Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. AP Wire Photo.

NBC News reported on it. So did PBS Newshour, the Boston Herald, the Seattle Times and a host of other national and regional news outlets.

Yet for some reason, this national news story has failed to make a splash in Bellingham, despite the fact that it’s unfolding right in our backyards.

I’m talking, of course, about the fight for their treaty rights that the Lummi, (along with 19 other tribes), are currently waging in Washington, D.C. And hiring someone from rodent control in austin.

On July 19, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, tribal leaders charged the federal government with failing to uphold treaties signed in 1854 and 1855. These treaties yielded vast amounts of land to the federal government; in return, the tribes were promised that their fishing rights would be protected. These rights were further upheld in 1974, under the historic Boldt decision.
Due to pollution, climate change, development, logging and other factors, much salmon habitat has been lost. This has led to the tribes becoming increasingly unable to pursue their traditional ways of life, tribal leaders said. They want the Environmental Protection Agency and other government bureaus to take stronger measures to combat this issue.

In an article in the Spokesman-Review, Mike Gray, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said “The tribes’ treaty rights, the basis of their economy, culture and way of life are at stake. Their very being is dependent on these natural resources. They don’t exist without them. From the tribes’ perspective, everything is at stake here. Their backs are against the wall.”

I don’t know about you, but this story strikes me as rather a huge one (well, me and 300+ media outlets). You’d imagine that the Bellingham Herald, Cascadia Weekly, Western Front and even Grow Northwest would be all over this–taking advantage of their proximity to the Lummi reservation to do the kind of in-depth interviewing and reporting that more far-flung publications just can’t manage, maybe even getting a story or two in the national spotlight.

You’d be wrong.

Sure, the Herald printed this wire story, and KGMI has done the occasional piece, but local press on this issue has been thin at best. There’s an opportunity for interesting, original reporting here, but everybody seems to be passing it up.

And what are the white-hot topics that are keeping Bellingham’s Fourth Estate so distracted?

The Coal Train Thing and The Granary Thing.

The Gateway Pacific Terminal project enjoys great popularity among Bellingham's hippie community. Photo credit: Nicole Lavelle.

The Coal Train Thing, more appropriately known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal, is a proposed project by SSA Marine. It involves building a coal shipping pier at Cherry Point, located north of Bellingham. Were this terminal to be built, nine or so coal trains would start passing through Bellingham twice daily. Opponents of the Gateway Pacific Terminal have (smart) environmental concerns and (dumb) noise pollution concerns; proponents of the project (intelligently) cite the need for more (high-paying, industrial) jobs, as well as their (fair) suspicion that the rosé-swilling Fairhavenites who are yelling about the terminal don’t care enough about Bellingham’s struggling working-class families.

The Granary Thing is a–shall we say–slightly more frivolous issue? Basically, the Granary is an old broken building that sits around being old and broken on the waterfront near the former GP site. The Port of Bellingham wants to tear it down, because it is old and broken; opponents want to save it because it is “historic” and “cool-looking.” They claim that the building could be saved and turned into sort of Pike’s Place. Opponents of this idea are concerned that the cost of this would be prohibitively high, and also challenge the idea that consumers and businesses could be drawn to such an out-of-the-way location, given that half the retail spaces downtown are standing empty.

The Coal Train Thing has been given (understandably) extensive local media coverage, racking up stories in both local and regional periodicals. Less understandably, the Granary Thing has also been exhaustively covered. Why, you can read all about it herehereherehereherehere and here!

With City Council’s recent vote to postpone to Granary’s demolition, we can (hopefully) expect that more proportionate levels of attention will be paid this issue. However, certain questions remain.

The Granary. Photo credit: Philip A. Dwyer, Bellingham Herald.

Namely, why didn’t the Lummi’s treaty battle garner more attention on their home turf? Surely a Bellingham-based news story that is covered in the Huffington Post is more important than a Bellingham-based news story that doesn’t even rate mention in the Skagit Valley Herald. Why has the fight for a hundred-year-old building been deemed more important than the fight for a way of life that is hundreds–if not thousands–of years old?

And are you ready for the ironic twist? Because it’s coming.

These are all the same story.

