Monday, March 20, 2017

Faith Groups join Indigenous People at the Native Nations Rise March on Washington to Demand Indigenous Sovereignty and Environmental Justice

By Ray Chen, Emerson National Hunger Fellow at the Office of Public Witness

Washington D.C. - Friday morning, March 10, indigenous people from across the world gathered to fight for indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice in the Native Nations Rise march. They were joined by allies of the movement, which included clergy and faith-based groups including the Office of Public Witness. This multi-day demonstration was organized by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other grassroots indigenous leaders. It is a part of the movement that stems from the struggle at Standing Rock to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but has now “evolved into a powerful global phenomenon highlight the necessity to respect Indigenous Nations and their right to protect their homelands, environment, and future generations.” In particular, this demonstration follows on the heels of a presidential memorandum sent to the Secretary of the Army to continue the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the destruction the protest camps set-up by the Standing Rock Sioux and Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies. In addition to the actual march Friday morning, indigenous leaders also set-up a symbolic tipi camp on the National Mall from Tuesday to Friday.

Faith leaders gathered before the march to build community and stay out of the biting cold. There were delegations of faith leaders from across the country, as far as Seattle, indigenous and non-indigenous. In an address to the audience, Rev. John Floburg from The Episcopal Church in Bismark called upon the faith community to stand in active solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the fight for Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice. He mentioned that though he had observed general wariness from Native people towards Christians due to role of churches in the subjugation and domination of Native people, he has seen now more of an openness towards Christians as a result of Christians showing up and standing with Native people in the struggle in Standing Rock.

Faith groups joined the march at 10 AM, which started outside the headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers. This site was important because the Army Corps continue to sanction the drilling of the dangerous oil pipeline despite the protest of thousands of people. Indigenous people wore both traditional and non-traditional dress, with signs and banners that proclaimed the existence of the first peoples of Turtle Island and their resistance to the current government efforts’ to deny their sovereignty. Representing hundreds of nations, many wore their tribal flags banners across their shoulders. Despite the cold and the sleet coming down, the tone of the crowd was celebratory but vigilant, with chanting and drums resounding throughout the streets and the smell of burning sage following the crowd. The procession stopped next at Trump Towers, outside of which demonstrators set-up a tipi and led a circle dance around it, symbolically reclaiming the land as Native land.

The march ended in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with speeches from tribal leaders and representatives, as well as performance from indigenous artists. Specifically, Chairman David Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation Tribal Council called for the repudiation of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery that grew out of Papal decrees in the 1400s and sanctioned widespread European domination in the following centuries in the Americas and beyond. The Doctrine of Discovery was codified into American policy through Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) and many other court cases that proclaimed the US government as an inheritor of the European Christian Doctrine of Discovery, and thus having complete dominion over any Indigenous people. Archambault specifically asked for Pope Francis to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery as part of the fight to recognize indigenous sovereignty. In 2016, the General Assembly of PC(USA) joined a growing list of denominations which have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. There was a call for the church go to beyond the framework for reconciliation to adopt the framework of repair that rectifies historic and modern injustices faced by Native people. This was only the first step in the long process of healing that Presbyterians need to undertake.

Reflecting on the event, Office of Public Witness Director Rev. Jimmie Hawkins remarked, “The OPW and the PC(USA) marched in full support of indigenous peoples and their sovereignty. From the site of the pipeline to the halls of power, we stand in solidarity with water protectors at Standing Rock and the broader movement they’ve ignited for indigenous land and water rights. It was indeed powerful to be with so many Presbyterians who came from all over the country, both native and non-native, to assert the treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux.”


Similar demonstrations happened all across the US on Friday in solidarity with the Native March on Washington. Organizers of the Native Nation Rise march has hope that this march is only the beginning of the mass mobilization of Indigenous people and their allies.