Standing With Tribal Nations Opposing Coal Exports in the Pacific Northwest

05/15/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016


Otto Braided Hair speaks at a press conference against coal exports. He is a traditional leader from the Northern Cheyenne and does not represent the tribal government.. (Photo courtesy of Pyramid Communications)

"We collectively stand together to protect what we love; the earth is a part of who we are."

So said Reuben George, Ceremonial Sundance Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation at a press conference this week, during a historic gathering where tribes from Montana, Washington and British Columbia stood together to oppose North America's largest coal export terminal. That's George in the blue shirt, above, listening to Otto Braided Hair of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

I was honored and inspired to stand with nine tribal nations from the Pacific Northwest as they came together in Seattle to sign a declaration urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit for North America's largest coal export terminal, the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal in the Salish Sea.

The Lummi Nation, the Lower Elwha, the Northern Cheyenne, the Quinault, the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation of British Columbia, the Tulalip, the Spokane Tribal Council, the Swinomish Tribal Nations, and the Yakama Nation are united against coal because they are concerned about its effects on their communities, their cultures, and our shared future.

Tribal leaders have repeatedly underscored that this coal development threatens treaty-protected rights, resources, and sacred sites. At this press conference and a public gathering that followed they called on the U.S. government to honor those treaty obligations and reject this coal export terminal.

The Lummi Nation has formally called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny all permits associated with the proposed coal terminal in the tribe's treaty-protected fishing waters. The Corps gave the project applicant, SSA Marine, a May 10 deadline to explain how they would address tribes' concerns and mitigate treaty impacts -- a deadline the company has missed. The Corps has previously stated they will not make their permit decision until they receive and consider SSA Marine's response.

The Sierra Club is proud and honored to stand in solidarity with these tribal nations in the fight against coal exports in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of activists across the region have spoken out at public hearings, written letters, submitted comments, and rallied for clean energy instead of coal exports.

As domestic demand for coal dries up thanks to grassroots advocates who have stopped 183 new coal plants and won the retirement of 189 existing plants, the coal industry is pushing hard for these terminals to give them access to international markets. Four of the six proposed coal export facilities in the Northwest have been defeated, but two proposals remain active.

I wrote about the Lummi Nation's 2013 letter against this Gateway Pacific Terminal coal project. From that letter:

In developing the Lummi Nation's position on the projects, the Nation heeded the following principles:

1. "Everything is connected." As our elders conveyed through our Xwlemi'chosen (Lummi language) that cultural and spiritual significances expressed by our ancestors for the land, water and the environment are all connected.

2. "We must manage our resources for the seventh generation of our people." Our unique heritage requires us to honor our past, present and future generations. Since time immemorial we have managed resources that we are borrowing from our children and grandchildren.

3. As a tribal government, we have adopted the critical goal that we must preserve, promote, and protect our Schelangen ("way of life").

The Lummi Nation issued their formal opposition to the Cherry Point project in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January of this year.

At this week's event, Tim Ballew II, Chair of the Lummi Indian Business Council, said:

The Lummi Nation is proud to stand with other tribes who are drawing a line in the sand to say no to development that interferes with our treaty rights and desecrates sacred sites. The Corps has a responsibility to deny the permit request and uphold our treaty.

This past fall the Lummi's totem pole journey traveled along the proposed 2,500-mile coal train route through the Pacific Northwest to dramatically demonstrate the connection between the tribal nations and all cultures.

I've been so inspired by this week's gathering with the Lummi Nation and the leaders from other tribal nations uniting against coal exports, and I'm deeply grateful for their leadership. It's also worth noting that the Northern Cheyenne are fighting a coal mine and rail line in Montana that would feed these proposed export terminals. And the Tsleil-Waututh are fighting coal export terminal effects as well.

Together we will stop these coal export terminals -- not only at Cherry Point but at Longview and in British Columbia and beyondl -- and build a brighter future for our communities, our children, and our planet.