Jesse and Chantelle Beeson, members of the Mohawk nation, drove to Washington Friday morning from Akwesasne, N.Y. Mae Hank, who’s Inupiat, flew in from Point Hope, Alaska. Khannie Tobacco, an Oglala Sioux member from Pine Ridge, S.D., made the long journey by bus.
For a few hours on Friday, their paths crossed with those of thousands of other protesters from across the country who had trekked to the capital demanding treaty rights and meaningful dialogue, and calling on President Trump to meet with their leaders. Organizers of the Native Nations Rise march say it was intended as a show of solidarity against a federal government that has long shunted aside indigenous concerns on a range of environmental, economic and social issues.
With wet snow falling, the demonstration started just east of Verizon Center, as the marchers set out on a course through downtown. Despite the foul weather, the protesters were in good spirits, cheering loudly and chanting, “We’re cold, we’re wet, We ain’t done yet!” Office workers peered out of windows, some waving or giving the thumbs-up.
“I’ve never really protested before, but this is so important for everyone,” said Elizabeth Turnipseed who came to the march with her husband David, a member of the Puyallup tribe in Washington state. “Our waters are being destroyed, and I’m just tired of them disrespecting Mother Earth.”
Shortly after 11 a.m., demonstrators reached the Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. There, they erected a teepee and chanted: “Donald Trump has got to go!” and “Shame!”
The march was led in part by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which has been involved in a long-standing dispute over the Dakota Access pipeline. The tribe has argued in court that the 1,172-mile pipeline threatens its drinking water, crosses sacred lands and was approved by the government without adequate consultation.
As the pipeline battle played out last year in a remote section of one of the country’s least populated states, it was slow to gain national attention. But by midsummer, Standing Rock’s struggle began to resonate with a growing coalition of Indians and environmentalists. The dispute soon galvanized hundreds of tribes to offer support and funding to the Standing Rock Sioux and it also helped propel a new wave of activism and engagement among Native Americans across the country.
Guy Jones, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who now lives in Dayton, Ohio, said he wasn’t sure how many people would turn out for Friday’s march. As wave after wave of demonstrators walked past, he expressed his amazement.
“Two years ago I had to explain to everyone where Standing Rock was. Now the whole world knows where Standing Rock is,” said Jones, 61. “It has become a symbol.”
Work on the $3.8 billion pipeline, which is owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, was halted in December by the Obama administration. The Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would look at alternate routes for the pipeline and that it would undertake an environmental-impact statement.
But in January, President Trump signed an executive order giving the pipeline project the go-ahead. The Army Corps granted an easement for the oil company to drill under a reservoir on the Missouri River that is adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and construction resumed in early February. The company has said it would be just a number of weeks before up to 550,000 barrels of oil a day can begin flowing through the pipeline.
The Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes have filed a joint lawsuit against the pipeline project in federal court. A judge’s ruling is expected later this month or in April.
Benjamin Norman, a member of Virginia’s Pamunkey tribe who lives in Manassas, said he was taking part in the march because the Standing Rock tribe’s struggle is felt by indigenous people across the country.
“So many environmental risks are placed on or near reservations when there are other options,” he said. “If we can have some sort of win here, it can have a big impact.”
Eryn Wise spent four months at Standing Rock last year, becoming one of the leaders of the International Indigenous Youth Council, a group formed at the protest site to give voice to the many young Indians who had traveled to join the movement.
“I think that most people came to Standing Rock for the same reason I did,” said Wise, 26, a member of the Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. “We’ve never been a part of a movement that represented us in such a powerful and important way. An indigenous-led resistance.”
For Wise, who served as the emcee for the protest rally in Lafayette Square across from the White House, the pipeline’s approval doesn’t mean the battle is over.
“I want people to feel like we haven’t been defeated. My heart is broken but I am so deeply moved by everything we accomplished,” she said. “There is an ongoing threat to indigenous rights to our sacred lands and resources. But before Standing Rock, no one was having these conversations.”