WASHINGTON, D.C.—Mni wiconi—"water is life"—appear to be empty words to the federal government, but they now constitute a battle cry for Native nations as they rise together in the U.S. capital today to voice their discontent with the Trump administration's policies regarding indigenous rights and power.
Harkening back to some of the greatest battles between American Indian tribes and the federal government, the latest broad-scale fight for Native American sovereignty and justice has ironically stemmed from years-long Sioux Nation efforts—not far from the site of Custer's last stand and the Wounded Knee Massacre in North Dakota—to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Peaceful protests, rallies and court proceedings have been mainstays of the effort against shifting federal positions on what is widely known in Sioux culture as the Prophecy of the Black Snake.
Today, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe brings the battle to Washington D.C., as one of the tribes whose water from Lake Oahe will be immediately affected by the pipeline both religiously and practically. Joining many citizens from the tribe who have made the trek to D.C. are thousands of Indians from hundreds of federally recognized as well as unrecognized tribes in what has been billed as a “Native Nations Rise” march starting at the headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal department whose decision led to the fight in which the tribe is embroiled, and ending near the White House.
“We needed to bring prayer and people power to the streets of D.C. to remind President Trump, the administration and Congress that we stand united, inter-tribally,” said Judith LeBlanc, a citizen of the Caddo Tribe and director of the Native Organizers Alliance, one of the three co-organizers of the march. “We are ready for public education and a legal struggle to protect the right of all tribes to exercise their control and their historic moral and spiritual oversight of their land, air, and water.”
"We are after free, prior and informed consent," added Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, another march organizer. "My prayer is that Donald Trump as a new president will open up his mind and allow his heart to see why Native nations' tribal youth and elders have come to D.C. to ask for support of our rights to be recognized."
Tribal leadership, Goldtooth noted, is especially concerned that the president will make good on his urge to privatize natural resources in Indian country—something that was hinted at by Trump transition officials immediately after his election, but which they have since backed away from.
Tribes worry that Trump “will fast track development of fossil fuels in Indian country, leading to more oil and gas pipelines, and more coal trains in a network concerned about climate change," Goldtooth said, adding that showing the world "how Trump is treating his first peoples" is one big outcome he hopes will happen as a result of the march.
Organizers also want the public to know that this gathering is not just about the Dakota Access Pipeline, even though it now serves as the symbol of all that's wrong with the government-to-government relationship that tribes and the federal government are supposedly involved in. Tribes point to the Trump administration's fast-track actions on the pipeline sans meaningful consultation and environmental review serving as the tipping point for Indian country by making a mockery of free, prior and informed consent—the right of every other sovereign nation in the world. They hope to make the point that the federal government, in going forward with the pipeline against the tribes’ wishes, abdicated its role as trustee to protect the tribes' rights and resources, and violated their sovereignty and self-determination.
LeBlanc said her organization honed the message in order to reach allies outside of Indian country and to help the Sioux tribes build the capacity required to support the indigenous rights movement they have ignited. Already more than 300 tribes have declared support for Standing Rock, and many non-Native people and institutions have joined in the cause. Divestment from banks and institutions that have financially supported the pipeline has become a major tool in their war chest in recent months in addition to the political activism that tribes have become involved in. Moving forward, pipeline opponents deem these to be their most effective instruments of power until the courts affirm their rights.
Organizers have high hopes that today’s march will serve as a new beginning of mass mobilization by Indigenous Peoples and like-minded groups. And they already have their next rally point in sight, scheduled for April 29 at the People’s Climate Movement March in D.C.
"In the end the struggle [has become] one for sovereignty,” LeBlanc said, because the tribe has been protecting its “right to say 'no,' just as any elected government did in Bismarck” when it rejected a pipeline route that would have brought it through their community.
And the march goes on.