Water protectors take the fight to Trump’s door

March 15, 2017

Rene Rougeau and Leonard Klein report from Washington, D.C., on the recent Native Nations Rise events--and some of the emerging debates in the movement.

CARRYING "MNI Wiconi" and "Keep it in the soil" signs, and chanting "D-A-P-L, Army Corps can go to hell," thousands of Native and non-Native activists flooded through Washington, D.C., streets on March 10.

The Native Nations Rise rally and march from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters to the White House capped a week of actions in Washington, which included water ceremonies, panels and meetings, an interfaith service at the National Cathedral, and a tipi camp near the Washington Monument.

As a snowy drizzle fell on the gathering march packed into G Street NW, organizers had to move the front of the march up the block a number of times to accommodate the new forces arriving from every bus and metro stop in the area.

Many of the thousands of Native and non-Native protesters had participated in the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, bringing the signs, slogans and solidarity of the Oceti Sakowin camp to D.C. Banners reading "Defend the sacred" and "We stand with Standing Rock" could be seen throughout the crowd.

Thousands mobilized for the Native Nations Rise demonstration in Washington (Leonard Klein | SW)

It took several protesters to handle the 30-foot-long black snake puppet, with "No pipeline" stenciled on its flank. Water protectors at Standing Rock had referred to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as the "black snake," a reference to a Lakota prophecy of destruction and desecration.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters has been the site of numerous protests in the battle against DAPL because of the Corps' role in ignoring treaties and the law as the project was fast-tracked and rerouted so Energy Transfer Partners could complete its pipeline.

The Corps did nothing to stop construction until December 2016, just as U.S. military veterans were joining the Standing Rock camp, vowing to defend the water protectors from an imminent eviction order.

In order to avoid scenes of militarized North Dakota police and sheriffs fighting military vets, the Corps suddenly demanded an environmental impact study--which it had not ordered earlier, in contradiction to its own standard practices. The announcement about the impact study was seen as an important victory in the fight against DAPL.

However, under pressure from the new Trump administration, in late January, the Corps reversed itself and issued a permit necessary for drilling under the Missouri River to complete a critical section of the pipeline. In February, the Corps and the Standing Rock Tribal Council agreed that protest camps near the reservation would be cleared.

CHANTS OF "City by city, block by block, we will stand with Standing Rock" echoed through the Washington, D.C., streets as marchers headed for the White House.

The anger at the Corps and Energy Transfer Partners over this turn in the fight against DAPL could be felt in chants such as "You can't drink oil! Keep it in the soil!" and "Black Snake killers!"

FBI agents and D.C. police added their own sour notes along the march route. At several locations, law enforcement had parked K-9 units--an unusual sight for marches of this size in D.C. and a provocation to water protectors following a police-dog attack in North Dakota last year.

There was also a special anger among marchers for Donald Trump. As the demonstration turned up Pennsylvania Avenue, a squad of protestors carrying poles and canvas ran ahead to the Trump International Hotel to erect a tipi in defiance of the obscene display of profits over people.

For the next 30 minutes, marchers chanted, sang and drummed outside the hotel. A contingent led by The Red Nation chanted "Dump Trump," "Fuck white supremacy" and "From Standing Rock to Palestine, occupation is a crime!" among others.

Many of the marchers had traveled hundreds of miles to join the Native Nations Rise events.

"I am here to stand with the people," said Fermin Lopez, of the Pueblo of Pajoaque in northern New Mexico. "I am here for three reasons: one, to fight for Indigenous rights; two, to fight for our right to exist; and, three, to fight for the water."

When asked what was important about protesting at the Trump Hotel, Fermin said: "[Trump] will do anything that makes him a million dollars. People like him will do anything for a buck. Money is what is important, not people. It should be the other way around: People should be important. Life should be important."

Cindy Schunk and her daughter, of the Yankton Sioux, came from just six miles downriver from Standing Rock. Cindy said:

I'm here for my daughter. We fish in that water, we swim in it, we live in it. They don't know when that pipeline will leak or burst, and it will leak, affecting all of us downriver.

This is the greatest rising of Natives in years. Trump signed an executive order to continue DAPL and the Keystone XL. These pipelines run through Native lands and violate treaties: Honor our treaties! Water is life. Mni Wiconi. [Natives] have always been oppressed here, it has been going on for seven generations. It's time we have our voice. Native lives matter.

The tipi was disassembled and the march continued to Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Thousands poured into the area to drum, sing and hear speakers.

THE RED Nation again gathered many marchers with a chant that seems to encapsulate not only the relentless attacks from the Trump administration, but also the multipronged resistance to these attacks: "The front line is everywhere! Save our water, save our air!"

But a different set of politics came from the rally stage. Not a single water protector from Standing Rock was part of the scheduled lineup of speakers. Instead, the stage was dominated by celebrities, leaders of non-governmental organizations and politicians, including Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, who has been sharply criticized by some water protectors for agreeing to the dismantling of the camps.

A particularly low blow to Indigenous Hawaiians marching in D.C. was the inclusion on the stage of Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard actively repressed the fight against the Thirty Meter Telescope project on the island of Hawaii. Like Standing Rock, thousands of kia'i, or "guardians," have mobilized to protect Mauna a Wakea, a mountain sacred to Indigenous Hawaiians.

