Roughly halfway into its journey from the Pacific Coast to Dull Knife, a Lummi Indian Nation totem pole stopped for some spiritual refueling in Missoula on Friday.

“We stand in solidarity with them as they bring their message across the miles,” Har Shalom Synagogue spiritual leader Laurie Franklin said of the activists who built the totem pole to protest shipping Montana coal to Washington for overseas export. “Their journey is one to influence hearts and minds about the devastation that’s about to happen.”

Franklin was joined by religious leaders from Missoula’s St. Francis Xavier Church, Open Way Sanghas Buddhist Center, University Congregational Church, Valley of Christ Lutheran Church and Emmaus Campus Ministry, as well as members from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai and Blackfeet Indian tribes. About 75 Missoulians came to hear Lummi Indian carvers Jewell and Douglas James talk about their work.

Proposed coal developments in Montana’s Otter Creek Valley by the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation would be transported by rail to the Pacific Coast for sale to China and other Asian customers. One proposed shipping terminal near Bellingham, Washington, might be built on a Lummi Indian burial ground and traditional salmon-fishing area, the James brothers said.

“This totem pole is not sacred,” Jewell James told the audience. “It’s the gathering of people that’s sacred. We believe that people can project their prayers to make change.”

The 22-foot-long, 3,000-pound totem has Northern Cheyenne Indian images, with a nod to the Blackfeet Indians of Montana and Alberta as well. It’s topped with a medicine wheel, the Cheyenne symbol of traditional knowledge. Below stand a buffalo, eagle, drummers, a turtle and a lizard (symbolizing the male and female spirits of creation), and a pair of badgers. Jewell James said one was for the Cheyenne, and the other referred to the Badger-Two Medicine lands that the Blackfeet Tribe is defending against proposed energy development.

“The Clark Fork River was there first before the train lines started taking coal through the valley,” the Rev. Joseph Carter of St. Francis Church told the Lummi group. “The river provided life. We need to remember we are not primary to the Earth as human beings – we are derivative.”

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Arch Coal Inc. has proposed a strip mine on its Otter Creek leases that could produce 1.3 billion tons of coal from 7,639 acres. The mine would be about five miles southeast of Ashland, along the eastern border of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

Supporters of the coal development say it would provide jobs and tax dollars for both Montana and Washington. Opponents argue the Montana coal has low energy content compared to the amount of pollution it would produce, and its development would further slow efforts to find more productive energy technologies.

On Aug. 7, the Crow Indian Tribe signed a partnership with SSA Marine to develop the Gateway Pacific coal terminal near Bellingham. The tribe would have a 5 percent share in the terminal operations. Cloud Peak Energy is developing the Spring Creek Mine on the Crow Indian Reservation, and holds a 49 percent interest in the Gateway Pacific terminal.

Last January, the Lummi Tribe asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to abandon the environmental review of the Bellingham port proposal, which the Lummi argue violates treaty fishing rights. Dropping the environmental review would effectively cancel the project.

The Bellingham coal shipping depot is one of several sites that have yet to be developed. Other sites have been proposed on the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. 

The House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation produced a similar totem pole in protest of Canadian tar-sands oil and Keystone XL pipeline development. Previously, they built totem poles to commemorate the sacrifices of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

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