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Whatcom Watch Online
Deb Cruz, Web Weaver

October-November 2014

Unsung Heroes

Deb Cruz, Web Weaver

by Kathryn Fentress

Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.

Deb Cruz was born and raised in Minnesota and met her husband in Connecticut where they were both active duty members of the U.S. Navy. She and Ralph moved to Whatcom County from Sacramento, CA in 2004. Her parents, adult son and adult daughter also live in the area. Her daughter has two children and lives across the street. Deb and her husband live on six acres, three of them wooded near Willy’s Lake close to the Ferndale and Lynden borders. Ralph is a contractor specializing in renovation. Deb has had a number of jobs in the past and currently enjoys working as a home health caregiver with Visiting Angels. She works 15 to 30 hours a week. “I do everything from house work to providing companionship so those who are able can stay at home. Sometimes it is recovery and sometimes it is hospice work. I started at 15 as a nurses’ aide; I guess I have come full circle.”

Deb is a member of the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship (BUF) and many of her volunteer activities center on projects within the Social and Environmental Justice Committees. She and I first met after we were trained as a facilitators for the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium ( several years ago and helped present the symposium to her church and other groups in the Bellingham area. We reconnected recently at a BUF/Women’s League of Voters sponsored event featuring the stories of Granny D, a former lifelong activist. Deb shared with me that she was involved with the coal train issue and the Lummi Nation. She graciously agreed to an interview. Deb has a big heart and a big perspective about the planet. She shared her concerns, her tears and lots of laughter during our talk.

Kathryn Fentress: What prompted your concerns about coal trains and the Lummi?

Deb Cruz: It’s a long and complicated story. Basically a couple of things launched me into this. I have always been in and out of Indian country since I was a teenager, but in Washington, I first worked here at the church from 2006 to 2007 on the Green Sanctuary project, a kind of nuts-and-bolts energy awareness and recycling effort. The congregation accepted the challenge and the church was certified in 2009 with the national program. About 2 years ago, I shifted my attention from recycling projects to assisting Beth Brownfield who leads the BUF Native American Connections team.

I had been working on the fringe of that team the whole time I was with the Green Sanctuary project, and I decided that was where I wanted to focus more of my energy. Another part of my perspective came from a class we did with Northwest Earth Institute called “Discovering a Sense of Place.” The focus of the class encouraged people to start looking at where they are, at what are the natural resources of this place, what are the peoples of the place at a given time, what is the history of where they are. That kicked off looking at Whatcom County and Washington, but more importantly, Whatcom County. Then 2010 Bob Ferris blew the whistle on GPT and that became another strand in the mix. I was freaked out when I heard about it! How did I not know about this? Then I discovered that it was back in the ‘90s that the project had been initiated, which was long before I got here in 2004. SSA Marine had first proposed a smaller terminal, but then in 2010 they decided to make it much bigger.

So I then launched my part of the work. First there was a convergence of the coal terminal and the connection with the Native community, the Lummis, in particular. Another thread tracks back to when we were working with the Pachamama symposium. I always remember Van Jones. In one of the video clips he talked about how social justice issues and environmental issues overlap and interweave, that when you pull on the thread of environmental issues, you invariably find social justice issues. One of the things we were looking at in the Green Sanctuary Program was environmental justice. Finally, there is the third component, the spiritual aspect, and all these converged inside of me at one time.

The first focus of action came when Jay Julius and Jewel James from Lummi wanted to address the public and asked if we would help them. So Beth and I worked to set the stage for Lummi to tell their story about what was going on, and since that point, everything has just exploded or blossomed. One of the things in the planning process that we were talking about was to engage the faith community with the environmental component, the social justice component and the spiritual component as well. So then it was and is a matter of engaging the faith community to take a look at what is happening and to realize that this is a spiritual issue, not a political issue. It is a spiritual issue not only when we are dealing with the Lummi people, but when we are dealing with the Earth.

So when you refer to the faith community, are you speaking of the Christian Churches?

Not just churches, we have the Buddhist community, the Jewish community, the Islamic community, the Pagan community. Everyone who has some connection with a spiritual tradition. There are a lot of us.

How did the project unfold?

