Building on Standing Rock, Native Americans Lead the Way at the People’s Climate March in D.C.

Stephanie Woodard May 1, 2017

Indigenous demonstrators from numerous tribes step out at the head of the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

We are at a major move­ment moment,” says Judith LeBlanc, a mem­ber of the Cad­do Nation of Okla­homa and direc­tor of the Native Orga­niz­ers Alliance (NOA), which helps indige­nous advo­ca­cy groups build their orga­ni­za­tions and capac­i­ty. As LeBlanc watched trib­al mem­bers from around the coun­try gath­er near the U.S. Capi­tol to lead the April 29 People’s Cli­mate March, she cred­it­ed the past year’s Stand­ing Rock demon­stra­tions against the Dako­ta Access Pipeline for bring­ing aware­ness to indige­nous strug­gles and the con­tin­ued threats to land and water by a range of industries.

Stand­ing Rock was the largest, longest con­tin­u­ous protest in U.S. his­to­ry,” says LeBlanc. As a result, she says, a net­work of trib­al lead­ers and grass­roots peo­ple and groups have coa­lesced around the issue of cli­mate jus­tice. We have the land base, the peo­ple, the tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge and the sov­er­eign­ty that will ground cli­mate action for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. The pow­er of our beliefs and his­to­ry can be a guide for all peo­ple.” This is already hap­pen­ing, she adds, recall­ing that Stand­ing Rock was not just about the con­cerns of that one reser­va­tion but about every­one whose water is endan­gered by build­ing an oil pipeline across the Mis­souri River.

Win­field Wound­ed Eye, a North­ern Cheyenne tribe mem­ber liv­ing in Chica­go, per­forms the tra­di­tion­al Grass Dance at the People’s Cli­mate March, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Pho­to: Stephanie Woodard)

The atten­tion that the Stand­ing Rock actions gen­er­at­ed led to two Native groups being includ­ed in plan­ning for the 2017 cli­mate march, says LeBlanc — NOA and the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work, which was promi­nent in the Stand­ing Rock anti-pipeline actions. Even­tu­al­ly, this con­nec­tion led to the place­ment of trib­al par­tic­i­pants at the head of the D.C. pro­ces­sion, where they led the 150,000-person strong march. A sim­i­lar num­ber of par­tic­i­pants took to the streets in march­es around the coun­try and the globe.

In Wash­ing­ton, Indi­an humor leav­ened the seri­ous­ness of the occa­sion and the reminders of the hor­rif­ic envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion wreaked on vul­ner­a­ble indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. A cov­ered wag­on labeled Colo­nial­ism” and pierced with arrows rolled along behind trib­al marchers car­ry­ing signs declar­ing Hon­or the Treaties,” Keep It In the Ground” and Mni Wiconi” (Lako­ta for water is life”). Miguel Muñiz, a mem­ber of a tra­di­tion­al Aztec-dance troupe who hailed from Mex­i­co City, explains: As indige­nous peo­ple, we know about resilience as well as resis­tance. We’ve been doing that for­ev­er.” He paused. Well…since 1492.”

In addi­tion to the larg­er issues of cli­mate change and cli­mate jus­tice, Sioux peo­ple gath­ered in D.C. had an imme­di­ate prob­lem on their minds. Accord­ing to Rose­bud Sioux leader OJ Semans, an offi­cial of the nation­al inter-trib­al group, Coali­tion of Large Tribes, dozens of Sioux were march­ing to protest efforts to revive the Key­stone XL pipeline, which is slat­ed to cross their ter­ri­to­ry on its way to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The line would trans­port the dan­ger­ous, cor­ro­sive tar-sands oil whose extrac­tion has dev­as­tat­ed Cana­di­an trib­al lands and turned stretch­es of Canada’s bore­al for­est into moon­scapes of open-pit mines and waste­water lakes.

Semans called the pipeline a zom­bie” — some­thing the tribes had helped defeat dur­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion, only to have it rise again, thanks to the new admin­is­tra­tion and its fond­ness for indus­try-friend­ly exec­u­tive orders and mori­bund ener­gy sources.

Chief Arvol Look­ing Horse, a Cheyenne Riv­er Sioux tribe mem­ber and his people’s 19th-Gen­er­a­tion Keep­er of the Sacred White Buf­fa­lo Calf Pipe, attends the Peo­ple’s Cli­mate March. (Pho­to: Stephanie Woodard) 

The People’s Cli­mate March took place at a crit­i­cal moment for the plan­et, says Faith Gem­mill, an exec­u­tive of the Alas­ka grass­roots coali­tion REDOIL (Resist­ing Envi­ron­men­tal Destruc­tion on Indige­nous Lands). In a pre-march event ear­li­er in the day in Wash­ing­ton, Gem­mill decried a new pres­i­den­tial exec­u­tive order that aims to resume off­shore oil drilling, includ­ing in the high­ly sen­si­tive Arc­tic ecosys­tem. She told the gath­ered crowd, We need to shift the ener­gy par­a­digm now for human­i­ty to survive.”

Faith Spot­ted Eagle, of the Yank­ton Sioux Tribe, in South Dako­ta, and Meli­na Labou­can-Mas­si­mo, of the Lubi­can Cree First Nation, in Alber­ta, Cana­da, say their own com­mu­ni­ties have already begun the tran­si­tion to green ener­gy. In addi­tion, Spot­ted Eagle told Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times, sev­en Sioux tribes in South Dako­ta are col­lab­o­rat­ing on Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) Pow­er Author­i­ty. A wind-ener­gy project, it is on track to become one of the country’s largest, with the abil­i­ty to pro­vide elec­tric­i­ty region­al­ly as well as to the mem­ber tribes.

After the march, Muñiz sat in a bus stop on Con­sti­tu­tion Avenue, near the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, with his orange-and-brown-feath­ered Aztec-dance head­dress bun­dled up beside him. He said he had trav­eled to join the marchers from his cur­rent home in the D.C. sub­urbs because he mourned the loss of progress on cli­mate change since the per­son cur­rent­ly in charge” had been inau­gu­rat­ed. I felt we were already 50 years behind,” said Muñiz. Now, things will get worse.”

Muñiz recalled the term tree-hug­ger,” which is often used as a put­down. He had a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. We should all be tree-hug­gers,” he said. We have to take care of Moth­er Earth. She’s the only one we have.”

After the march, par­tic­i­pants placed their signs on the steps of the gar­gan­tu­an stone edi­fice that hous­es the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. (Pho­to: Stephanie Woodard)

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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