Jewell Praying Wolf James is a tribal leader and master carver of the Lummi Nation. Ten years ago he carved totem poles and presented them as gifts and symbols of solidarity and healing for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. He drove the totem poles across the country to Washington, D.C. and New York.
Now he’s on another journey with a slightly different mission. The Lummi tribal reservation abuts the proposed site of the largest coal export terminal on the West coast. He’s carved a 22-foot totem pole that represents tribal opposition to coal and oil exports in the Northwest.
AHEARN: Why are you driving a totem pole across the Northwest?
JAMES: We know a lot of people are going to be impacted by the coal that’s going to be transported by train - various organizations, Indian tribes and citizens. And so we’re hoping to organize and help build coalitions with those voices so we have a greater voice and greater access to speaking out.
We know we all have constitutional rights to assemble and petition our grievances and we’re hoping that this route that we’re taking will help unify people all along the train route from Montana, Oregon, Washington state and even up into British Columbia.
Listen to the interview:
AHEARN: That must draw some eyes when a 20-foot totem pole pulls into town on a large truck. Tell me about the reaction you’re getting from the average person walking down the street.
JAMES: You know the average person really appreciates the totem pole and they love looking at it and touching it but I think the greatest experience is when the children come forward. As they say children are so innocent and they admire it and reach out and touch it. We’ve watched little children bless the pole themselves in their own ways. Those moments make the whole thing worth it because we’re trying to protect the environment for future generations.
AHEARN: Have you had any hard conversations, people who support the coal export projects and have maybe been hostile towards you?
JAMES: No we haven’t encountered any of that. Almost everybody that’s turned out has been very supportive. Most of the voices have been saying that they do not want coal going through their territory or their land. They’re hoping they’ll be able to prevail on this issue because they don’t want their water supplies contaminated, or their rivers, or their salmon habitat.
AHEARN: Jewell, what would you say to the people who make their livings in the mines or on the rails or potentially at the terminals themselves if they’re built? There are many people who say these export terminals are needed.
JAMES: Well, you know, the industry of burning coal itself is outdated. It adds to greenhouse gases and it has a drastic impact on global warming.
We know what it’s like as Indian country to wake up one morning and don’t have a job because we have the highest unemployment, under employment, worst poverty in the country. We suffered through it. We barely survived, but we survived, and we watched the fishing industry be destroyed. We watched the timber industry go down.
So we know what it’s like to have those economic spirals that go down and suffer the consequences, and we feel bad for those families that are in the industry, because sooner or later they have to recognize that the whole world is starting to say it’s a matter of life or death for mother earth.
AHEARN: And where does your journey end, Jewell?
JAMES: We’re going to go up to northern Vancouver after we stop at our own home reservation and have some prayers. Then we’ll go to Cherry Point and do a water ceremony and a cleansing ceremony. Then we’ll go to Vancouver. We’re giving the totem pole to the Tsleil-Waututh nation. It’s a small nation right at the terminus of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline where tar sands oil’s going to be pumped out into the ships. They’re doing their best as a small nation to protect the environment, to protect the river, to protect the salmon. They know that tar sands oil will really damage the Salish Sea. We understand their pain and suffering, so we want to give the pole away. We don’t want to keep it. We don’t want to go across the country and say ‘pray for us’ and then not share those prayers.
AHEARN: Jewell, thanks so much for stopping by and safe travels.
JAMES: Oh thank you. We appreciate the time.
For more information about the locations and times of the ceremonies at Cherry Point and Vancouver, B.C. click here.