Life Line: The Lummi Nation totem pole was installed at the Watershed Institute in April.

The totem pole on the grounds of Pennington’s Watershed Institute catches the visitor’s eye with multiple images carved into its 16-foot-high, 2,500-pound structure. A full moon encircles a Native American sitting with head bowed in prayer before a campfire. Four humans kneel side by side and wear different colored stripes on their faces. Large, wide-open eyes of a bear confront us as he stands facing forward with a salmon on his left side and a raven on his right.

A collaborative effort of the Lummi Nation in northern Washington and southern British Columbia and the Natural History Museum in Brooklyn, this totem pole exhibit on view until August 31 is an outgrowth of a traveling exhibition titled “Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw the Line.”
The line, with its multiple meanings, fosters a connection among communities on the front lines of environmental crisis; represents their stands against fossil fuel expansion projects; and connects the past, present, and future.

This totem pole is one of several made by the Lummi Nation’s House of Tears Carvers, a group that supports the causes of communities in the United States and Canada. The carvers create totem poles that represent communities’ issues and travel to the affected towns where they present the carving in public ceremonies.

“It’s a humbling opportunity for us to stand in solidarity with people from Native American and other communities across the country to protect our water,” says Jim Waltman, executive director of the Watershed Institute.

The institute’s exhibit connects the science community’s efforts to protect local watersheds from the proposed Penn­East Pipeline, the Ramapough Lenape Nation’s struggle to stop the Pilgrim Pipeline, and the Lummi’s struggles to protect the waters of the Pacific Northwest from oil tankers and pipelines.

In addition to the totem pole, the institute’s exhibition includes an indoor display with a gallery-length mural featuring art and text. Focusing on the “fossil-fuel ecosystem,” the art work depicts companies extracting and transporting oil, gas, and coal from waterways and through lands where local people live and are struggling to protect their homes from the impacts of fossil fuel development.

The institute’s exhibit, titled “Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front,” was celebrated with an opening ceremony this past April. Speakers from the Watershed Institute, Natural History Museum, Princeton Environmental Institute, and Science for the People offered brief remarks. Chief Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation offered a blessing, and totem pole carver Doug James from the Lummi Nation offered songs and prayers. A stone altar was initiated by the Ramapough Nation. “The ceremony was powerful,” says Waltman. “They spoke in a way that no one has ever spoken in our history. It was very spiritual and very inspirational.”

The carvings on the totem pole share messages for our time, says Waltman. The human figures with different colored stripes on their faces represent the four races of humanity that must unite to protect the clean water and air needed for life.

The salmon, raven, and bear are integrated with nature and represent the importance of the river, the source of knowledge. The salmon sustains life through the food it provides. The raven represents wisdom and trickery. The bear is a character that was once foolish and destructive to the habitat, but, through an encounter with the raven, changed his ways for the betterment of all.

Shortly after the totem pole was installed at the Watershed Institute, Waltman says an amazing thing happened. One evening a staff member spotted a live bear not far from the totem pole and a historic farmhouse on the property. Until then, no one had seen a bear that far south of the Sourland Mountains. “It was almost as if he was coming to pay a visit to the totem pole,” Waltman laughs.

For Waltman and the institute staff, the exhibit represents a new chapter in their work. “This is the first time the organization has addressed social injustice,” he says.

“We have always talked about protecting the water and the environment. It is a very basic human right for everyone but especially for Native American communities. Their basic existence and the substance of their culture are so intertwined with water.” He adds that if you destroy or damage that resource, you are harming their means of existence and cultural identity.

The totem pole and stone altar harmonize with our connection to nature, and the indoor exhibit gives voice to community members and scientists expressing concern over the expansion of fossil fuel operations, including pollution from operations and serious damage resulting from accidents and toxic leaks from cracks in the infrastructure that have occurred in the past and could happen again.

In addition to the mural, the exhibit includes four videos shown from wall-mounted monitors. Three of the videos focus on the groups related to the exhibit: The Lummi Community of the Northwest; Ramapough Lenape Native Americans and nearby communities; and the Watershed Institute and others in the greater Princeton area. The fourth video tells the story of the House of Tears carvers and master carver Jewel “Praying Wolf” James — a descendent of Chief Seattle’s immediate family — and the totem pole journey.

As an exhibit of Brooklyn’s Natural History Museum, “Kwel’ Hoy” aligns with the museum’s focus on social change and its goal to affect popular understandings of events, symbols, institutions, and history. The museum’s website states its mission is to affirm the truth of science. Launched in 2014 as a mobile and pop-up museum, the founders and staff work in partnership with leaders from indigenous communities and from the fields of art and science as well as the museum sector. The museum was initiated by Not An Alternative, a collective of artists, activists, scientists, and scholars.

The group sees its museum as a model for the future, one that has no ties to fossil fuel, one that champions climate action through a range of stories and tools for understanding the changing world and shaping it for the common good.

Before its installation at the Watershed Institute, the totem pole was on view at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The totem pole then traveled to the Ramapough Lenape Nation in Mahwah, New Jersey. When it leaves the Watershed Institute, it will travel to the Museum of Natural History in Florida.

The Pennington exhibit is part of the Princeton Migrations project spearheaded by the Princeton University Art Museum, including more than 20 community partners and a host of campus organizations. Since January the project has hosted 13 exhibitions representing the theme of migration throughout the Princeton area. “Kwel’ Hoy” is the last exhibit of the series.

Waltman hopes the institute’s space will continue to attract people to the visitor center where they will learn more about the group’s work. Concurrent with “Kwel’ Hoy,” the Institute is showing a photography exhibit by Clem Fiori featuring the Sourland Mountain Preserve and the Middlesex Fells Preserve not far from Boston. A show featuring the work of children is a future possibility.

“Our goal is to keep our gallery active with exhibits of nature, water and the humanity that depends on them,” Waltman says.

“We have scientists, water keepers, and educators. This mix of skills makes us very powerful. Our scientists work on understanding and solving problems, and our advocates, water keepers and educators implement the solutions. We serve 10,000 children and adults each year. If you come during summer camp, you’ll hear squeals of joy and laughter and delight. We have a very serious mission, but we are joyful in carrying out our work.”

Waltman has served as the executive director of the organization since 2005 when it existed as the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. He also oversees New Jersey’s farmland preservation program as a member of the State Agriculture Development Committee, and he serves on the board of ReThink Energy NJ, a nonprofit that seeks transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

Prior to joining the Watershed Association, Waltman was director of the refuges and wildlife program for the Wilderness Society in Washington D.C. Earlier in his career, he was a wildlife specialist at the National Audubon Society.

He has a biology degree from Princeton University and a master’s from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He grew up in Princeton where his mother worked in the music department at the university and his father was a business man in the building products industry.

Waltman sees “Kwel’ Hoy” and future exhibits as opportunities to communicate with the public through artistry and storytelling. “It’s something we haven’t done before,” he says. “It drives home our mission and what we are working to accomplish in a very powerful way.”

Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front, The Watershed Institute, 31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington. Through Thursday, August 31. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. For the complete calendar of events (some with a fee):

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