"Wake the hell up!"
It’s mid-morning in Judiciary Square, a maze of government offices in the heart of the nation’s capital. Well over 2,000 people are gathered in the roadway in front of the Government Accountability Office, headquarters to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The strong scent of burning sage drifts through the poncho-clad crowd, huddled in shelter from driving sleet on the late winter morning. Nevertheless, G Street is alive with the sounds of drums and thousands chanting "mni wiconi" - "water is life" in Lakota.
This is Native Nations Rise. Thousands gathered in Washington, DC on Friday, hoping to send the new administration a defiant message that, despite the recent conclusion of a long chapter in the struggle against the Dakota pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies aren't done fighting just yet.
“Our ancestors have inhabited that land for over 8,500 years,” said one Native American marcher, asked about the significance of the remote Standing Rock reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. “Our writings are still on the rocks, we use the plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes – that land has a pulse, as does the entire Earth.”
It’s been almost exactly a year since the struggle between the indigenous community and Army Corps of Engineers began with a protest on lands marked for the construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline. Over 300 injuries and nearly 500 arrests later, the project is moving again, revived by a new administration under the promise of promoting job growth, casting aside public outcry and, occasionally, even bloodshed in the name of protection water resources.
Native Nations Rise, billed as “Standing Rock’s next stand,” was a chance to vent that frustration while plotting a course forward for the indigenous rights movement and anti-big oil movements. Leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux nation issued a call to action shortly after Trump’s election and the revival of the Dakota pipeline project. And, despite the initially miserable weather, people answered. By the thousands.
“Wake the hell up,” said Mike Willenborg, in DC by way of Detroit. Willenborg, a veteran of the 1960’s civil rights movement, drew comparisons between that struggle and the present day fight for Standing Rock, where he’d been months prior. “I’d tell the Corps that the cultures that were here before us are valid, and the property they own is valid,” he added.
After a round of chants including “black snake killer” and “water is life," thousands set off on a long march through downtown Washington for the White House. The sleet continued, but the march - including many who had journeyed to DC from North Dakota and further - didn’t stop.
A dozen or so activists with long wooden poles wrapped in white pieces of fabric worked their way to the front of the march on Pennsylvania Avenue. They sprinted up to the Trump International Hotel in formation. “We’re building a teepee,” they announced to media, whom they attempted to keep back while the tall structure was erected over a matter of minutes. Hotel security looked on from the behind the barricaded entrance, and hotel guests peered out from the rooms above.
Within minutes, a tall tent overshadowed the entrance. Marchers climbed statues and a nearby rally-owned bus for a glimpse of a Native American prayer dance at the doorstep to Trump’s DC property. Before long, they were on the march again. Destination: the White House.
“What they’re literally doing is genocide,” said a woman of the urgency underlying Friday’s action, “as soon as that pipeline breaks, in 30 minutes or less, all of the water in the reservation is contaminated.”
Marchers gathered in Lafayette Square outside the White House for a rally with a wide range of speakers, including indigenous activist Faith Spotted Eagle, who received one protest vote from Washington State in the electoral college. Others continued to peacefully protest in the park for hours after the march reached its final destination.
“I’m fighting for native sovereignty, for cultural sovereignty,” said Carl Moore, dressed in traditional indigenous garments. “Native Americans have been trampled for years, this country is built upon oppression of Native Americans, of black people – globally, actually.”
He added: “I’m here to fight for humanity.”