Totem pole unites tribes in opposition to coal projects

NORTH OF ASHLAND — A 22-foot-tall totem pole that traveled 1,300 miles in 10 days had very nearly completed its journey by Sunday afternoon.

On a dry, dusty hill overlooking a big bend in the Tongue River near Ashland, representatives of the Lummi Nation officially turned the totem pole over to representatives of the Northern Cheyenne people. It will be displayed at a few other nearby locations before being placed on permanent display.

It was meant to symbolize the two nations’ opposition to related coal projects—development of the Tongue River Railroad on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, to haul coal from the Otter Creek deposits near the Wyoming state line, and construction of coal ports in the Pacific Northwest, home to the Lummi Nation.

Jewell James, master carver for the Lummi, who live on Puget Sound, said the totem pole had been blessed by various religious denominations on its 1,300-mile journey to southeastern Montana, including several Catholic churches.

He reminded a gathering of about 100 people Sunday that the new Catholic pope, Francis, has said that human beings not only have dominion over the earth, but an obligation to “pray over and protect the earth.”

James also said that he was told by another tribal elder that “the totem pole is not sacred. What’s sacred is the gathering of people that you create.”


Alexis Bonogofsky

The totem pole included this representation of a sacred drummer.

The Sunday gathering was on the southeastern corner of the Rocker Six Cattle Co. ranch, operated by the families of Wally McRae and his son, Clint. Wally was not there Sunday, but Clint told those present for the transfer of the totem pole about their 30-year fight against the proposed railroad.

The rail line, which has a price tag of more than $400 million, is being proposed by BNSF Railway, Arch Coal and Forrest Mars, a candy industry billionaire.

McRae said the route preferred by the railroad would cross the Tongue River very near the bluff on which the ceremony was conducted, slicing through an Amish-owned ranch on the river and then through the Rocker Six and the Northern Cheyenne reservation to a BNSF Railway line at Colstrip.

All along, McRae said, the people behind the proposed railroad have assumed they would have their way because the area is so sparsely populated, because “there’s just a few ranchers and a few Indians, and that’s it.”

More than half the crowd that gathered Sunday was made up of Northern Cheyenne, joined by a handful of ranchers and other local residents, and a contingent of Billings-area residents, many of them members of the Northern Plains Resource Council. That coalition of ranchers and conservationists has been fighting the railroad as long as the McRaes have.

The main representative of the Northern Cheyenne traditional leaders was Otto Braided Hair. He said the Lummi had stopped at the reservation three or four times in the past 15 years as they delivered totem poles to other tribes and organizations, so “I made a request to them—‘Sure would be nice to have one here.’ That’s all it took.”

That and four months of work by four carvers and four painters, working on a 3,000-pound piece of western red cedar. They adorned the pole with Cheyenne symbols, including a medicine wheel, an eagle clutching a rabbit, a bison, sacred drummers, badgers, lizards and a turtle.

James said the first stop on their tour was in British Columbia, where the Tsleil-Waututh Nation is fighting plans to have a tar-sands pipeline cross its land. Other stops were to visit tribes, churches and organizations in Washington, Oregon and Montana.

The last stop before Billings was in Missoula, where the totem pole was blessed at a Jewish synagogue. In all the years they’ve been taking totem poles around the country, James said, that was their first synagogue, “so that was a real honor.”

Other totem poles carved by the Lummi—James figures they’ve done at least 100 in the past 15 years—include a massive, three-piece installation created to commemorate the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. It now sits at the entrance to the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

After the ceremony, the latest totem pole was taken to Clint McRae’s place on the Rocker Six. Braided Hair said it will be displayed there for a while, and then on the ranch of Hank and Kitty Coffin, whose property is also threatened by the railroad. Eventually, he said, the Cheyenne hope to put the totem pole on permanent display at Dull Knife College in Lame Deer.

A dozen or so people made remarks at the transfer ceremony Sunday, interspersed with prayers, songs and drumming.

“You’re all witnesses,” Douglas James, Jewell’s older brother, told the crowd. “There’s a piece of history being laid out before you today.” Pointing to the many children in attendance, he added, “It is for these little ones that our voice has to be heard now.”


Alexis Bonogofsky

Lummi master carver Jewell James, standing center, with his brother James, on his right, and others during the ceremony that marked the transfer of the totem pole from the Lummi to the Northern Cheyenne.

Hank Coffin said the corporations behind the coal mine and the railroad, as well as officials at all levels of government, have shown over and over that they consider the people of southeast Montana “insignificant,” a word he repeated many times, with rising anger. He called the long battle over the railroad a “deadly game of chess,” and he vowed to keep fighting.

Opponents did hear some encouraging words Sunday, mostly having to do with what was described as a completely inadequate survey of cultural and archaeological sites on the path of the proposed railroad.

Clint McRae said the cultural survey included in the draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the federal Surface Transportation Board was “absolutely atrocious” and is being challenged by landowners.

The ground on which the gathering was held was itself an important site, he said, thick with tepee rings, burial sites and evidence of extensive tool-making activities, almost all of which was ignored in the survey.

Chris Finley of Lovell, Wyo., a retired archaeologist with the National Park Service, who has been working for landowners and the Sierra club, went into more detail on the inadequacy of the cultural survey. He said the Surface Transportation Board violated federal rules and laws, starting with its decision to have the survey conducted by a company of the railroad’s choosing.

Finley said he and trained volunteers picked seven areas containing 20 identified cultural sites examined in the EIS. He said they found 150 percent more artifacts than the original survey, and they also found 38 sites not mentioned at all.

On the Coffin ranch alone, he said, the EIS survey found no significant sites, while he found eight, three or of which are “really significant,” possibly deserving of historic landmark status.

Because the survey was so shoddy, he said, “I believe we have stopped this project in its tracks for at least two or three years.” He said the Surface Transportation board “doesn’t dare sign it (the EIS). They’re in violation and they know it.”

It was reported last month that the environmental director of the transportation board sent a letter to an attorney for some of the landowners, in which she said only that Finley’s findings would be taken into consideration in the final study of the railroad.

The transportation board originally set June 23 as the deadline for receiving comment on the draft EIS, but later extended the deadline to Sept. 23. You can view the EIS and leave comments by going here.

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