(Note to readers: I originally wrote this in September—prior to the Keystone XL pipeline delay—and am sharing it because the opposition is ongoing.)
On a late August afternoon, I left Denver to fulfill a week-long direct action training assignment to support one of the environmental movement’s largest civil disobedience actions in Washington D.C. The action was against the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline. I had never been to DC and as I boarded the plane I had no real clear idea of where I was supposed to stay or even how I was going to get there once I found out. At midnight, I was able to make my way to the apartment of a friend of a friend and she was kind enough to lend me a sleeping bag and a sleeping space on her floor.
Though this wasn’t the most comfortable way to spend my first night in DC, I had it better than many who had come before me on a similar mission. Native Peoples, in fact, have made the same journey to the nation’s capital many times with the hope of having their voice heard by those distant powers who craft policies impacting our people. Some have journeyed there at the request of government officials while others have done so without an express invitation. The latter usually do so as representatives of people who have few resources and no clear access to the decision-making process of those who wield institutional power.
This history ran through my mind as I made my way to my first training session. I thought of a journey made nearly 40 years ago by Natives who caravanned across the U.S to arrive in D.C. immediately before the 1972 presidential elections. This was known as the Trail of Broken Treaties and those who made the journey hoped to deliver a 20-point platform to the President of the United States. On their journey they were housed and fed by Natives and allies on the route and they raised money with ad hoc fundraisers. Arriving at their destination, they were not met with fanfare or celebratory crowds. They were not invited to give public speeches and were largely ignored by those in power. That is, until they reached a point of desperation and decided to occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs building
Our strategy wasn’t as dramatic, but to be effective in raising our issue in the public consciousness we felt we needed to match our words with actions, even though we knew the path led to jail. This was not an easy decision for most. Many were nervous or at the very least, fearful of what the experience would be like. Most had never stood in defiance of a police officer giving them orders to leave the area. Most had never been publicly handcuffed in front of cameras and led away to police buses and vans. Even so, over a thousand people ultimately chose to do just that.
A First Nations (Canada) friend and fellow direct action trainer had made this choice that morning and as we stood inside the police barricades, I asked him what swayed his decision. He told me of a leader from his nation who served as an inspiration because this leader had made great personal sacrifices opposing the tar sands and their pipelines. This leader could not be there but my friend had decided to stand in his place as an expression of honor for him.
My friend explained that he did not view himself as an activist and instead identified himself as a youth worker. The young people he worked with will eventually have to make choices about how they face the environmental destruction taking place in their homeland. By taking a stand, he was setting a personal example for them to follow if they so chose. My friend understood this arrest would probably hamper his ability to come back to the U.S. but, in the end, he felt this was the right thing to do.
If we accept that becoming a leader involves a series of experiences, more akin to a journey than a simple destination, we must also recognize this journey is not always an easy one. Often the journey involves hardships, inconveniences and personal setbacks. At the same time, as Native people we have a rich history and tradition to draw from which can guide us during those periods of uncertainty. Our ancestors created pathways and it is up to us to follow in their steps so as to keep the path open for those who come after us.