Let the Indians Lead

Let the Indians lead [1]

Colonial settlers have a lot to answer for. And let’s face it, any non-native person in the United States (who wasn't brought this land against their will) is a colonial settler. That’s most people who might stumble across this blog post.

I haven’t kept up this blog like I thought I would – a story common to so many bloggers. It’s being taken up now because yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers made an extraordinary, precedent-setting decision. This decision has the potential to be a game-changer for thousands of people, if not the entire planet. It’s been in the news (even covered by the NY Times) [2], and yet I think we cannot stop talking about the larger implications, and the larger incriminations.

Echoes (the funky, experimental church that is hosting this blog) is situated in Whatcom County, Washington. Our county is comprised of the traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples, who have lived here since time immemorial. The two principal remaining tribes here are Lummi Nation and Nooksack, who both have reservations on the tiniest fraction of their original territories.

Bellingham Bay

Bellingham Bay

In 1855 a treaty was signed between the US government and many Coast Salish tribes in Western Washington.  In exchange for vast amounts of land, tribes were granted rights for fishing, hunting, and gathering, along with monetary compensation, schools, and access to medical care. They were told to sign the treaty, or “walk knee deep in blood.” Tribal members were relocated to small reservations, and those tribes that were not granted their own reservation were ordered to move to the reservation of a neighboring tribe. Over the years both the amount of land and the rights to fish were restricted well beyond the limitations of the 1855 treaty. (For a well-written, super helpful article on history of the treaty, its context, and local treaty encroachments, see Jewell James’ work in the Whatcom Watch.)

Close to a year and a half ago, Lummi Nation asked that the Army Corps of Engineers reject a permit to build the nation’s largest coal terminal in the deep-water port known as Cherry Point (Xwe'chieXen in the language of Lummi). At this terminal, coal from across the mid-west would travel to Cherry Point, and be put onto cargo ships for transport to other nations.

To boil it down, the problem is that Cherry Point is located in Lummi fishing waters. They have rights to fish here, and the terminal will further degrade the water quality, and reduce the number of fish and other harvestable marine life such as crab. A terminal would be yet another major violation of their treaty rights, not to mention a desecration of a supremely important historical Lummi township site that is also a major burial ground.

Xwe'chienXen (Cherry Point)

Xwe'chienXen (Cherry Point)

It seems like this would be a no-brainer. Not only would a coal terminal further accelerate worldwide climate change in favor of corporate gain for the few, but a terminal on this particular land would continue a horrific history of racism, paternalism, and downright subjugation of indigenous peoples in our area. 

Yesterday the Army Corps of Engineers did the right thing: they denied the permit.

To say this is a decision worthy of a party is an understatement of epic proportions. Lummi Nation has been fighting tirelessly to stop this coal terminal, as they have with every treaty-encroaching permit proposal that is put on the table where they have to prove their rights over and over again. Another proposal for a gas pipeline IN the Salish Sea is already underway, and they will again have to argue for both their rights, and the rights of the planet. They see this as a never-ending battle of which they will never retreat.

Salish Sea

Salish Sea

The Army Corps of Engineers decision might just make it a little bit easier down the road for them and for countless other tribes in their efforts to keep out fossil fuel extraction corporations from taking their resources, running through their lands and historical sites, and polluting endlessly as they go.

My God I’m thankful for Lummi.

I’m thankful for this stalwart, committed group of men and women who know that they are fighting for the ultimate good of all of us in Whatcom County, and for the ultimate good of the planet (who is more appropriately termed Mother Earth by many indigenous peoples).

I actually believe that we should give most of our energy decisions to our native brothers and sisters. The primary reason being that they have a sacred obligation to the land, whereas corporations that are over-extracting natural resources have an obligation to make money. The whole concept of money was completely foreign to our original peoples. The uninhibited, maniacal grasp for land and resultant money (undergirded by the hideous theological error of the Doctrine of Discovery) was the cause behind the near extermination of this country’s indigenous peoples, and money acquisition continues to destroy our planet’s ecosystems.

Two weeks ago I had the huge privilege to spend a few days with a variety of Lummi members who spoke of their history, struggles, trauma, and amazing fortitude and resilience. One tribal council member said, “It won’t be an Indian that takes the last fish, or cuts down the last tree. It’s impossible for us.”

This internally-wired, ancient ideology-driven stance is what we need for the bigger-picture in environmental leadership. Not that we don’t have some amazing, effective leaders from the colonial settler clans (many are here in Whatcom County), but we surely don’t have enough from the Native American communities.

Let’s look at it from a timeline perspective. Tim Urban of the ever-interesting website Wait But Why, has given us a handy tool for visualizing humanity’s presence on our planet. In addition to some mind-blowing, colorful diagrams, he writes, “If the Earth formed at midnight and the present moment is the next midnight, 24 hours later, modern humans have been around since 11:59:59pm—1 second.” Humans have actually been on this planet for the merest of mere blips. An. Itty. Bitty. Bitty. Blip.

The beginning of animal life on this planet puts this diagram into its own teeny slice!

The beginning of animal life on this planet puts this diagram into its own teeny slice!

But look at the timeline of human history alone, and we find another shock. Urban states, “If human history itself spans 24 hours from one midnight to the next, 14 minutes represents the time since Christ.” If you look at it that way, industrialization has only been around for a few minutes of the 24hrs that humans have been on the planet, and it’s THIS particular era that has screwed us up so badly.

Indigenous persons are not responsible for industrialization, or capitalism, or theology that wreaks havoc on the earth. Their “minutes” on North American more than quadruple the 14 minutes since the time of Christ (earliest traces of peoples in this region date back to 10-12,000 BC). In their proportionately substantial minutes of human history prior to colonial contact they contributed not one iota toward the downward spiral of climate change.

We need their voices. We need their earth-honoring values. We need their leadership. They surely don’t need us, but we surely need them.


[1] The term “Indian” is used here as a result of hearing Whatcom County tribal members refer to themselves as “Indians.” It is in no way meant as pejorative.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/10/us/washington-state-army-corps-denies-permit-coal-terminal.html?_r=0