This past year, a 25-foot totem pole traveled 20,000 miles across the United States to amplify the need to protect sacred Native sites on public and tribal lands. Brought to Washington, D.C., this enduring piece of Lummi culture is a powerful reminder of the importance of including Indigenous voices in preserving these lands.
During the past 20 years, members of the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation in Washington state have carved more than 15 totem poles and donated them to places in the United States and Canada affected by disaster or in need of hope and healing. Their first journey was to New York City in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then each year since 2013, the Lummi artists have carved a unique totem pole and delivered them to communities and public lands experiencing threats to their cultural and environmental heritage.
“The poles are gifts to lift up people crying out for help, reaching down to touch their hearts and souls and spirits,” said Lummi carver Douglas James.
The summer the totem pole left the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, Washington, on July 14 and visited public lands with ties to Indigenous cultures such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico as well as Native nations, including Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas and White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, before arriving in Washington, D.C., at the end of July. At each site, they were greeted by supporters and activists.
Jewell James, Douglas’ brother and the Lummi master carver who led the cross-country project titled Red Road to D.C., wrote in a March 2021 essay, “We are all coming together, like figures on a totem pole, to produce an end vision—the protection of Native American Sacred Sites.”
When the pole finally arrived in Washington, D.C., the carvers and project partners were welcomed at a ceremony at the National Museum of the American Indian on July 29. For two days, the totem pole rested outside the museum, where Lummi carvers spoke to visitors about their craft. The museum also featured a life-sized replica of the totem pole, painted on canvas-like material, that hung inside as part of “Kwel’Hoy: We Draw the Line,” a traveling exhibition that is part of the Red Road to D.C. project. It was created to explain the project and detail some of the journeys their poles have traveled.
The year’s totem pole was carved from a 2-ton log from a 400-year-old cedar tree. “There were no preliminary sketches,” said Jewell James. “This journey is about sacred sites. Thus, we decided to let the spirit guide the choice of figures as we carved the totem from top-down.”
The pole has figures drawn from nature, given names by the carvers: the Full Moon, Diving Eagle, Chinook Salmon, Wolf, Bear, Falling Rains and Flowing River Waters. Human figures featured are a praying or meditating man, a Praying Mother Kneeling with Rattle and a Mexican Child in a Cage, representing migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.–Mexico border.
From the Lummi homeland, the pole traveled strapped onto a flatbed truck to nine sites in the United States that hold spiritual and cultural importance to Native peoples. These locations are now threatened by natural resource extraction and other environmental impacts.
The preservation of these lands demands current action and constant vigilance, said Whitney Gravelle (Ojibwe/Odawa/Potawa- tomi), president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Brimley, Michigan. She is campaigning against the presence of Line 5, an oil and gas pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac and Ojibway territory, another site the pole visited this summer. She fears an eventual spill from the pipeline will contaminate the Great Lakes. “Do we want to teach our children that we care more about profits than we do about leaving them a sustainable world?” said Gravelle. “We have a teaching that says ‘The decisions you make today should take into consideration the next seven generations.’ So what we do today has an impact long after we are gone.”
Open tracts of lands next to American Indian reservations and wilderness areas considered sacred to American Indians frequently have been targeted by mining, drilling or lumbering industries. Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah is one example making news headlines in recent years. Many tribes, including the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah and Ouray Ute, have spiritual and cultural connections to the region. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated 1.35 million acres of it as a national monument. Just a year later, the Trump administration decided to reduce that to about 200,000 acres and opened the rest for potential oil, gas, uranium and coal extraction. In January, the Biden administration initiated a review of the monument’s reduction and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) visited the region in April as part of that process.
Too often, Native peoples have been left out of decisions regarding the intended uses of their land. Haaland, the first Native person to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, brings a different perspective to the job than her predecessors.
“At its founding, U.S. policies were emplaced without considering Indigenous communities and their challenges or their strengths,” said Haaland, speaking at a ceremony on the National Mall, during which the Red Road to D.C. project delivered the pole to the Biden administration and presented it to Haaland. “Now we are in a new era—an era of truth, an era of healing, an era of growth, an era in which Indigenous knowledge is respected.”
The totem pole carried a message not only from the Native nations along its route but also from those who don’t have voices: the animals, the land and the water, added Douglas James. “The salmon struggle to survive because rivers in the Northwest have been dammed and the water is too warm,” he said. “Because the salmon are diminished, the orcas in the San Juan Islands have too little to eat. If we lose the salmon, we lose the orcas.”
Douglas James said that the need to preserve sacred areas goes beyond Native peoples. Anyone in contact with the landscape—anyone who farms, fishes, hunts or simply hikes in the woods—has an interest in environmental preservation. “It’s not an ‘us’ thing,” said Douglas James. “It’s a ‘we’ thing.”
The pole is now at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
On the National Mall in July, hundreds of people reverently touched the totem pole, adding their energy to the hundreds of others who had touched it along the way. Others bestowed it gifts or blessed it with smoking sage. Haaland told the carvers: “Your journey—like the wind, the birds, the water—carried the prayers of everyone who has laid hands on this totem pole.”
“Every time I visit a protected sacred site, it gives me hope knowing that all of us are working together to honor and respect these important places,” said Haaland.