Native Nations Rise, the Indigenous Peoples’ March to the White House
By Joyce Vining Morgan
We were seven, all from the Guilford Community Church except for me, and all with previous interaction with Native Americans. Pastor Lise Sparrow had joined over 500 clergy who answered the call of Father John Floberg of the Cannonball ND Episcopal Church to come in support of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. She and all three young people in our group had been to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, helping build houses and building friendships with Lakota youth.
My own work was limited to researching news from Standing Rock and contacting former students and colleagues from the Hopi and Navajo Nations, now lawyers with children of their own, who were making frequent trips to Standing Rock. Since little of the news from Standing Rock was reported in the press, I posted all this on social media to get some word out.
So it was a natural for us to join in this march. The march itself is hard to report on, since from within it you see only those near you – but those were both Native and non-Native, bearing signs about indigenous rights, about protecting water sources and protesting the incursions of Big Oil.
Some 500 marchers had come in by bus from the Dakotas, and I saw others from the greater Northeast, from the Midwest and the Southwest. Many Native people were in traditional dress, with some dancing in groups, others drumming and chanting, and one Northern Cheyenne teen dancer from Chicago dancing the whole way in full tribal regalia. Midway along the route, a woman offered us smoke from smoldering sage, a “smudge” for purification and blessing, to waft over ourselves.
We seven were somewhere in the middle of thousands of people, unable to see the beginning or the end of the crowd. The march began outside the headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose actions impacted the status of the Dakota Access pipeline, and was to continue to the White House. The weather was frigid, and the rain predicted turned to sleet – and none of that dampened the spirits of the marchers.
Because of recent government decisions, the march stalled at the Trump Hotel, where a tipi had been raised and slogans became more political. At that point we adults decided to take the group to shelter for warmth and because we had an appointment at Senator Leahy’s office for the young people to communicate their concerns about Native American rights and to ask for the Senator’s support.
In some ways, the most striking moments came before the march itself, inspiring though that was. We went first to the Washington Monument, where a number of tipis had been raised, and where a sacred fire was kept alight. On Thursday night, Indigenous Nations and their allies gathered at the Washington National Cathedral for an evening of prayer in support of “Standing as Stone.” The Episcopal Bishops of Navajoland, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska – some of whom were themselves Native Americans – presided and spoke. Readings and prayers were in Native languages as well as in English. Representatives from the UCC, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Mennonite, Jewish and other congregations and communities also offered prayers. Groups of Native American musicians sang and played traditional instruments both in the long wait for the buses to arrive from the Dakotas, and during the service. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered a final blessing via pre-recorded video.
Two moments stand in sharp relief for me: Father Floberg declined to speak, and instead asked his deacon Brandon Mauai to open the prayers. Deacon Mauai is from the Standing Rock Sioux and spoke movingly about his inner struggle as a Native man grown and nourished by Native spirituality to embrace the faith of a church which had historically oppressed his people. That he has been able to reconcile the two was underscored by the presence of his son as acolyte, serving with the two sons of Father Floberg.
Deacon Mauai was joined by a Native American Episcopal priest and two lay speakers from the Standing Rock Sioux to light smudge sticks, with the help of acolytes John Floberg and Innocent Mauai, and smudge each of the hundreds in the congregation. It may have been the first time that the National Cathedral was redolent with sage rather than with incense.
The next morning our little group joined other groups of “sacred troublemakers” (as the Minnesota UCC called us) from Lutheran, Mennonite, Quaker and UCC churches at First Trinity Lutheran church, and there father Floberg spoke. A generally retiring man, he has been summoned by events to become a leader for the Water Protectors and their allies at Standing Rock. “Wherever you live,” he reminded us, “you are in Indian territory. Do you know what their dreams and sorrows are?” and concluded, “I was able to stand because you were standing with.” And then we went out into the city to stand with.
Photos are scenes from the Indigenous Peoples’ March to the White House on March 10, 2017.
Joyce Vining Morgan is a member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, Vermont.