Last Monday, September 23rd, a group from the Lummi Tribe on the Washington coast came through Portland with totem pole 22 feet high carved by elder Jewell Praying Wolf James, who is accompanying it on a journey from eastern Montana to Vancouver BC. Some years ago the Lummi started a tradition of taking poles to places of tragedy or devastation, including all the 9/11 plane crash sites. Now their own land is facing the prospect of devastation by a coal export terminal on an ancestral site near their reservation, right over a burial ground and an ancient village, for shipping the coal through the waters they fish.
I was asked to offer a blessing for the pole along with other faith leaders, and then to join the Lummi people for a salmon dinner. I think of Native Elders as the Shinto priests of this land, and told them so in my blessing. Zen temples in Japan are supposed to have a Shinto shrine on the land to honor the spirit of place, which is why we asked Native Elder Rod McAfee to bless our new property last June. I was pleased to be able to return the favor in whatever small way I could. I added the mantra for Jizo, Earth-Store Bodhisattva “Om Ka Ka Kabi San Mae Sowaka.”
The Lummi first took the pole to Otter Creek in eastern Montana, home of the Northern Cheyenne, and the proposed site for an open pit coal mine and the starting place for giant coal trains heading to the Lummi nation. The proposed train line would wind through other native areas, then lumber down the Columbia Gorge and along the Columbia River. Still other proposals call for coal barges on the river. The plans include estimates for tons of coal that will be spilled along the route every year, and into the Columbia. The coal would be shipped to Asia, mostly China, which is already highly polluted from coal powered electric plants, so this would add to that problem. The Lummi are taking this totem pole along the route the coal would travel to ask for blessings and spread the word about their concerns. Tribes all along the way have given their blessing. See an article and video of their time in Otter creek with the Cheyenne and local ranchers in the Great Falls Tribune or in USA Today.
There is a nice video of the Lummi people singing at the event in Portland, followed by tribal elder Jewell Praying Wolf James’ rousing address to the crowd. Later I told him it was a great “Drum Thumping Sermon.” He loved that.
At the salmon dinner Jenny Holms of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon asked us each to introduce ourselves and to say something about our respective faith traditions and any history of action we have with this issue. When it came to my turn, I said that I have to walk a fine line, and while it might be an odd thing for a priest to say, I think priests spend far too much time telling people what to believe and what to do. Our policy has been to not take official stands on issues unless they are specific to our purpose, such as in our inclusivity statement. On the other hand we encourage people to get involved in the issues of the day. I will explain my position on them and invite a conversation from others on theirs, because grappling with these matters is too important for shortcuts via official policies. To my great surprise, the Lummi were very pleased to hear of this approach. All of them had stories of deep wounds from official religious policies that robbed them of their culture and spiritual freedom. Last summer I gave a talk on this, which is available on our website. So, I’m not asking you to agree with my position on this issue, but to think about it carefully, and if you agree, please take action.