Gabbard, an opportunistic self-promoter, used her military veteran status to grab the spotlight during the self-deployment of 3,000 vets to Standing Rock in December 2016. Gabbard is also notorious as an Islamaphobic bigot and Zionist, putting her completely at odds with the sentiment of the chant that many in the march gladly took up: "From Standing Rock to Palestine, poison water is a crime."

The rally and other events of Native Nations Rising were organized by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Indigenous Environmental Network and the Native Organizers Alliance. It was an important symbol of the ongoing struggle for justice that came into the spotlight because of Standing Rock.

While Archambault's and the tribal council's strategy of confining the fight against DAPL to the courts has been rightly criticized, it was important to revive the spirit of solidarity so evident at Standing Rock--and bring it to Trump's doorstep.

But it was deeply disappointing to those who have been devoted themselves to the struggle for this past year to have the voices of water protectors themselves missing at the rally.

After the official speakers had finished, a small group of water protectors forced their way onto the stage and, bullhorn in hand, challenged what was taking place. Marcus Mitchell (Diné) stated that the politicians and NGO leaders prominent at the rally didn't want water protectors to speak because "[t]hey're afraid of us!"

Marcus was severely injured on the front lines at Standing Rock earlier this year.

During a peaceful prayer action at Backwater Bridge on January 19, the night before Trump's inauguration, Marcus was hit in the face with a bean-bag round fired by Morton County Police, which left him partially blind and damaged his sense of smell, taste and hearing.

Marcus was later discovered by fellow water protectors at a hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota, handcuffed to a bed with an armed guard at his side. He had been denied water and any means of communicating with his family. Immediately following his release from the hospital, Morton County put out a warrant for his arrest.

The fact that this story--one among many similar ones--was deemed by organizers to be unimportant or perhaps too divisive to be heard by the thousands who marched in D.C., is an insult to those called by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to protect the water.

There is a burning irony in the fact that Native Nations Rise promoted the march and rally with an iconic photo of water protector Helen Red Feather, right fist in the air--yet excluded the voices of water protectors from the stage. In a video released shortly before she was evicted from the Oceti Sakowin camp, Red Feather was critical of the tribal government's use of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

A NUMBER of water protectors, members of The Red Nation (TRN) and International Socialist Organization (ISO) members gathered on the evening of March 10 to discuss these issues and how to organize the fight going forward.

Layola Cowboy (Diné) and Sharidynn Denetchiley (Diné), speaking for TRN, and Rene Rougeau (Nuu-Chah-Nulth) of the ISO took the stage for a discussion called "Fight to Win: Native Liberation in the Trump Era."

"Living in Standing Rock taught me something," said Cowboy, a veteran of the protest camps. "We were being forced to start a community at Standing Rock. Organizing means being part of your community...Organizing has changed my life and I am very happy about that."

Denetchiley talked the impacts of environmental and personal racism on her nation. In the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, the number of suicides rose in the 18 months following the August 2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill.

In the spill, some 3 million gallons of wastewater--contaminated with heavy metals, including cadmium and lead and poisons like arsenic--blew out of the mine during an Environmental Protection Agency-monitored cleanup activity. The poison slime flowed into Cement Creek, and then into the Animas River in Colorado, a part of the San Juan River watershed, turning the water a sickly orange.

It took the EPA more than a day to warn the Navajo nation of the pollution of the waters used for drinking and irrigating crops. Heavy metal toxicity can cause a number of fatal outcomes, and is often linked to birth defects.

Yet such environmental racism is just one injustice directed at Natives. Others are much more direct. "A 9-year old girl was kidnapped and raped. We see sex trafficking and drug trafficking linked to the mining 'man-camps.' They have a settler mentality," said Denetchiley.

However, Denetchiley noted that more and more Natives are organizing and working against the priorities of profit-grabbing extractive enterprises. "We can change ourselves and change the world."

Rougeau noted that the battle at Standing Rock and the Native Nations Rise march are "transformative" events. "People taking the streets have power--the power to put pressure on Trump and tribal leaders who don't represent us," Rougeau said. "We outnumber them," Rougeau continued, "and we can out-organize them," earning a sustained round of applause.

Rougeau also talked about what Native sovereignty and the decolonization of native lands might look like concretely: "First, the decriminalization of our cultural practices, our languages, our religions. It means opening up the land; stopping privatization of native lands. It means listening to Natives."

THE NATIVE Nations Rise events in Washington helped energized the movement for Native rights and against poisonous pipelines, but it also highlighted a number of discussions about how to best organize these struggles that need to continue in the months to come as we continue to mobilize and protest.

On the one hand, there is the strategy of depending on elected politicians and on federal laws to take care of the problems for us. But this leaves untouched the earth-killing drive for profits that is at the heart of capitalism. On the other hand, there are the politics of self-organization and solidarity. These politics challenge the belief that the earth and the people who live on it can continue to live with capitalism.

While there are many fights ahead, and the push to complete DAPL is a setback to the struggle, the meeting pointed to the need for continued united action to beat back the pipelines and fight for Native liberation.

"A key lesson from Standing Rock," Rougeau said, tying together the spirit of solidarity and mutual support felt at the anti-DAPL encampment and in the Native Nations Rise march in D.C., "is the liberation of Native peoples makes possible the liberation of all peoples."

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