It began with a meeting with a minister, Rev. Karen Bloomquist, who had spoken out against the terminal, to discuss how to engage the faith community. Then we added Matt Petryni of RE Sources and Jessie Dye from Earth Ministries in Seattle into the conversation. At that point we organized a breakfast and invited a number of members of the faith community to participate. Rev. Tara Olsen, a minister at First Congregational Church, joined us in the planning, and we invited Chief Bill James to come out and speak.

While putting together the Lummi presentation on Memorial Day in 2013, we decided rather than having only the faith community involved, we would also invite the environmental and social justice groups to participate. There were two sessions: the faith community in the morning and then the activist community which included Whatcom Peace and Justice, Re Sources, Community to Community and all the other environmental and social organizations in the evening. There were 32 representatives from the faith communities and 44 from the social justice and environmental organizations. Since then, there has been a lot of interaction from both sides. While members of the faith community did meet for a time after the presentation, we did lose some of our momentum. Rev. Bloomquist, who was the big catalyst, left to take a position in San Francisco. We‘ll be looking to reinvigorate this group in the future.

So you got into this effort because of your connections with the Indian community and because of both your environmental concerns and your spiritual values. What are you doing currently?

I am still continuing to work with Beth and the Native American Connections team and First Nations’ communities. We’ll be finishing up with the Totem Pole Journey, working with HonorWorks, helping plan the second annual Sacred Obligations Summit and more. We are continuing to work on creating a Unitarian Universalist and the interfaith network for First Nations here in the U.S. and Canada. We are trying to get people talking, crossing borders and looking at the spiritual as well as the social and human rights aspects that are part of the myriad of issues that go along with the development of energy projects. The coal and oil trains go through the Native peoples’ traditional lands and waters.

History shows that the government originally put the Indians on “worthless” land and now we have discovered that land is rich with resources. So history is repeating itself as the powers that be try to take that away from them once again. This time, however, if they succeed, they will be destroying a culture and there will be nothing left. So I am trying to build a coalition to stop this nonsense, not just to prevent the destruction of the First Nations’ cultures but for all of us. We are all sacrificing too much. We are losing our vital resources whether we are talking about clean water or clean air or the orca populations or the impact of fossil fuels: the whole tangled mess. We are setting ourselves up for self-genocide or self -extinction. That is the big chunk of what I am working on.

There is also the bigger picture of establishing connections between communities. There is community not bounded by borders. The border problems are not just immigration issues but human rights issues. For example, the immigrants crossing the border, who are not documented, can’t say anything about their poor working conditions, low wages, sexual abuse and poor housing. I wish there was another me so I could spend as much time and energy on that as I do on the earth and First Nations. These things sometimes overlap. Many of the migrant workers coming up often don’t see themselves as Mexican; they see themselves as indigenous people from Mexico or Guatemala. Many of them don’t even speak Spanish; they speak their native languages.

And there’s another overlap where our agricultural practices such as pesticides, herbicides, water pollution, soil pollution and over-consumption affects the quality of water and thus the fishing and the salmon for Lummi. It gets to be such a tangled mess sometimes. Everything is connected. Our Seventh Principle (Unitarian Universalist) speaks of the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. It reminds me of Chief Seattle’s speech, ‘We are not separate, we are a thread in the web and what we do to the web we do to ourselves.’ If you snip one piece, things start to unravel. What we are doing is snipping at the environmental level, snipping at the social justice level and so on. If we cut too many, the web collapses. So we have to stop cutting the threads and start repairing the ones that are broken.

[Excerpt from Chief’s Seattle’s letter to the American government in the 1800’s: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, we belong to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”]

You mentioned you attended the August 17th tribal totem pole journey blessing. Can you say more about it?

Yes, the totem pole journey ( is to raise awareness and to bring prayers and ceremony to support other indigenous people along the routes that are being used to extract and transport oil and coal. Lummi Elder Jewel James, a master carver, made this totem pole for this expressed purpose. On the 17th there was a Blessing Ceremony at Lummi to initiate this year’s pole. The totem pole will go east, south and north (Canada) to some of the Nations in those areas. It is a matter of strengthening the connections with all these nations and the non-Native communities that will be affected. One of the first destinations is the land of the Ihanktonwan Dakota in South Dakota. These people are important because of the Keystone Pipeline. Similar coalitions are developing with the other interior group of First Nations. In fact, a while back the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a group of Native Americans and ranchers got together and went on horseback to the Capitol in Washington to protest the pipeline and the oil fields that are destroying their lands.

