A Pedicab, an Ally and Martin Luther King Jr.

A column by Robert Chanate about meeting a pedicab driver in Washington, DC, who turned out to be a big supporter of Native American rights.

The plan seemed simple enough: go to the National Park office, pull a permit and be back at the park in two hours. With this in mind, I set out with two friends to find the office in Washington, DC in August of the past year. The permit was for a group gathering prior to the Keystone XL civil disobedience. Being a modern day NDN, I used my phone to pinpoint the address and we boarded the subway at noon. We were leading a group training in five hours so two hours would be plenty of time. We took the subway as far as we could and then set out on foot for a mile long walk through the enormous expanse of land surrounding the Washington Monument. As we got closer to the mapped address, none of us could see a building. Despite this, we continued to the exact location and stood in an empty space next to the river. I looked at the time and it had taken us over an hour to get to the wrong place.

Backtracking, we stopped passing strangers, some of whom told us to go back the way we came and others suggesting we keep going in the same direction. By this time a couple of hours had passed since we started out. At a junction we stopped to discuss which of two roads to take. The afternoon had turned muggy and all of the walking was starting to drain our energy. We were also into this excursion for about three hours and hadn’t even found the building. While making our decision, we noticed a pedicab driver a short distance away. We approached him and asked if the address was familiar. He thought about it for a bit and started to give us directions. He was explaining where he thought the building might be and then said “Ah, you know what, just jump in and I’ll take you.” As tired as I was, my first thought was that we should find the office on foot, just us three. I balked at getting in and the pedicab driver joked that I needed to let go of my macho pride. Eventually, I got into the cab and we continued our quest for the park office. The pedicab driver told us his name was Paul and asked us what we were doing in town as we cruised down the low-traffic lanes. We gave vague answers but Paul figured out we were connected with the ongoing civil disobedience actions at the Capitol. Paul told us he had recently reread Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail" The letter was written from a Birmingham jail cell where MLK was imprisoned for “parading without a permit” and in it, MLK lays out the moral case for civil disobedience and the role of white allies. The first office we found was not the right one and we were sent to another office, about a mile away. This was the correct one but we were told a permit could not be issued for an event within the time frame. We did a quick negotiation and got promises that no park authorities would disturb our short gathering. Now our goal was to make it back in time to do our training. Paul wouldn’t let us walk back and he drove us out of the park and out onto the D.C highways. He pedaled away as we drove in a lane of traffic while cars whipped around us. We zipped down the hills and rambled up the other side until we arrived at the subway stop. Paul was refusing payment but we managed to force a couple of dollars in his hand for pulling over 600 pounds through traffic in the middle of a hot afternoon. Paul has a degree in biology and is a licensed tour guide, running his own Permanent Tourist LLC—as a business owner his customers include tourists from all political persuasions. His service is not a charity case so I e-mailed him and asked why—in addition to being inspired by MLK—he helped us. This is what he wrote. “You needed some help. You were here in DC to express your God-given, Constitutionally guaranteed by the First Amendment, freedom of speech. I support a clean environment, global warming is not a myth but a fact, burning fossil fuels is a waste on many levels. I support Indigenous, Native American rights.” Allies aren’t always immediately identifiable and often appear with little notice. Allies might provide key support but never have a public role. Their direct support might also be short or temporary as they move on with different obligations. An ally’s contribution might be a specific service which is all they can offer at that time; in our case, it was Paul and his pedicab that kept us in motion. Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com(twitter.com/rckiowa). He is from Carnegie, Oklahoma and currently lives in Denver.