According to this story, published in June in the Whatcom Watch, “Waterfront development projects that require federal permits, or rely upon federal grants, cannot move forward without the consent of Lummi Nation.”

Whatcom Watch reporter Wendy Harris contacted the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and confirmed that WSDOT, “under directive from the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers, will not process permits submitted by the city, or release federal funding for grants, until Lummi concurrence is obtained.”

Harris goes on to report that, under the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855–one of the same treaties cited by the Lummi at their recent Senate hearing–tribal fishing rights have priority over the rights of private property owners. Furthermore, both the Port and the City of Bellingham are required to treat the Lummi as co-managers of any and all waterfront development plans. According to Harris, both entities have largely failed to do so.

The Coal Train Thing and the Granary Thing are both ultimately waterfront development projects, and legally the opinion of the Lummi on these issues has precedent over municipal and state plans.

The Point Elliot Treaty: Yet another treaty that the U.S. wasn't serious about!

Why hasn’t this come up in any of the many, many Coal Train and Granary Thing news stories?

The Bellingham Herald did publish something they called an “opinion column” by Merle Jefferson, Sr., Director of the Lummi Natural Resources Department. In actuality, it is a statement of the Lummi’s position with regard to the Gateway Pacific Terminal–a report of their concerns, as well as a report of the steps they are taking in regard to this proposal.

“In February, the Lummi Indian Business Council, by resolution, appointed a multi-disciplinary team to lead Lummi Nation in a decision-making process in order to choose what course of action best sustains the legacy of our ancestors and meets the needs of current and future generations,” Jefferson wrote. “The Lummi Nation’s knowledge-based decision-making process will advance alongside the Army Corps’ environmental impact study.”

Jefferson went on to state that “What we know now is that this proposed development would be the largest to date at Cherry Point, and would substantially impact the ability of Lummi fishermen to exercise their treaty rights.”

So, you see, the actual biggest Bellingham story of the year is the same story as the two loudest Bellingham stories of the year. How hard would it have been for reporters to tie all these together? Why wasn’t the Lummi Nation angle included in their reporting? Why hasn’t there been any original reporting by the Herald and other outlets on the Lummi decision-making process regarding the Gateway Pacific Terminal?

Let’s take it further. Where is the community support for the Lummi’s fight? Where are the letter-writing campaigns, the “raising awareness” events, the benefit shows? Why hasn’t City Council passed any resolutions in support of the Lummi (or included them in these waterfront discussions)?

Many of Bellingham's liberals enjoy the Fairhaven neighborhood, which offers plentiful opportunities for drinking wine and talking about your love of diversity with other white people.

This town of devout recyclers loves nothing more than to assemble a rag-tag band of adults in order to celebrate Important Liberal Values like “diversity,” “sustainability” and “community.” Yet the Lummi’s cause has found little traction among Bellingham’s proud Co-Op members. Could it be that, by “community,” we often mean “the [white, college-educated] community”? When we say we appreciate “diversity,” do we really mean that we appreciate a diverse array of tapas?

These assessments may strike you as harsh, but what other conclusions can be drawn from the Bellingham media and community’s failure to include the Lummi in the waterfront conversation? If City Council isn’t co-managing waterfront development with the Lummi, doesn’t that tacitly imply that they don’t really recognize or respect the Lummi’s treaty rights? If the Bellingham media isn’t reporting on the Lummi’s ongoing struggle to have those rights upheld, doesn’t that tacitly imply that they assume this struggle isn’t really of importance to the Bellingham community? Or at the very least, that this importance is dwarfed by the thrilling Granary saga?

When a proposed building demolition rates seven or eight local news stories, and a huge national news story rates one or two, there’s a problem.

And that problem strikes me as all the more egregious in a town that is so impressed by its own progressiveness.

In the Spokesman-Review article quoted above, Billy Frank Jr., Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Nisqually Tribe, said “We ceded all this land to the United States for a contract to protect our salmon, our way of life, our culture. We’re gatherers and we’re harvesters. And they forgot about us.”

Sadly, in Bellingham’s case, I’m afraid he’s correct.

To learn more about Lummi fishing rights and salmon habitat issues, check out the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.