Guest Op-Ed

Common Cause Against Coal

Religious leaders second tribal nations in opposition to Cherry Point coal terminal.

By Jewell Praying Wolf James and LeeAnne Beres August 28, 2014

Earlier this month, the state of Oregon denied Ambre Energy’s permit application for its proposed coal export terminal in Boardman, Oregon. This decision marked the first time that a state has formally rejected a coal export permit. It was a victory for countless tribal and non-tribal communities in Oregon who led the years-long battle against Big Coal.

It also reaffirmed that coal companies are mistaken if they presume—as Ambre did—that they can disregard and disrespect tribal nations. Oregon’s decision specifically mentioned that Ambre would interfere with “a small but important and longstanding fishery” in the Columbia River – and in doing so, upheld tribal sovereignty and the treaty fishing rights of Columbia River tribes.

Yet SSA Marine, the largest ocean cargo terminal operator in the Western Hemisphere, remains determined to locate its proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal near Bellingham, even though doing so would devastate the Lummi Nation’s fishery and degrade important archaeological sites at one of the tribe’s oldest, most sacred places. But they face opposition from a unique source: tribal nations and religious leaders.

This partnership between Northwest tribes and regional faith leaders brings together former antagonists who have become friends and allies in a common cause against coal exports.

Tomorrow, members of the Lummi Nation will stop at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill as part of a 2,500-mile journey protesting coal exports and fossil fuel mega-projects. Together, we will bless a totem pole that symbolizes our shared responsibility for the land, the waters, and the peoples of our region. To commemorate the journey, leaders from 10 Northwest religious communities have signed a letter that formally supports the stance of Northwest tribes against coal exports and other fossil fuel mega-projects. These leaders, including the bishops of Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran and United Methodist dioceses in Washington, are calling on the Northwest’s elected leaders, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior to uphold treaty rights during coal export decisions.

We may seem like unlikely allies, given our nation’s history of racism, colonization, and religious oppression of Native peoples; until the middle of the 20th century, it was illegal to practice Native religion in our country. For 50 years, Lummi children were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools which worked to wipe out Native culture and practices and replace them with Christian traditions. Yet like the Cowboy Indian Alliance (a coalition of tribal members, ranchers, and landowners opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline), this partnership between Northwest tribes and regional faith leaders brings together former antagonists who have become friends and allies in a common cause against coal exports.

Our Native and religious communities care about creation. But coal exports threaten the Earth and its plants and animals, from mining that carves up the land to shipping that pollutes our water. We believe in loving our neighbors as ourselves, but coal burned abroad will return here as mercury poison in our fish and air pollution that makes us sick.

We also care about stewardship. Across diverse faith traditions, one thread is the same: it’s our responsibility to leave the world a better place. In Native tradition, decisions are made based on the well being of seven generations in the future. Coal exports contribute to climate change and ocean acidification, and we cannot allow a fossil fuel mega-project to move forward knowing that the world we leave today will not be better tomorrow.

Communities of faith, tribes, and all Northwest inhabitants share responsibility to protect our region from the cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of coal export proposals. We cannot turn away from this fight, and so we turn towards it together.

Gateway Pacific is wrong to discount us. We will stop the development of the export terminal at Cherry Point and put in its place a plan that honors our shared responsibility to the land and waters of Cherry Point and all our relations. And we will do so together – unlikely allies brought together by a challenge too important to fight apart.

Jewell Praying Wolf James is a descendant of Chief Seattle’s immediate family, and Head Carver of the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Indian Nation.

LeeAnne Beres is Executive Director of Earth Ministry / Washington Interfaith Power & Light, which engages the religious community in environmental stewardship and advocacy.


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