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News / Northwest

BP bought a sacred place. Now Lummi Nation is preparing again to fend off development.

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: January 21, 2024, 6:02am

LUMMI NATION — Just a week before Lummi leaders were set to recess for Christmas break, the reservation’s industrial neighbor, the state’s largest oil refiner, BP, asked for a meeting.

Soon after, company officials shared their plan to buy up 1,100 acres along the shore of Cherry Point, also known as Xwe’chi’eXen, a historic village, fishing grounds and final resting place for some ancestors of present-day Lummi Nation members.

The company said the sale was set to close just over a week later. But few details were disclosed about what would come next for the area.

The officials said they may use the land as a buffer for their existing facilities, or for wetland restoration, and they expressed a desire to transition to cleaner energy in the future, Lummi Nation Chair Tony Hillaire said. BP told The Seattle Times in an emailed statement there is no project currently proposed for the land.

Tribal leaders opposed the $50 million sale, which came as a surprise to them. They want the assurance that Xwe’chi’eXen (pronounced wuh-chee-uh-kin), which for thousands of years has supported fishing, ceremony and social gatherings, would be protected in perpetuity.

BP’s purchase wouldn’t be the first time Lummi Nation has seen a massive corporation keen on this land adjacent to a coveted deep-water cove. In 2016, Lummi Nation, with support from other Northwest tribes and nonprofits, prevailed in a yearslong battle to protect Xwe’chi’eXen from what would have been North America’s largest coal terminal by asserting their treaty-protected right to fish.

Tribal leaders say this is just the latest iteration of a struggle that’s existed since contact with white settlers.

“It’s our responsibility as the up-and-coming generation to learn and understand everything that our past leaders have done to get us here, from 500 years ago to treaty signers and all of those great leaders. To learn the history of this place of how we got here,” said Lummi Councilmember Karlie Kinley. “Our responsibility as tribal leaders, as parents, as Lummi people is to make sure that we’re teaching that to our children, our grandchildren, because as you can see, from generation to generation, this fight, it’s never ending. It’s always gonna be here.”

For much of the past century and a half, governments haven’t provided tribal nations a voice in plans to chop ancient forests for building materials, or to construct dams for electricity and drinking water and cut off hundreds of miles of fish habitat, or to reroute, and dry up other rivers, or excavate hillsides in search of valuable minerals.

Today, state lawmakers have passed legislation intended to accelerate the permitting process and incentivize the development of renewable energy or biofuel projects. While tribal nations lead efforts to develop clean energy, few laws are in place to ensure tribal leaders have a meaningful voice in energy companies’ ownership or development in their ancestral territories.

At the Cherry Point refinery, which spewed more than 2 million metric tons of climate-warming gases into the atmosphere in 2021, BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, is charting a path toward producing lower-carbon aviation fuels that are made in part with cooking oils.

What that means for Xwe’chi’eXen is unclear. But the place is a homeland.

Lummi matriarch Ellie Kinley traced her finger across generations of her relatives’ names in a handwritten family tree on a poster board on her living room floor.

She paused at Felix Solomon, her great-grandfather.

Solomon, Kinley recalled, would paddle his canoe to Xwe’chi’eXen to jig for skinny, silvery herring flitting around lush bull kelp and eelgrass forests waving in the deep blue waters. As fishermen made their way from Seattle to Alaska for the halibut fishery, they would buy his herring as bait.

Kinley, like Solomon, has cared for and relied upon these waters to care for them. In her living room, rich with smoked salmon as she spoke late last month, Kinley traced the world of change through generations of her family history.

Kinley, also known as Tah-Mahs, was among the countless others from Lummi and beyond who successfully blocked the plans for a coal terminal at Cherry Point.

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“But it’s always going to be in danger,” she said of the land, “unless we actually are the ones who own it.”

“Who you’re dealing with”

Two generations of elected Lummi Nation leaders navigated the shore as cobbles tumbled in the waves on a late December day.

Former Lummi Chairman Jay Julius sometimes paused to pick single rocks from the array of orange, pink, blue and cool gray making up the shoreline. “Rocks are old souls,” Julius said. He’d place them back in the soft divots he found them.

Across the water, the cobalt silhouette of Mount Constitution carved through the glow of the descending sun. Xwe’chi’eXen: it’s the place of beginning, Julius said, a place where the ancestors of present-day Lummi people grew from. For thousands of years, Lummi people have fished, shared meals with family and guests, gathered plants, raised families and buried loved ones here, Hillaire said.

But this land is also coveted for its proximity to the sea and its deep water, ideal for large ships carrying lucrative loads of fossil fuels.

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On the north end of the rocky shoreline stands BP’s dock. To the south, a barge was parked in front of Petrogas, a Canadian company that exports liquid petroleum gas from Cherry Point, and further along the bend stands Phillips 66’s refinery.

Since the ancestors of present-day Lummi Nation people were forcibly removed to a reservation, the shore has exploded with some of the state’s top greenhouse gas polluters, including an aluminum smelter.

It was here, more than a decade ago, that Julius and other Lummi leaders introduced reporters, elected leaders and corporate officials to Lummi’s ancestral territory. SSA Marine had plans to transform this last slice of undeveloped coast into the largest coal port in North America. The terminal would have brought some of the world’s largest ships into the usual and accustomed fishing areas of Lummi Nation up to 487 times a year to load and unload mostly coal bound for Asian ports.

In July 2011, SSA Marine failed to obtain the proper permits before it began clearing paths for roads, filling wetlands and disturbing burial grounds where archaeologists previously found human remains at least 3,000 years old, and artifacts dating back even further. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers memo dated prior to the unpermitted work documented “known tribal cultural resources” on the project site, and said a “historic properties investigation has been conducted” for the project site.

