in St. Mark’s I felt a new wind blowing, and the wind said “We can do this. Together, with the leadership of those whose land we stand on, we can stop the madness.”

In the past few years, with the enormous increase in US and Canadian fossil fuel energy extraction – the Alberta tar sands, coal mines in Montana, the fracked oil fields in Dakotas – and the drive to send these fossil fuels into the insatiable maw of China and other fast-growing Asian countries, the Pacific Northwest north and south of the Canadian border has suddenly become ground zero for battles over coal and oil ports and pipelines and railways, all aimed toward the beautiful Salish Sea (Puget Sound, the Georgia Strait, and the Straits of Juan de Fuca) with its leaping salmon and orcas, islands, and tribal communities.

At least six mega ports are in the works for Washington State. Despite widespread unhappiness in the region with being a conduit for tons of climate-changing carbon sources, the battle seems stacked against us. How do we stop the largest economic forces in the world and their hunger for profits, for oil, for coal?

Here’s what I think, and what I feel: we will stop them, not through money or lawyers (they have an unspeakably huge advantage there) but through moral force.

As I sit in St. Mark’s, I can almost see that moral force, palpably, running through each person there, and especially in the faces of the Lummi fishermen and carvers who are taking time away from their families and work to travel through the lands affected by fossil fuels development. As one of the travelers said, “This is the developers’ worst nightmare, this church filled with people of faith.”

The roots of this gathering go back to 1987, when faith leaders in the Pacific Northwest issued an historic apology, the first of its kind, to tribal leaders, recognizing the churches’ “long-standing participation in the destruction of Native American spirituality,” and asking for forgiveness. The letter also promised solidarity and support by churches to tribes in the “righting of previous wrongs.”

Now the tribes are calling on the churches to make good on their promise, and the churches stepped forward: religious leaders from ten denominations stood in the church that day, signing a declaration of support as the tribes face the challenges of fossil fuel transport and climate change.

Our Pacific Northwest District (PNWD) will take up the question of adding our signature to the declaration at GA this June, after two congregations voted to bring it to the PNWD and committees and boards of countless others (including my congregation, Quimper UU in Port Townsend, Washington) also voted to support the signing of the declaration.

In Canada, too, the tribes are rising up. First Nations people, under the banner “Idle No More,” have prevented an oil pipeline from being built from Alberta to the West Coast. Now a small band north of Vancouver, BC, has started a cross-border movement called “The Treaty to Protect the Sacredness of Our Salish Sea,” and tribes on both sides of the border have agreed to sign it. The treaty calls for solidarity from non-tribal people of the Salish Sea as well.

I think, as UUs committed to environmental and climate justice, we need to stand with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Their battle is our battle. And I am delighted that the Lummi Indian Nation will be our partner in the Public Witness at GA this year.

I want to close with words from Jewell Praying Wolf James, spoken at St. Mark’s last August.

You ask, what can we do?

We need you to talk to your congregations, talk to your children, that God created the earth and therefore it’s sacred.

You are the ones who vote your politicians into office, they are the ones who can tell the regulators “no!”

We’re calling on everyone to use your voice. Do you need permission to stand up?

We have to do this:

One people

One time

One place,

One God

One prayer!

And everyone, 450 people in that huge cathedral, stood up.

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This is an administrative account for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE).