Protecting the Past

by Maria Matson

Editor’s Note: This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Klipsun magazine. For the full story go to:

The boat speeds north, away from the reservation and cutting through waters where the early sun reflects as a million sparkles. The bright blue sky and calm air make a perfect day for crabbing near the indisputable beauty of the San Juan Islands

.“This is actually very calm,” Jeremiah Julius said. He and the other fishermen would go out on the Salish Sea no matter the weather, rain, wind, storm. If Julius didn’t have other responsibilities, he’d be out on the ocean every day, fishing and crabbing while blasting country music. But he has other duties, such as serving as a councilman for the Lummi Indian Business Council.

On land or water, Julius thinks always about the Lummi Nation’s future and the lives of the Lummi people in the face of modern development. He knows what different islands looked like two hundred years ago, before the Lummi people were forced to sign treaties, moving them from their coastal villages to their current reservation.

Julius gave a TEDx talk on Orcas Island in 2015 called “Sacred America,” how the past is deeply relevant to this area today. He said archeological studies document human development at Cherry Point about 7,000 years ago.

“Being 100 percent Native American, growing up on a little Indian reservation of about 4,000 acres and growing up with individuals like my great-grandmother who lived here and was born in 1892—it not easy to break free of these stories, of these realities that took place,” Julius said.

Leaving behind Lummi Island, he points to a shore dotted by seaside houses. “You would have seen an 800-foot cedar longhouse here,” he said.

He’s spent his whole life boating on the ocean, as his father and each generation did before him. He looks to the shore of Xwe’chi’eXen as it passes, known as Cherry Point today.
With his hand, Julius traces the path the barges would take from behind the islands on his right, up through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to eventually cut perpendicular through the route he is boating to check his crabbing pots. The giant barges would dock at Cherry Point, stock up on coal and sail to Asia if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal is built.
The Lummi Nation has fought that terminal proposal for years, with Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II currently leading the council in its public efforts. The Lummi’s legal defense is based on the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 which guaranteed to the Lummi Nation the right to fish and hunt in their “usual and accustomed grounds.” This phrase is repeated today by the descendants of the signatories, who remember this history each January on Treaty Day.

“We gave up everything for a little bit of rights,” Julius said of the Point Elliot Treaty. “Now we have to ask permission to visit other islands—we have to ask permission.”
For activist Jewell James, the work to protect Cherry Point is deeply spiritual. He works to spread the message: Cherry Point is sacred, it is historical and its health is necessary for the Lummi people in both culture and sustainability. James believes the GPT will not become reality and is optimistic about the outcome.

“It’s a battle over public opinion,” James says.

He is well versed in the history of Native American oppression and the present-day cultural and ancestral significance of Cherry Point. James has written about it in collaborative reports and given speeches on the subject. He also helps with the politics, frequently traveling to Washington, D.C. to lobby, educate and push for protecting those treaty rights.

“I was with a group in a national meeting to address the suffering our native children endured from 1868 to 1975,” he said. “The boarding schools run by churches and the government tortured and killed many and those who survived were damaged for life, and then damaged the families and children and grandchildren they had.”

He talked passionately about how the Lummi still have a living culture and how hard they’ve had to fight for their right to maintain it to this day.

The old artifact collections stored at Western, a small sampling of 150 boxes filled with tools and evidence of human activity thousands of years old, tell a technical story of how Cherry Point was once a site where many people created net weights, hammered rocks, fished and hunted. Their descendants today speak about this site’s significance on different levels: spiritual, cultural, historical, economic, personal, sacred—they speak of something worth protecting.

“I’m looking to create empathy, not sympathy,” Julius said. It’s important to know the difference.

The people who live on the Lummi Nation reservation tell each other about their past, stories about how they used to live and how they came to live at this place. They work to remember what was worth protecting in the past is worth protecting for the future.

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