‘Draw the Line’

Celebrate the 16th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

“The great problem facing modern man is that, that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. So we find ourselves caught in a messed-up world,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned 60 years ago, in 1954. “The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.”

One aspect of scientific genius that’s made of the world a neighborhood must certainly be energy and energy systems, as engineering and technology continue to push back on “peak oil,” the notion that cheap, plentiful fuel is in irreversible decline. Through advanced production technologies—notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)—to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale and bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), “unconventional” fuels continue to push that particular energy crisis into the future. Yet those technologies have unleashed another kind of energy crisis, as the continued burning of varieties of carbon fuels—often dirtier and more volatile than their sweet, pure crude counterparts—poisons our air and tears at our community. In a sense, we’ve made small the very limits of our planet.

We understand, at some level, that the pursuit and expansion of carbon-based energy is harmful and wrong, but—as Dr. King observed so many decades ago—it is hard to approach the right thing in a proper and forthright way.

Our failure to address this through our moral and spiritual genius has created a new injustice to add to those understood by Dr. King; to social and economic injustice we must also add environmental injustice, as these technologies push out and into the unspoiled places of the world.

Perhaps no group understands the impact of these three injustices more than Native Americans, who increasingly find their treaty lands at ground zero of national energy policy.

“We must massively assert our dignity and worth,” Dr. King encouraged in 1967. “We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.”

In September, Lummi Nation took that stand, declaring, “Kwel hoy’: We Draw the Line.”

The burial grounds and treaty rights of Lummi Nation are threatened by a proposal to build North America’s largest coal terminal on the sacred landscape at Cherry Point they call Xwe’chi’eXen, a 3,500-year-old village site. If built, coal would be dumped on this historic burial site and would pollute the nearby fishing grounds, Lummi say. The waters are home to one of the best crab fisheries along the coast and provide food for salmon and Orca whales. This fishery sustains many tribal families, but those jobs could be lost if up to 55 million tons of coal is shipped over the waters.

To raise awareness of this threat to the Salish Sea, the “House of Tears” carvers of the Lummi community created a ceremonial totem pole that they carried in September along the proposed route that would freight coal from the heartland of the West to the western Pacific. Lummi carvers have much experience creating poles to bless areas struck by disaster or otherwise in need of hope and healing—lands wracked by war and weather—but had never before carved one to heal their own. Their totem pole and witnesses traveled 1,200 miles from the coal mines in Montana to the proposed coal terminal on the coast in Washington, connecting communities and asking for blessings along the way. 

“The sacred must be protected,” affirmed Jerimiah “Jay” Julius, secretary of the Lummi Nation Governing Council. Julius is a fisherman, crabber, successful businessman and father of four. He is descended from tribesmen who have fished the waters off Xwe’chi’eXen for centuries. He was recently featured in a KCTS documentary and a related PBS News Hour piece about the proposed Northwest coal terminals. Council member Julius is speaking to multiple groups about the need to protect the sacred lands and waters of Xwe’chi’eXen and the San Juan Islands, the aboriginal territory of the Lummi Indians. He keynotes this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference, speaking on “uniting for human rights and environmental justice.” The event is sponsored by the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force (WHRTF) and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center.

“I will be talking about environmental rights, human rights, and tribal rights,” Julius said.

Lummi Nation has played a pivotal role in the shaping of what Dr. King described as the moral and spiritual genius, of leadership in a profound resistance to a plan to make Cherry Point the epicenter of a global carbon export effort.

Shortly before his death in 1968, Dr. King had a profound awareness that the metrics of poverty and class were at the heart of the injustices he knew and understood. He recognized these metrics served to divide and conquer and contemplated instead a “Poor Man’s March on Washington D.C.,” a sort of proto-Occupy movement that could unite large numbers of people, a vision cut short by his assassination.

Income disparity has only worsened in the intervening decades, as America has become a much richer country than in 1968, yet with nearly all of that benefit deposited at the far upper end of incomes. Indeed, 95 percent of all economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent. 

The coal pier provides similar vanishingly small benefit to certain incomes, and plays the economic insecurities of the remainder off one another, promising jobs to some at the expense of others, destroying that brotherhood Dr. King sought.

Perhaps the Lummi, who have fed and sheltered one another from their abundance for many thousands of years, and who think on scales of seven generations, have more to teach us still. Perhaps we may learn from their tribe.

Photo by Paul K. Anderson

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