Photo Credit: Pavla Frazier
For 5 days, Native American tribal leaders, ranchers, and farmers made their united presence known on the National Mall, as they peacefully demonstrated against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Their message was: Reject and Protect. On the final day, everyone in solidarity with those who lived along the proposed route were invited to walk in procession up Independence Avenue, to present a hand-painted tepee to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, in President Obama’s name.
Over two thousand people, from around the country and some from overseas, came to participate in this ceremony. Showing solidarity from the Midwest, our busload of 48 activists and concerned citizens from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois arrived at the Reject and Protect encampment just in time to hear the voices of the front lines. From all along the pipeline route, Indigenous leaders and landowners shared their stories, spoke of the threats to the water and land we all depend on, and demonstrated their resolve to set aside borders – political, racial, geographic – to speak up for our future generations.
From Nebraska and South Dakota, leaders in the Cowboy Indian Alliance stood together as stewards of the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under the proposed pipeline. From First Nations in Alberta, Canada, indigenous organizers, like Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewayan Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, shared with the young Alliance their experiences grappling with the TransCanada oil company and facing water contamination and sickness from tar sands extraction in the North.
Billowing behind the speakers and their families, for all to see, was the painted tepee, representing the common sacred water, sacred land and common hope for coming together to protect their legacy and those who would bear the effects of climate change.
Riding the energy of these speeches, the crowd formed a procession behind indigenous leaders and landowners on horseback, the painted tepee canvas stretched behind them. With a final blessing, the tepee was delivered, calling on President Obama to honor his word and his name, given to him by the Lakota and Crow in 2008: “Oyate Owicakiye Wicasa / Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish,” translated as “Man Who Helps the People” and “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
Regathering at the encampment, tribal leaders, farmers, and ranchers of the Alliance thanked those who made the five day demonstration possible and honored this moment as a beginning. One of the organizers of Reject and Protect, Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, followed by confirming the resolve of the Alliance to continue opposing tar sands development, to protect current and future generations. Inviting the crowd to concentrate their will and unify our hearts, Dallas Goldtooth of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe led the crowd in a chant: “When one falls, we all fall.” The energized and condensed spectators became a lively and attentive mass that was immediately swept into the words of Frank Waln, a young hip hop artist from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe: “When I rise, you rise.”
I heard many messages that day, some to President Obama, some to neighbors on the front lines, and some to the audience that did not carry the same experience as those directly in the path of extreme extraction and corporate power. Ultimately, from out of the many stories shared and the collective actions of this extended ceremony, swelled a resounding hope and deep commitment to support each other in the long struggle ahead.