After more than a year of protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota
, thousands of Native Americans and activists brought the fight to the nation’s capital to demand indigenous rights and raise awareness about issues affecting the communities.
The event, the culmination of a four-day protest in the capital, was led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has been involved in a longstanding dispute with authorities over the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota, culminating in a two-mile march through Washington and rally in front of the White House
With snow falling, the Native Nations Rise march took off from the headquarters of the army corps of engineers, the federal agency that authorized construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline. The march wound through the capital and along the way demonstrators paused in front of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania
Avenue to erect a tipi.
At the White House, protesters demonstrated, danced and prayed in what organizers say is a show of solidarity against the federal government that has a long history of discounting tribal concerns on a range of environmental, economic and social issues.
The protesters, some dressed in traditional Native American clothing, snaked through the crowd carrying a black inflatable tube representing an oil pipeline. It was painted with the words: “No pipeline”.
Nearby, a woman helping carry a large sign that read “This is Stolen Land!” led a chant: “Occupation is a crime, from Standing Rock to Palestine.”
LeeAnn Eastman, of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe on the Lake Traverse Indian reservation in South Dakota, doubted Trump was standing at the window watching their protest – but she said their message was breaking through.
“They woke up a giant when they told us they were just going to put this pipeline through our land, our sacred land,” she said. “We do everything peacefully, prayerfully, but we’re not going to let him just walk all over us like that and contaminate our water.”
Eastman, who spent the last seven months camping on the Standing Rock reservation protesting against the pipeline with activists there, doesn’t expect to change Trump’s mind about the project.
“We know he has closed his heart and his mind to us as he did the rest of the nation,” she said. “We’re still praying for him – but it seems like we’ll have to go about this another way.”
The Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access pipeline became an international rallying cry for indigenous rights and climate change activism, drawing thousands of Native Americans to the rural area of Cannon Ball, North Dakota
“We stood in peace and prayer and yet we were shot with rubber bullets and teargas, concussion grenades and water cannons,” said Bill Left Hand, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, who is involved in a lawsuit over the pipeline. “There is an obvious violation of our civil rights and our rights as indigenous people.”
Opponents of the $3.8bn pipeline say the project threatens their water supply from the Missouri river, crosses sacred land and was approved without proper consultation with tribal leaders and without a thorough study of impacts.
During the days leading up to the rally, Native American leaders and activists met with members of Congress to press them to protect tribal rights. Leaders also set up an encampment of tipis near the Washington monument and held cultural workshops.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was among the supporters at the Native Nations Rise rally on Friday.
“It’s not only about this pipeline,” he said. “It’s about the pipeline of tax subsidies, the pipeline of political brute force that Donald Trump is seeking to put behind the fossil fuel industry. When Exxon runs our foreign policy, that should tell us a lot about the intent of this administration.”
Work on the 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, 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 matter 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.