Barbara Walden, a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland Oregon, was part of the College of Social Justice’s April Solidarity with Original Nations and Peoples delegation to the Lummi Nation in Bellingham Washington.
“It seems to me that anyone who cares to really think about the planet today has to hold both of these things in mind, to remember to see the beauty, and to still take joy in that beauty but not shy away from the hard and often ugly reality…”
~David Gessner, All the Wild that Remains
When I saw the announcement of the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice’s forthcoming program in my church newsletter, something spoke to me. Do you know that feeling? Something just pokes you and says, you need to do this. The program was a journey to the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, Washington to meet the Lummi people and learn from them; the program was called “Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and Nations.” Part of the program was to learn the best way to be allies in solidarity with indigenous peoples as we face the coming of climate change. I had heard of the Lummi in connection with the controversy surrounding the proposed location of the Cherry Point Coal Terminal at the site of the Lummi sacred fishing grounds—just another chapter in the long sorry story of the degradation and theft of the lands and waters of the indigenous people of the United States. I knew that they were a small tribe, around 5,000 people living on the reservation, and I wondered if it would be possible for them to combat this threat even in alliance with others.
Earlier the Lummi reached out in a way that I had not encountered before. They made a totem pole and took it across the country to the source of the coal, to the indigenous people living in the Powder River country of Wyoming. All along the way they stopped at churches and asked all people to come forward and give their blessing to the totem pole. It was a sacred journey. I went to the St. Philip Neri Catholic Church with many others from around Portland, and we laid our hands on the pole to bless its journey and the hope and solidarity it represented. There we heard the pole’s carvers, who were leaders and elders of the Lummi Nation, as they spoke eloquently from heart and mind about their land and nation, and the interdependence of us all upon our living Earth. It made a deep impression on me.
Often when we are confronted with deep truth, it is hard to know what to do next. Sometimes you just need to wait for the next moment to arrive. I think that is why the brief announcement of the UUCSJ program struck me so hard. The deadline for applications was quite near, and by the time I did all the necessary figuring-out of things and crafting of my application it was the absolute last minute. I sent my application in and hoped for the best. I was so disappointed to receive a phone call saying that the program was overfilled, and I was so far down the waiting list that it was unlikely that I could go. So be it. I put it out of my mind. Then just a few days before the trip I received another phone call. A space had opened up and I could go. I madly read the book that was required reading for us: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Wow. Already my mind was opened and I hadn’t yet left home.
I did not know it yet, but the next steps in the journey would open my heart as well as my mind. The Lummi people we met honored us with the heartfelt speaking and sharing that are at the root of their way of life. They taught me a lesson in the interrelationship of politics, diplomacy, treaty rights and traditional spiritual values as they stood proudly for their rights as a sovereign nation living as a government alongside international, federal, state, county and local governments. They showed me how they were working to lift up their youth, honoring and caring for their elders, providing for the economic development and social needs of a population with a 40% poverty rate and an ongoing burden of historical trauma, while at the same time preserving and passing on traditional spiritual culture, language, and way of life. It is an extraordinary task, and they work tremendously hard at it and do it admirably.
I quickly saw why the Lummi do not need our “help.” On the contrary, we have much to learn from them. The bonding of traditional spiritual and familial values rooted in the earth and waters with everything in life, and the strength and grounding this brings to their activities touched me profoundly. Many Lummi are able to live in two worlds. The carver of the totem poles is deeply versed in the law and speaks more knowledgeably than anyone to the intricacies of treaties, taxes, and other issues, as well as providing leadership as the Lummi play a role in national and international issues surrounding climate change. The tribe’s hereditary chief is not a political leader, but rather the carrier and teacher of the traditional language and culture in this holistic society. Well-educated tribal council members negotiate fearlessly and knowledgeably with international corporations to preserve their lands and waters. Lummi youth and elders traveled to the Paris Climate Summit to speak the truth of the peoples of the Salish Sea.
A pebble cast into water sends out ripples, the Lummi say. The pollution that has harmed the upstream waters of the river that flows through their land and closed their shellfish area affects other areas all around. The industrial overfishing of the shared waters diminishes not only the Lummi’s traditional catch but that of non-indigenous fishers as well. A coal terminal or other development at Cherry Point would endanger the whole Salish Sea which we call Puget Sound. I saw with my own eyes that at Cherry Point there is just a narrow passage between this land and the beautiful San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island. The loss of our animals and clean waters and the degradation of these places weighs on our spirits, too, and diminishes our lives. Their Earth is our Earth. It is not meant for our endless extraction, but for our care. We are one with the Earth. We need to stand together as we do our best to meet the changes our troubled Earth will bring us.
~Barbara Walden, First Unitarian Church, Portland, Oregon