If rain on your wedding day is good luck, then snow on the day of the Native Nations Rise march in Washington, D.C. on March 10, served as a sign of hope in the fight for indigenous rights across the United States and around the world—especially when the battle at stake stems on the sanctity of water.
Under heavy wet clumps of snow falling from gray skies, a hearty and determined group of thousands of indigenous people from tribal nations as far away as Bolivia and Tibet sloshed through soggy streets. Sounds of drums, whoops, and the tinkling from jingle dresses filled the air. Some dressed in traditional tribal dress; others wore turquoise handkerchiefs, while many showed up in dark colors to symbolize their mood at a time of intense challenge.
Starting at the United States Army Corps of Engineers and moving on past the Trump International Hotel to the White House, the marchers had a unified message to send to President Donald Trump and his administration: Mni Wiconi, "Water is Life!" The chant has quickly become a shorthand for tribes' struggle to reassert tribal sovereignty and self-determination over their physical and spiritual spheres. The phrase was joined by many other expressions aimed at attracting the attention of the federal government: "We stand with Standing Rock!" – "Keep the oil in the soil, you can't drink oil!" – "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!" – And, "Shame, shame, shame!"
The Native Nations Rise march was organized by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Native Organizers Alliance and Indigenous Environmental Network to support the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and raise awareness to other indigenous issues. Thanks to the participation of protesters the march generated headlines and raised the spirits of Native activists and their allies.
"Water is life, and we're going to fight for what's rightfully ours," said Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairman Aaron Payment. "We're going to keep bringing information so that they're going to have to do something. We're going to remind them of their trust responsibilities, and our treaty rights to protect our natural resources, and sacred sites."
A major issue that percolated to the forefront of the day was a goal to get a 500-year-old relic – The Doctrine of Discovery – revoked.
“The Dakota Access Pipeline crisis is a direct result of the United States government using the religious underpinnings of U.S. federal law against our nations,” Chairman JoDe Goudy of the Yakama Nation explained regarding the doctrine in a press statement issued during the Native Nations Rise march. “These religious underpinnings are traced to Vatican papal decrees from the fifteenth century that called for the subjugation of non-Christian nations, and they are being utilized against our Native nations and peoples to this day. This is the precedent that is relied upon for the continuous failed attempts to protect our resources in the federal courts.”
“The United States government claims the ‘right of Christian Discovery’ to dominate our nations, lands, and waters,” added Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “This claimed ‘right’ is stated in U.S. Supreme Court decisions—starting with Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823, and reaffirmed by Tee-Hit-Ton v. U.S. in 1955, City of Sherrill, N.Y. v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York in 2005, and many others.”
Revocation of the doctrine will obviously be a difficult goal to achieve, but the key is getting the stakeholders to listen, said many of the day’s participants.
Beyond that challenge, the most prominent message shared throughout the day was that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not alone. Solidarity knit the large, diverse group together, regardless of race.
Like Alana from the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, many were, as she said, "proud and happy to be here today, and finally making a statement,” as was her friend, Cher, who added that "it is powerful here and people gathered together."
"It's an honor to be here in Washington, D.C., to stand for all nations. I'm just unbelievably moved by the amount of amazing people here," shared Sheridan, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member and rancher with a 2,000-acre plot she and her family have worked on the reservation for nearly two centuries.
Another common feeling was empowerment. A participant from Ponka Tribe of Oklahoma with several generations in tow – her daughters, granddaughter, niece along with several friends – said that "they were all coming together again for the generations to come and feeling empowered and strong."
"We're having thousands of earthquakes, and the Ponka people are dying of environmental genocide,” she said. “So we have concerns over the direction that is taking place here in Washington, D.C. No one seems to want to live within the natural laws. They want to make laws to kill us."
Others were harsh in their assessments. A marcher who didn't give her name remarked that she didn't "know how [Trump] lives because he doesn't have a heart, nor do I know how he stands because he doesn't have a spine." Another said, "[Trump] needs to give us back our land, he needs to give us back our country so that we can show him how it needs to be taken care of because he has no idea. He's completely struggling."
An unidentified Native Nations Rise march attendee from Navajo was more judicious: "I really hope that he sits down and gets with the people and makes some way that we can move forward together. I think he needs to come and visit the Indigenous Peoples.”
As the march approached the Trump Hotel and the crowd slowed, a marcher named Neil observed, "It's going to be a long reckoning," and he encouraged the president to "honor the treaties," words that comprised another common concern.
Jael, an Oglala Lakota grandmother whose husband was carrying their grandson the length of the protest route, had a thoughtful message for Trump. "Leadership means listening, listening to the people that you have been called to serve,” she said. “People are speaking loudly, and it's time to listen and follow where their values are. Indigenous people have an incredible form of leadership and you can learn from it." She urged the president to engage in dialogue as Chairman Archambault had tried to do, unsuccessfully, early on in Trump's administration, and to mimic the chairman’s integrity and leadership.
"I feel like what we're witnessing that isolation that comes with extreme wealth, and that you're not connected with what's happening on the ground, and the realities that a system of oppression creates," Jael continued.
As a flexible, 40-foot black snake made of hoops overlaid with black nylon reminiscent of a Chinese dragon wove its way overhead supported by sticks held by a dozen people in front of the White House, indigenous members of a Tibetan tribe sang a prayer in support of their American counterparts. While few onlookers understood the language, its sentiment was not lost on participants: The resolution to this problem in large part requires prayer and passion.
As Maiva from the Society of Native Nations in Texas summed up, "If Trump doesn't want to think of us, why doesn't he think of what he carries in his own heart – Joseph, Arabella, Kai, and Theodore – [some of] his grandchildren. Think of their future, of the water they're going to need."