Inside a ceremonial longhouse in northern Oregon last September, the sun's rays spilling between the high-peaked beams, Davis Yellowash Washines was seated in full ceremonial dress -- yellow headband, red sash, beaded shoes. A rawhide drum rested in his hand, and to his left sat four teenage boys, each with his own drum and mallet. One wore a black Chevrolet T-shirt. They thumped their instruments and called out native songs as an organized smattering of young children bounced rhythmically counter-clockwise around the dirt floor. Two dozen fellow members of the tribal community, seated in folded metal chairs, looked on.
"This longhouse is used for lots of occasions," Washines said between songs. "But this one is significant."
This ceremony aimed to ward off coal.
Celilo Indian Village, Ore., separated from the Columbia River by only a highway and some railroad tracks, is one of many tribal communities that sit in the path of what could soon become America's coal-export superhighway. If government agencies grant approval to three export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington, up to 100 million metric tons of coal per year could soon be shuttled in open rail cars from mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, along the shores of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound, and through ranches and reservations like this one. The coal would then be loaded onto ships destined for Asia's proliferating fleet of coal-fired power plants.
Many activists currently fighting the plan see the impacts of burning coal on the global climate as their primary motivation. But for the Yakama, Lummi and other tribes, as well as communities in the path of these shipments, it's the local effects that worry them most. There are the potential traffic delays and disturbances to cultural sites. Then there's the very real prospect of toxic coal dust wafting off the passing trains, fouling the air, poisoning local waterways and even contaminating key food resources -- such as the salmon on which many local tribes, including those living in the tiny Celilo Indian Village, depend.
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