“It kind of shows you what you’re dealing with and who you’re dealing with,” Julius said. “It’s just a great mystery to us … how to use your words in your language to get you to understand why it’s so important to protect something that is of such significance to us because we grow from this place.”

Lummi leaders then saw how important it was to tell their story, to share the existence of burial sites despite the risks of graverobbing, and to introduce newcomers to the land they grew from. It’s not something they often felt comfortable doing publicly, Julius said.

The tribe, in letters, technical reports and conversations, argued the pollution from the proposed project was a killer for its crab fishery and would thwart rebuilding the herring run that was once the prize of Puget Sound.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Kinley, the Lummi matriarch, said of her grandfather fishing for herring. “And what we’ve done in that amount of time, the damage we’ve caused.”

Many Puget Sound herring stocks are doing well, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and 2023 was among the highest recorded biomass ever. Meanwhile, Cherry Point herring have steadily declined. Last year was the first the state and partners were unable to confirm herring even spawned at Cherry Point.

The proposed dock was directly in front of where Kinley’s anchors are set for her reef net.

“We had everything”

The reef netting, or sxwo’le, practiced today is derived from ancient fishing practices designed by Lummi people, Kinley said. Rather than pursuing the fish, the fish swim up an artificial reef created from a system of ropes, into a net suspended between two boats. Fishermen haul the net out of the water, and sort fish by species. Their wiggling catch arrives alive, not smushed as in a purse seine, or ripped and bleeding from a gill net.

“You’ve got to know who you are and where you come from,” Kinley said. “Where do we come from? We come from our reef net fishing sites. That’s who we were. They were owned by our families and passed down in our families.”

Kinley is carrying on something her ancestors practiced freely for thousands of years, a sign of resilience through years of racist policies forcing the removal of Indigenous people from their lands and traditional practices.

Kinley’s fight to protect the place was largely fueled by her sons’ futures as fishermen. Luke, her eldest son, was building his first boat as the companies were proposing transporting coal through these waters.

“As a mother, I was like, ‘Oh, hell no,’” Kinley said.

In Mukilteo 169 years ago this month, the U.S., and sovereign tribal nations including Lummi, signed a treaty guaranteeing tribes the right to hunt, fish and gather in their usual and accustomed areas in exchange for their land.

When the state issued permits for the first non-Native fish traps in the early 1900s, Coast Salish people indigenous to the region were driven out of their fishing grounds by force of arms and left unprotected by state law.

It instead took violent protests and a decision appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm Northwest tribes’ right to fish 50 years ago next month.

The Corps of Engineers, the agency reviewing permits for coal port project, agreed with the tribe that it could not grant a permit for a project that would infringe on the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights.

A few years later, then-Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark announced the expansion of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve to include Xwe’chi’eXen.

And in 2021, Whatcom County would become the first local government in the U.S. to prohibit new refineries, or fossil fuel facilities. It also added more rigorous environmental review and permitting requirements for the expansion of current facilities. The intent, County Councilmember Todd Donovan said, was to support Lummi Nation’s stewardship and protection of their homelands at Cherry Point.

But council members left the door open for oil companies to build new facilities for cleaner fuels, like biofuels, to aid their clean energy transition.

“Now we’re in a bit of an awkward position,” Donovan said, “where this might be the same piece of land and we are facilitating a different kind of industrial use there.”

Around the time of the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott, Chow-its-hoot, the Lummi chief, reminded his people that the place now known as Cherry Point was one of their most important and ancient village sites, Jewell Praying Wolf James wrote in a 2013 edition of Whatcom Watch. Chow-its-hoot said the site had been unlawfully taken and directed future generations of Lummi leadership to ensure its protection.

“You have your county executives and your state and your federal officials, who as one generation moves on, there’s a new attempt and a new idea,” said Lummi councilwoman Karlie Kinley. “Whereas on our side, we already know that the answer is no, that it’s our obligation to care for this place and protect it. It’s just a difference in culture, maybe there’s no teaching on that side that the answer is no, and that means they’ll just keep coming after us until we acquire it.”

The Lummi leaders want the assurance Xwe’chi’eXen will not be disturbed.

Tribal nations don’t have the authority to veto a project on a sacred place simply because their name is not on the deed. The land that they have stewarded for thousands of years is no longer seen as theirs.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-West Seattle, said tribes can’t have full veto authority for projects because “it’s not their land anymore.”

For Lummi Nation, it wouldn’t matter if it was a flower shop or a refinery, it doesn’t belong at Xwe’chi’eXen.

“When we go back to D.C. we see all these scaffolds and everything they’re renovating and restoring for these old buildings to protect American history and the great lengths that the government takes to make sure that those buildings are beautiful and strong and stand tall,” said Karlie Kinley, the Lummi council woman.

“That’s kind of the same thing that we’re doing here. It’s unfortunate that the U.S. government in the state can’t see that. We’re doing the same thing for what we hold sacred and dear to us and our people,” she continued. “That’s our history.”

When asked about plans to provide any of the 1,100 acres to Lummi Nation to protect and manage in the future, a BP spokesperson said there are no current projects planned for this property.

“That’s the challenge, and it always has been, for my grandfather, for his grandfather, for his mother and her grandparents and generations and generations before as these newcomers arrived,” Julius said. “You came with different philosophies, and the philosophies are around export, import, development, money, ‘we’re going to build a great country.’”

“We have been here since the beginning of time and when the newcomers arrived, your forefathers, they saw nothing,” Julius continued. “We had everything. It was a relationship based on living with the land and equality.”