WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly a year of environmental protests across the nation culminated Friday with thousands taking to the streets for the Native Nations Rise March on Washington.
Led in part by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which built several tepees in the shadow of the National Monument, protesters played music, burned sage, carried signs and sang out in protest of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline being built by Dakota Access.
Though the Obama administration halted construction on 1,172-mile pipeline in December so that the Army Corps of Engineers could consider alternate routes, President Donald Trump quickly removed the obstruction upon taking office.
An easement to drill beneath the Missouri River reservoir began in February, and protesters who had set up an encampment around the site months earlier were kicked off the grounds.
Native Americans say the pipeline will pollute the water and despoil ground they consider scared.
The Cheyenne River Sioux joined in the Standing Rock’s bid for an injunction, but a federal judge shot down the challenge earlier this month.
Alyssa Yellow Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux and resident of Cannonball, North Dakota, said she came to Friday’s march with five charter buses full of protesters.
“All of these people stand with Standing Rock,” she said, motioning to the throngs of supporters who had gathered before Trump Tower in Washington. “We have come from all over Mother Earth to stand in protest of the continued building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
Yellow Eyes, who works as a traditional cultural specialist para-archeologist and tribal monitor for the Standing Rock, said it became imperative to take the movement to Washington after the encampments in North Dakota were shuttered.
“We were told to stand down at the camps, and right now they have a court decision to keep the oil flowing,” she said. “But we filed our injunction, and we will fight to keep our water a part of our religious sacrament.”
Completion of the pipeline is imminent, but oil has not yet begun to flow.
With tears welling in her eyes, Yellow Eyes held a sign demanding respect for indigenous rights and peoples. Her husband, Thomas Bullhead stood by her side.
In addition to resisting the pipeline threatening their community, the protesters say they plan to mount a larger challenge against all potential threats to sacred, sovereign lands.
“The common people of Standing Rock are being bulldozed and plowed,” Yellow Eyes said. “Our ancestors have been wiped away. We can’t drink oil, and water is the most sacred thing, not only to me, but to you, and everyone on this earth.”
Yellow Eyes and Bullhead live so close to the drilling site that they can see it in both directions from their home.
“This affects me, this affects my children, this effects my heart and everything that I am about,” she said.
Grasping onto her sign, and choking through her words, Yellow Eyes offered advice to anyone who follows the story of the build and the pending lawsuit.
“Talk to us,” she said. “Follow us as closely as possible. This [protesting] is a rebuilding of our people. Some of our people have been so historically traumatized and forgotten who we are. We need a rebirth, a renaissance and maybe water will bring us all together now. Just because they closed the camps, just because they kicked the protesters out, they took the money away, it doesn’t mean the story ends here because the water keeps flowing. How the grass grows, the water flows.”
Billows of burning sage wafted through throngs of protesters who stood before Trump Tower. Michael Horse, a member of the Yaqui Nation, said he came from San Francisco for the event.
Horse, an actor who once appeared on the popular television show “Twin Peaks,” held onto a sign depicting a Native woman facing off with a vicious black snake.
“We are here today to protest all of the fossil fuel industry and to tell everyone and the government that we will not stand for this,” he said. “I’ve been an activist my whole life and it seems like all the talk from Congress is just lip service.”
Horse said completion of the Dakota Access pipeline will not end the protest.
“This new administration has been a kind of awakening to everybody,” he said. “They woke all the kids up, and this genie is not going back into the bottle. People who were never out in the streets are out today. I like to see that this movement is being led by women this time too. I’ll follow these women anywhere.”