Spare Us Those Empty Promises
by Philip Damon
Philip Damon taught writing and literature at the University of Hawaii for 34 years, and his fiction, non-fiction and social commentaries have been published widely. Among the mystic and holistic traditions, he has followed many practices. His “Sacred Democracy” columns appear monthly in readthedirt.org.
Take it from the Lummis (which describes their story in a nutshell) regarding the wisdom of believing promises sworn to by the government, or by the corporations pulling its (purse) strings. A reported seventeen hundred people attended the heart-rending drama that the tribe presented twice this summer, depicting the infamous 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott and its shameful aftermath. Titled “What About Those Promises,” it could just as easily have been called “Déjà vu,” given its elegantly ambiguous timing and/or purpose. Yet whether the impact the tribe was aiming for was historical or prophetic, the medium is the message and it is crystal clear: Beware when approached by white men in suits, as today’s promise-makers are likely to become tomorrow’s promise-breakers.
It’s hardly a secret anyhow that the Lummis are coming out full-bore against the Gateway Pacific Terminal. They have their own reasons for sure, forged both by sacred traditions and ancient treaties. Yet those reasons strike a resonant chord in the hearts of GPT’s opponents, whether tribal nations or otherwise, all the way from Cherry Point (Xwe’chi’eXen, to the Lummis) to Wyoming and Montana and that gaping affront to nature in the Powder River Basin. And while many are hoping the tribe will serve as a galvanizing force among the disparate groups in opposition to the project, could it turn out that the history of their betrayal will also serve as a cautionary tale for those still yearning to believe the lofty promises of the current consortium of corporate interests?
The Lummis know that it’s only natural for folks to believe such a project will be carried out according to “regulations,” with lots of benefits for everyone. They know how comforting it must be to trust in the integrity and sincerity of the profiteers’ intentions to “mitigate” any and all potential disasters. Yes, but what about those huge coal vessels, navigating our intricately fragile waterways? Or those endless open coal trains clogging our cities and the countryside all along the coastal and river routes to the south and the east? Well, chances are, as “externalities,” they won’t even be a part of the admissible evidence also known as the environmental impact statement. And what about the terminal itself, at pristine Cherry Point, where millions of tons of coal will be shedding their dusty residue over the salmon, the herring, and dozens of other species making a stubborn final stand in our corner of the country against the relentless assault of industrial development.
That is exactly where those ancient treaties come into play, as Lummi elder Jewell James reminds us in his remarkable essay supplementing this issue of Whatcom Watch. The rights “to fish at their accustomed fishing places” were promised them by territorial governor Isaac Stevens in that 1855 treaty, yet were reneged on for six generations until finally being re-affirmed in the 1974 “Boldt Decision” (U.S. vs. Washington) — after several civil rights “fish-ins” in Seattle — then upheld in appeals court a year later and by the Supreme Court in 1979. These rights specifically grant the tribes the “veto power over future industrial developments that might impact critical habitat of the salmon and other fish stocks.”
Thus the Lummi’s story has a legal and a moral message. On the legal side, what about that veto power? Could it be the ultimate trump card in this sordid game of flinch? And on the moral side, could it be what it takes to wise us up in what is now a perilous game of trust? Could it remind the more trusting among us of our state’s Superfund sites that have been walked away from with corporate indifference, when we’re tempted to trust the promises of those who stand to profit from the breaking of those promises?
We might heed instead the advice of the philosopher George Santayana, who warned us that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or perhaps more aptly, we have the words of that more recent lover of wisdom, George W. Bush, who famously intended to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If he’d gotten that one right, he may never have taken us into Iraq. (Yet another governmental promise made on behalf of very powerful corporate interests.) So if we insist on ignoring the past, what kind of blighted site will we, and the Lummis, be condemned to live with when it’s déjà vu all over again?