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Graham Lee Brewer

Special to Indian Country Today

TULSA, Okla. — Thousands of people filled the streets of downtown Tulsa on Saturday, including a number of Indigenous activists and medical professionals who came out to lend support to protests led largely by Black Lives Matter.

Apollonia Piña, a nurse and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and a group of peers started their afternoon at the Gypsy Coffee House, where they chatted and used red duct-tape to fasten crosses onto their vests, helmets and backpacks.

A group of medical professionals heads toward the 19,000-seat BOK Center in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)
Apollonia Piña, EMT and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as she stands outside the medical tent at the Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District of Tulsa Friday, June 19. (Photo by Graham Lee Brewer)

Before long, the group heard skirmishes were already breaking out, so they hustled toward the 19,000-seat BOK Center, the site of President Donald Trump’s campaign rally. The event was believed to be the biggest indoor gathering the country has seen since coronavirus restrictions began in March.

Piña and the others joined protesters near the entrance to the secured area outside the stadium, where Trump supporters and opponents squared off amid an undercurrent of tension. At one point, law enforcement in tactical and riot gear pushed back the barricade, forcing demonstrators and some vendors selling T-shirts and hats to scramble out of the way.

Among the protesters downtown were artist Yatika Fields, Osage, Cherokee and Creek, and Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee, an activist and writer. They walked among the crowd waving a large pig puppet that Fields created, and joined in chants of "Hands up, don't shoot!"

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Several nearby businesses had boarded up their windows in advance of Trump's rally to avoid any potential damage.

“It’s so surreal, the concrete barricades, the fences,” Piña said of the scene Friday.

Piña and the other Indigenous nurses had been making plans to help for weeks, ever since the rally was announced.

Some Black leaders in Tulsa previously voiced concerns about the visit leading to violence. It was happening amid protests over racial injustice and policing across the U.S. and in a city that has a long history of racial tension

Officials said they expected some 100,000 people in Tulsa's downtown.

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Turnout at the rally was lower than the campaign predicted, with a large swath of standing room on the stadium floor and empty seats in the balconies. Trump had been scheduled to appear at an event outside the stadium within a perimeter of tall metal barriers, but it was abruptly cancelled.

As the rally concluded, crowds again began building in the streets. An Indigenous group drummed as protesters started surrounding a group of police vehicles in the road.  

Paul Williams, Choctaw, said the scene felt "like history repeating itself." 

He's from Oklahoma City but felt he needed to travel to Tulsa for the day's events so he could support fellow Natives who were out demonstrating.

There was a tense moment as a line of police vehicles and a bus full of National Guard members tried to make their way through the main protest crowd near a BOK Center gate. Protesters met them head-on, and a line of police finally backed away slowly as the crowd shouted, "Who do you serve?"

But the crowds died down as the night wore on. 

Piña and the other medics followed many of the protesters as they made their way back to the Greenwood District, where several dozen blocks of black-owned businesses were burned in a 1921 massacre. 

Spirits were high among demonstrators and allies late Saturday.

"I feel good," Piña said as she rested along the road on the edge of downtown. "Things honestly didn't get as bad as we expected."

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Graham Lee Brewer, Cherokee Nation, is an associate editor covering Indigenous affairs at High Country News and an Indian Country Today contributor based in Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter: @grahambrewer.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.