Sisters of Providence, Mother Joseph Province, have signed a letter in support of native peoples who are struggling to protect their sacred lands from destruction by the fossil-fuel industry. The sisters joined other denominational leaders signing “A Public Declaration to the Tribal Councils and Traditional Spiritual Leaders of the Native Peoples of the Northwest.” The letter calls for the Northwest congressional delegation and other elected officials, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior and all people of goodwill to uphold the treaty rights of Native communities in the Northwest.”
This is the third such letter over the past 27 years. Jessie Dye, program and outreach director of Earth Ministry said the two earlier letters, in 1987 and in 1997, were an apology to the region’s indigenous peoples for disrespect of their religions, and of the importance of their sacred lands and traditions. The two earlier letters, signed by bishops and leaders of religious denominations in the Northwest, gave a promise to stand with the indigenous people in the future to protect those aspects of their lives. The new letter, signed by the Sisters of Providence, acts on that promise.
New threats to tribes and their land
“As people of faith, we stand with them as they claim their ancestral lands and sacred spaces,” said Provincial Councilor Jo Ann Showalter, SP, who is a board member of Earth Ministry. “Sisters of Providence have worked with native peoples since coming to St. Ignatius, Mont., in 1864. The last Sister of Providence to move off the tribal reserve was Sister Dolores Ellwart, who left DeSmet, Idaho, in the fall of 2013. This is another manifestation of our history of working with native peoples,” Sister Jo Ann said.
In this decade, there are new threats to the tribes and their lands in the form of the mining, transport, burning and disposal of fossil fuels. An
immediate local concern for tribal leaders is proposed coal export terminals that will damage native fisheries and poison air and water. That concern is compounded by the fact that the coal trains will cross sacred lands and threaten the health of already fragile communities. Climatic disruption and pollution will harm everyone, as local environmentalists will attest, but especially the poor and vulnerable will be impacted. Tribal leaders are concerned that the actions will undermine hard-won fishing rights granted to them under the Boldt Decision.
The letter signed by the Sisters of Providence represents a new coalition of faith, environmental and tribal groups. Its immediate focus is the proposed expansion of the coal export terminal at Cherry Point, on the northwest coast of Washington State, near the Canadian border. If the expansion goes through, the Lummi will lose some of their sacred lands, including where their ancestors were laid to rest. Along the coal train’s route, the fishing rights of other native peoples will be impacted, including the Yakama, Spokane and Colville tribes.
Bishops bless Lummi totem pole
Copies of the letter were presented to tribal leaders in August at stops on a Totem Pole Journey in Spokane and Seattle. The Lummis traditionally are carvers, creating totem poles for healing and peace. This colorful 19-foot totem pole, created by Lummi master carver Jewell James, was being transported on a flat-bed truck traveling 1,500 miles, from South Dakota to the Puget Sound. Stops on its journey were hosted by urban churches, rural reservations and remote Lakota spirit camps. The totem pole was blessed by bishops at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Spokane, and at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle. Friends of faith and of the environment attended the blessing ceremony.
This action by the Sisters of Providence is in keeping with their mission of serving the poor and vulnerable and with their focus on social justice and reclaiming the earth. The leadership of Mother Joseph Province recently attended the four-day annual conference of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in August in Nashville, Tenn., which passed a resolution to ask Pope Francis to formally repudiate the “doctrine of discovery. Formalized in papal bulls issued in the 1400s, it used Christianity in the 15th century to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious and territorial identities. The LCWR resolution stated that indigenous peoples continue to suffer as a direct result of that doctrine.
LCWR members also passed a resolution promoting the transition from fossil-fuel energy sources to renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal and wind. In one of the conference sessions, participants heard from a panel on environmental issues that included mountain-top removal coal mining, hydraulic fracturing to tap oil and natural gas, climate change and pipelines carrying hazardous liquids. “What I see is a world hurtling toward self-destruction,” said Claire McGowan, a Dominican sister. ” … We call this crisis ‘climate change’ and the crisis exists precisely because of fossil fuel usage.
LCWR is composed of Catholic women religious who are leaders of about 80 percent of the congregations of women religious in the United States.