Reflection: RISE for Climate, Jobs, and Justice
In November of 2016 I helped to lead a march through the streets of Washington D.C., with nearly 7,000 people on my heels, and my aunt Ladonna by my side, rallying awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Back in North Dakota we were still in the thick of the fight to protect this Mni Sose and our Oceti Sakowin relatives, and we’d traveled to D.C. to implore then president Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers to get on the right side of history. I had never had so many people act with conviction on behalf of something I was fighting for, and remember feeling overwhelmed and euphoric simultaneously. We’d been begging people to pay attention. Begging the Obamas to intervene. Begging for the water. Begging for the future of our children. And nothing came of it.
We made our way through the city, and when we reached the Trump tower, a small crowd of Trump supporters booed and cajoled us for trying to stop a pipeline. People behind me were asking if we planned to address those yelling, and you could feel the tension building throughout the crowd. I didn’t know what to do, so I knelt on the ground, put my fist into the air, and began to pray. Nearly two years later, as I walked through the streets of San Francisco documenting the RISE for Climate, Jobs, and Justice March, I watched the organizers stop the crowd for a prayer. This time, there weren’t just 7,000 people. There were 30,000.
Indigenous Peoples from across Turtle Island and the world, led the RISE for Climate, Jobs, and Justice March in the Bay Area which commenced the It Takes Roots – Solidarity to Solutions (Sol2Sol) Week. Indigenous Californians and leaders from Ohlone territory led the “Indigenous Bloc,” which was followed by the Murdered, Missing, Indigenous Women (MMIW) Contingent. Staff carriers and spiritual leaders were at the head of our march, creating a medicinal pathway for us to follow, and the smell of sage and cedar filled the air.
As I went deeper into the march, Mexica dancers shook the ground with their danza, and copal billowed into the sky. When they all came to a halt and knelt down to pray, I was surrounded by fervent whispers in all languages. Even the babies were hushed by the immediate silence. Slowly the drums began to sound and the people rose. We gathered together to recognize that climate change and the eventual environmental disasters surrounding it, impact our relationship to the land, and therefore our food sovereignty, our self-determination, and our relationship to water.
Because of this, we recognize that climate change is directly impeding on our ability to continue our traditional ways of life, and to thrive as indigenous communities because we are often the first to feel detrimental environmental impacts. We also convened to recognize the violence against our land – especially when concerning extractive industries – and see that this violence is also violence against our women. In the MMIW contingent, women wore regalia adorned with images of young women and girls that have been lost to our people. Others held signs with their person’s image and name, carrying not only their truth, but their pain as they walked.
Elder leaders exchanged stories about their displeasure being a part of the climate movement. “I’m not really happy to be here, because I thought these things should be done by now,” said one. Many nodded their head in agreement, and several stated that they’d been working side by side since the 1970’s, and saw limited change in the hearts of non-Indigenous Americans, and little-to-no change with the government honoring or upholding treaty rights. Many of the youth walking near me asked why it was that the elders continued to fight. The grandmas, caught off guard, recovered quickly and said, “So you could be here to ask me that question.”
Nearly two miles later as the parade came to a close, a white woman in a chintzy headdress approached a highly esteemed AIM leader and tribal council person. “Sister!” she declared, “I’m one of you!”
A small crowd quickly assembled around the elder as she asked the woman to remove her headdress, as it was deeply offensive, and a flagrant display of disrespect. After she denied, the group impressed upon her again that it was horrible to walk in front of sacred staffs, with an appropriated representation of a cultural cornerstone atop her head. She turned and quickly ran to a nearby police officer and walked them to the group, saying that she was being verbally assaulted for her “costume”. Several blocks and hundreds of people chanting, “Take it off!” later, the woman was escorted out of the march route by no less than 15 officers, who encased her with outstretched arms.
Infuriated, those of us documenting what had happened returned to Indigenous contingent and I soon saw a patch on the back of a marcher that read, “Your freedom is dependent on genocide and settler violence.” I stopped to photograph it and a little girl behind me said, “That’s my favorite one.” She was holding a hand drawn sign in her hand, and I asked if she had made it herself. She pointed at the center of her drawing and said, “Yes. This guy’s a mess.” The image was of Donald Trump, cash in one fist, and Mother Earth bleeding oil on a stick, with flames burning bright in the background. Remembering that she had mentioned the patch, I asked her why it was her favorite, and if she knew what genocide was. She was taken aback and said, “Don’t YOU?” Later on, I found out that she was newly 8 years old.
When the march reached its end, people separated and began to take part in the creation of multiple 40 foot murals being painted across sections of the street. At first it appeared to be a happy coincidence that everyone was making something beautiful together, then I noticed the human chain link formed around the area. The Society of Fearless Grandmothers formed a blockade that allowed approximately 3,000 climate artists and participants of the march, to complete the world’s biggest street mural. Our own mural was a partial replication and tribute to the art created by Seeding Sovereignty’s Ace Visual Illustrator Jackie Fawn.
It was a reference to business being done with Big-Agriculture through Monsanto and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation – basically a farm in which animals are raised in confinement), and was completed in large part by three young womxn who knew our Executive Director Janet from years past. These astounding womxn sketched out the outline of the image, and countless hands came afterward to fill it in with eco-safe, washable paint.
I walked down the mural promenade and admired everyone’s hard work. Once the march crowd had dispersed in the immediate surrounding area, it was easy to envision a future for our people. People shared food with one another, children played while their parents watched in peace – knowing their kids were safe in the space, and promises were made to continue to build community.
The next morning, I was able to join an Extractive Energies Tour hosted by Sol2Sol and Indigenous Environmental Network. We traveled through the refineries in the local area and learned that rather than holding Big Oil responsible for its impacts on communities such as Richmond and Atchison Village, the communities are instead triggered and re-triggered by alarms alerting them to take shelter in place – which is to seek safety within the building one already occupies, rather than to evacuate the area or seek a community emergency shelter – as no evacuation plans have been made to protect the people from spills or explosions.
While at Atchison Village to view this video made about the Chevron refinery explosion in Richmond, CA, we were asked to simulate shelter in place, which requires you to seal and cover every opening in your home from the outside world. With no ladder, we couldn’t reach the skylights. Without enough tape and tarps, we couldn’t cover every vent. The doors, when opened, disrupted all of our work and trapped the toxins from outside, inside. It was maddening to know that we couldn’t protect ourselves. When I reflected further, I thought about the elders, disabled relatives, and children home alone and unable to protect themselves.
Our journey concluded shortly after the visit to Atchison Village and as we wound around the roads leading out of Richmond, we were confronted by miles of storage tanks and fracking fields, sitting on the coast, threatening the water and the people. The image was burned into my brain as I drove my gas eating, ULEV (ultra-low emissions vehicle) Honda Fit home.
Though we can’t end devastations to the environment in a weekend, we must continually challenge market based solutions to climate change, and work towards a just transition towards a greener economy. My work with Seeding Sovereignty has led me to the brink of frontline battles across Turtle Island in all directions of the medicine wheel, and I feel as though I’m just getting started. Iheedń, Usen.