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Field Notes from the Totem Pole Journey

September 18, 2014

“OK, everyone pull in to the next gas station. Bathroom break, eh.”  The voice on over the walkie talkie crackled.

Our convoy of 3 vehicles, including a Prius and a flatbed truck carrying a 21 foot totem had just travelled through a heavy rainstorm on the Trans Canada highway, following a beautiful blessing ceremony in Merritt’s Central Park by members of the Shackan Indian Band. A few moments later, we pulled into a gas station, just off the highway and darted inside, trying to dodge the fat raindrops. It was day 17 of an epic three week journey which would ultimately deliver the healing pole as a gift to the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta for their work against tar sands expansion.

We entered the store. It was immediately apparent that this was not your typical highway road stop.

“Is this a Native store?” asked Jewell James, Lummi Nation master carver. “Yup,” Said the attendant with a smile, “welcome to Secwepemc territory.”

Behind the cashier were framed pictures of elders and former chiefs, alongside woven cedar baskets and hats that looked much older than the store itself. “Some old family heirlooms.” Said the attendant. “Not for sale.” (we tried)

The other walls were covered with local art and photography that was for sale, plus posters of past and upcoming community events. A large carving of a bear sat next to a display case with handmade jewelry and crafts, where you might normally expect chocolate bars.

The bathroom break became an impromptu community welcome. Over the course of the next hour, our group of 8 was greeted by many community members who came through the store. An elder came and sat with us. We talked and we laughed. We discovered that a Lummi Nation member was living nearby with his family, making art.

We also commiserated about the recent Mount Polley Spill and talked about the Secwepemc sacred fire. We talked about the totem pole journey and the respective battles against fossil fuel megaprojects that threaten traditional territories. For the Lummi Nation in Washington State, it is Xwe’chi’eXen (Cherry Point), a sacred burial site where a massive coal port is proposed. For the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, it is the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project, which threatens to massively increase the volume of tar sands bitumen transported in the Burrard Inlet and Salish Sea. As you may recall, Lummi Nation had gifted the brother of this totem pole to Tsleil-Waututh Nation last year. For the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta it isthe expansion of the tar sands, where they are already experiencing a number of ongoing, uncontrolled underground oil spills.

When it was time to go, we all hugged our new Secwepemc friends goodbye as if we had known each other for years and continued towards the Rockies.

This unplanned gathering captured the spirit and beauty of this journey. People were intrigued by the site of a giant totem pole – and it opened the space to talk about why indigenous people across the continent (and indeed across the world) were standing up to protect their territories from fossil fuel mega projects. At its core, the reason is the same: we have a shared responsibility to protect the water, the land, and the air for future generations.

WCEL is honoured to have partnered with Lummi Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation to help deliver a 21 foot western red cedar totem pole carved by master carver Jewell James and the Lummi House of Tears Carvers to the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in recognition of, and solidarity with their fight. I was privileged to be a part of this incredible journey which traveled 10,000 kms through South Dakota, Montana, Washington, BC and Alberta.

Over the course of 7 days of the Canadian leg, the totem pole journey was hosted by Songhees & Esquimalt Nations (Victoria); Tsleil-Waututh Nation (Vancouver and North Vancouver); Nlaka’pamux (Merritt); Secwepemc (Shushwap/Thompson), then through the rocky mountains, into Sarcee, Stoney & Blackfoot territory in Treaty 7 (Calgary), north to Papaschase Cree territory in Treaty 6 (Edmonton) and finally to its final destination in Beaver Lake Cree Nation.

At each stop, the host nation led blessings, ceremony and songs. Through the totem pole journey, thousands of people, indigenous and non-indigenous together sent their well wishes with the totem pole to Beaver Lake Cree Nation and in doing so, became personally connected with the movement against the reckless expansion of the tar sands.

Totem poles are symbols of unity and friendship and are a tangible representation of the intangible force of indigenous people united in solidarity to stand up against the development of fossil fuel mega projects in their territories. A totem pole is not a sacred object in and of itself; however, the ceremonies, traditions and cultural rituals surrounding the carving, delivery, installation and gifting phases of a totem’s journey are sacred and profoundly meaningful.

The incredible generosity of the gift itself was met at every step along the way with generosity and warmth by our host nations. This is in stark contrast with the theft of indigenous lands and dishonouring of the treaties.

Today, Lummi House of Tears Carver’s healing totem poles stand proudly in the territory of two Nations, each with a lawsuit against the Canadian government and against tarsands development.  Those poles connect indigenous resistance at both ends of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline. At one end, in Alberta, the Beaver Lake Cree challenge the impact of the tar sands on their treaty lands.  At the other, on BC’s Pacific Coast, the Tsleil-Watuth Nation assert their right to be consulted before any consideration of the risky Kinder Morgan Pipelines and Tankers expansion. 

The resistance and courage of either or both nations have the potential to stop reckless tar sands development.

By Eugene Kung, Staff Lawyer

Photos by James Leder, except for the #totemjourney "Brother and Sister Totems" photo.