‘We haven’t lost…we have awakened’: Indigenous nations march on the White House

Despite recent setbacks at Standing Rock, Native communities are energized about the future.

Protesters gather outside of the White House. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
Protesters gather outside of the White House. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

WASHINGTON, D.C. — They came to Washington to march on the White House, to remind President Donald Trump that despite making up less than one percent of the country’s population, Native people and their rights should be in the front of his mind. Hundreds of people, representing indigenous communities from around the country, came despite the rain, the hail, the wind, burning sage in front of the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in downtown D.C., shouting reminders that the Corps is bound by the Constitution to protect the country from enemies both foreign and domestic.

“Your president is the enemy!”

“You can’t drink oil, keep it in the soil!”

It was not the first march on Washington led by indigenous communities, and it won’t be the last. The movement against the Dakota Access pipeline has suffered a string recent setbacks at the hand of the Trump administration and the courts: an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s hold on the Dakota Access Pipeline, an Army Corps decision to abandon an environmental impact statement, and a series of defeats in federal court. But on Friday, the Native Nations Rise march buzzed with the feeling that many of the fights brought to the forefront by the movement at Standing Rock — issues like tribal sovereignty, water rights, environmental justice — were just beginning.

Scenes from the rally outside of the White House. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
Scenes from the rally outside of the White House. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

“I think a lot of people feel as though we have lost, but we haven’t lost… we have awakened so many folks to water rights issues, to indigenous land rights issues, to the issues that face women of color and marginalized communities,” Eryn Wise, who grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in New Mexico and now works with the International Indigenous Youth Council, told ThinkProgress.

“People are finally starting to understand that we are not just mascots, we are not just caricatures, we’re not just past tense, we’re not historical figures. We are people that exist in the here and now. We are people that are fighting for the rights of our futures, our children, our ancestors.”

The march attracted participants from indigenous nations across the country, bound together by a renewed sense of shared resistance against an administration generally viewed as being hostile to indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty. As tribal leaders took to the stage in front of the White House to call for unity among Native nations, elders recalled a Native prophecy wherein indigenous communities would turn to the seventh generation for leadership and guidance.

“This is prophecy, this is what is guiding us. This was foretold, that this was going to happen. People are going to mobilize, they are going to say, enough is enough,” Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told ThinkProgress.

Goldtooth recalled a similar movement in the 1970s, when, as a young man, he marched on Washington, along with members of other Native nations, to demand recognition of treaty rights. The current movement, he said, is at a similar turning point.

“This is a moment in time when people are starting to see that their rights are going to be violated — indigenous rights, but human rights as well. They are ready to challenge a system that needs to be changed,” he said.

Marchers rally in front of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling
Marchers rally in front of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Natasha Geiling

Signs throughout the march decried the Dakota Access Pipeline, but for many participants, the event was about more than a single pipeline. The scenes at Standing Rock had captivated a nation, and illuminated — in some cases, for the first time — the deep connection between the environmental movement and the social justice movement.

By the beginning of December, when the Army Corps, under direction from President Obama, temporarily denied approval for the pipeline to cross beneath the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation’s main source of drinking water, protesters and water protectors — as native protesters called themselves — numbered in the tens of thousands, and had grown to include military veterans, protesters from outside of the United States, and those who had chosen to give up their jobs to move to the camp permanently.

“We’ve realized what power we have when we all work together to fight our oppressors.”

What began as a small protest aimed at stopping a single pipeline, in other words, had grown into a protest against a system of oppression that moves a pipeline route from a predominantly white suburb to a predominantly Native reservation. It had grown into a referendum on the systems of oppression that leave the residents of Flint, Michigan, more than a year after lead was discovered in their drinking water, without access to clean water.

“If we’re showing up for Standing Rock, we can show up for black lives, and we can show up for trans lives, and we can show up for our women, and other communities, and I think that’s really important,” Wise said. “I think that’s the biggest takeaway here — we’ve realized what power we have when we all work together to fight our oppressors.”

The protest at Standing Rock — and the movement of indigenous resistance that it inspired — has already spread across the country, to communities facing pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure. Native communities in Seattle led the city to pass the country’s first pledge to divest from Wells Fargo over its financing of the pipeline — cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are already considering following suite. And groups inspired by Standing Rock have begun protesting pipeline projects across the country with a renewed fervor, from native communities in Texas to Amish farmers in Pennsylvania.

“Standing Rock is all over. DAPL is all over the country and all over the world,” Goldtooth said. “We are going to see this continue.”

To Peggy Flanagan, citizen of the White Earth Nation, state representative in Minnesota, Friday’s march represented what she called a “movement moment,” a pivotal point in the history of not only indigenous communities, but the country. And despite setbacks, she remained hopeful — noting that marching in the sleet and snow could not compare to the trials that her people have gone through in the past.

“We can’t be silenced,” she said. “We may experience setbacks, but since contact we have experienced setbacks. We’re not going away, and that’s what’s different.”