In April 2014 a group of 60 ranchers, farmers, and tribal leaders calling themselves the Cowboy and Indian Alliance set up camp in Washington to protest the Keystone Pipeline. This Pipeline would move crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, south to Texas. Check Common Dreams on line for more details.

They are trying to put in more terminals to accommodate the coal and oil trains that already go from Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota down through the southern part of Washington. This affects the Yakima, the Quinault and other Native communities in our state. These same issues are problems in the British Columbia and Alberta provinces in Canada. Last year’s totem pole journey started with the Northern Cheyenne Reservation where coal is being extracted. The land of the Nez Perce is a transportation corridor between the coal and oil fields and the shipping ports so they too are trying to nurture connections with the other First Nations. We are trying to educate the non-Natives as to what we are doing to ourselves.

So it isn’t just about activating the Whatcom County faith community. Right now, part of what I am doing is to communicate with other faith communities in other states, Unitarian churches not only in the Pacific Northwest like Alaska, Washington, Oregon, but also in Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and Canada. Through email I am encouraging the Unitarian congregations in all these places to reach out to other churches and expand faith community support as we are doing here. So far I have had positive responses from 10 congregations in Alberta and British Columbia and not only about the coal/oil train issues but the myriad of concerns I have already mentioned. All of this interconnectedness erases the lie they call the border because there is just so much in common.

In connecting with other faith communities, what are you asking them to do?

I am promoting the idea that these efforts are not so much political but actually a social, spiritual obligation. All the faith communities need to be educated about the issues of the place we are living in. Everybody needs to be educated because a majority of the population has no clue as to what is going on. We need to learn how to communicate with conservative communities, to help them understand and then offer ways to take some action. Everyone can write letters to their newspaper, their representatives and the Army Corps of Engineers.

I am not part of the faith community and I sign petitions, but what else can I do in Whatcom County?

For environmental actions, you can contact Matt Petryni at RE Sources and other environmental organizations. If you are interested in the Native American connection, go to the events that are sponsored by Lummi. That’s where you will learn. Go to the performance of “What About Those Promises? “ Go to the Stommish Water Festival and other events that are open to the public.

Anything else?

Write letters to The Bellingham Herald. Write to The Lynden Tribune, the Ferndale Record. Ferndale is the most pro-terminal community in our county. Many small town mayors signed on supporting the terminal. Some folks are misinformed if think they are a going to get some kind of revenue or kick back from the terminal. When you see something come out in the paper, challenge it if the writers are anti-Indian. The county council probably can’t do much at this time, but write them anyway. Write the state senators and federal agencies and try to get them on board. Learn about this area’s history and the treaties. Most people don’t know much about them, and some don’t even know that there are Indians here.

How do you stay positive with all this? How do you nourish yourself?

Two things that keep me going and one is my spiritual connection to the earth. I go out to Cherry Point and into my woods and pick huckleberries. Watching the eagles play in my backyard and rabbits hopping around keeps me going. It’s the connection with Nature that keeps me going. This is what I am fighting for. The other thing is my grandkids. They love Cherry Point. When I take them there, they overturn the rocks and see the crabs and the starfish, the anemones and things like that. ‘Grandma, can we go to Cherry point?’ they ask me all the time. I want them to have that connection and I don’t want to have to say to them someday, ‘We can’t go to Cherry Point because it’s not there.’

Kathryn: I appreciate Deb’s offering us a wide angle lens on the issues and the long view into the future that is at stake. After writing up this interview, I decided to visit Cherry Point and see the beach for myself. It is a lovely long stretch of beach bounded by Intalco Aluminum to the south and an oil refinery to the north with a wonderful view of the San Juans and the Gulf Islands to the west. I can see the logic of putting another terminal in the middle, especially with the deep water access.

There was a man walking the beach who spoke with me about GPT. He said, “It would probably bring some jobs, yes, and that would be good.” Then he shook his head and said, “But this beach will be gone forever.”

If you know if any unsung heroes you would like me to interview, please contact me at

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