We Are Still Here


Pam Arifian

Lindsey Peterson

1/25/2019

Reflections from the first Indigenous Peoples March, January 18, 2019, Washington DC
See a Photo Album from the march here

On the steps outside the Department of the Interior, home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, First Nations and indigenous people and allies from around the world came together in a demonstration of presence, unity and leadership on Friday, January 18, 2019. Welcomed by the smell of sage smoke and the steady beat of the drum, we gathered to begin the day in prayer to all four directions, in gratitude for the multitude of nations present and the resilience and ancestral love that each person carries with them. 

“All the grandmothers are here today,” Great-Grandmother Mary Lyons said on the steps at the BIA during the ceremony. All the grandmothers are here. All the ancestors.  

The first Indigenous Peoples March took place in Washington, D.C. (Piscataway-Conoy territory) on January 18, 2019. Organized by the Indigenous Peoples Movement and a coalition of indigenous and solidarity groups, the March brought indigenous peoples from around the world together as one to elevate the injustices facing indigenous women, children, two-spirits and men, and to honor and celebrate their resilience against hundreds of years of oppression and genocide. It was also like a joyful, celebratory family reunion.  

Following the prayer ceremony, we marched from the Department of the Interior to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For the next five hours, we listened to speakers, singers, dancers and truth tellers from nations around the world as tourists and school groups streamed past on their way up the stairs to Lincoln’s statue.  

“We are a loving people, a generous people, a strong people and we are still here,” declared Paulette Jordan on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Jordan is a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and also recent candidate for Governor of Idaho.  

Photo by Kristin Stinavage

We are still here.  

“We are still here” was the unofficial refrain, the rallying cry of the Indigenous Peoples March. Indigenous people are calling for far more than mere existence. They rally, not just in this one-day march, but in their powerful ongoing witness, for the protection of the water, for water is life and we are water; they advocate for the land, and they carry ceremony that nurtures and heals.

But indigenous people have to keep declaring we are still here until we hear them, and until we as a nation behave accordingly. We, descendants of the pilgrims and puritans, or descendants of immigrants, who have embraced the story of white supremacy and/or the Doctrine of Discovery, all of us who have basked in the privileges afforded therein. Native peoples have to keep affirming, demanding their existence, because we have told or participated in the telling of the story of their erasure, in our schools, our monuments, and in our glorification of colonization. In so doing, we have given ourselves passive permission to act as if they indeed were not here, or at least that their lives do not matter.  

We are still here, that drum declares.

The indigenous people declaring we are still here and organizing to make their presence known, such as those organizing and leading the Indigenous Peoples March in DC, convey a quality of still-here presence that we all would be well-served to pay attention to. It is a quality of presence that centers stewardship of creation for the seventh generation; it comes out of a radical presence with creator embodied in creation, and it knows and acts on the knowledge that we are water. It is a generous, loving, strong presence.  

This message was amplified by the singing, the ever-present sacred sage smoke, the dancing and by nearly every speaker over the course of the five-hour rally. As they lifted up the issues facing their communities, their stories stand in direct opposition to the dominant story of indigenous erasure that afflicts this country and countries around the world.  

As one people, we shouted the names of some of the missing and murdered indigenous women whose disappearance has not made it to the newsroom or been investigated with the conviction afforded, for example, missing white women and girls. We listened to the stories of indigenous groups around the world fighting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure on their unceded territories (e.g., Line 3Bayou BridgeCoastal Gaslink through Wet’suwet’en territory), and about the suffering experienced by indigenous groups proximal to extraction and transport facilities of fossil fuels. We heard about the lack of running water and uranium poisoning on reservations, and the disproportionate incarceration and mortality rates of indigenous folks around the world. We stood in solidarity with land and water protectors everywhere putting their lives on the line to heal the Earth Mother.

We are still here, each voice declared.  

“We are in the time of the seventh fire. We are the ones that are going to lead us down the green path. We need to come together in unity to bring on the 8th fire.”  - Sachem Hawkstorm

Sachem Hawkstorm is the hereditary chief of the Schaghticoke First Nations, and a delegate of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Schaghticoke First Nations is a member of the International Tribal Treaty Council.  

Photo by Pam Arifian

In his speech, Sachem Hawkstorm referred to the Anishinaabe prophecy, which says that we are in the time of the 7th Fire, that we are on the scorched path that will lead to our demise. The scorched path is the path of least resistance, but in unity, we can choose to travel the green path, which will lead to the 8th fire, a time of peace, unity and love.  

This prophecy of the 8th fire sounds familiar to us. It echoes the stories we read in the Bible about Shalom, about earth as it is in heaven. It is the just, resilient and sustainable future for all people that we were all helping to create on that day and all days, together. 

The march had a big impact on both of us. 

Lindsey shared that “the whole day I felt saturated in a profoundly generous love. Each speaker or artist, they spoke and moved as an offering with and in creator. We were all included in it. It was healing and activating.”

Pam shared her reflection: "The march ended in a round dance, the drums guiding our feet like a heartbeat as we chanted we are still here. I saw my own joy and belonging reflected in all of the faces around the circle as we danced. I left the march feeling buoyed by the hope, love, generosity, empowerment and resilience."

And then... 

As Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe and tribal rights attorney, said to MSNBC:  "I felt unsafe, I could feel the energy in the air change… [that it was] time to get out of here.”  
 
Houska accurately described that shift in energy leading up to the well-documented confrontation between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Covington Catholic High School students that took place after the close of the march. We felt the tension and aggression radiating from both groups as we passed them separately when we left the march less than 30 minutes before the confrontation occurred. It’s easy to imagine how quickly and dangerously the situation could have escalated.   

Elder Nathan Phillips (Omaha Nation), Marcus Frejo (Pawnee/Seminole/Mexican) and their small group of supporters showed bravery, honor and resilience when they led with prayerful song and drum beats to step between the two groups. Their courageous witness was rooted in their culture, which is part of what we had witnessed all day at the rally.  

The discussion about the “controversy” surrounding the snap judgments of public opinion resulting from various versions of the videos of this incident, and the introduction of student Nicholas Sandmann’s defense (generated by a public relations firm), has twisted the most important part of this story. It is contributing to the erasure of indigenous leadership from this story, and from the incredible witness of the historic and deeply meaningful march.

It also steals Elder Nathan Phillips’ humanity. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think about what could have happened if, for example, Phillips were an elder white man being mobbed and jeered at by these students. Taken a step further, given the often lethal tendency by white people to make snap judgments regarding people of color, imagine what could have happened if the students were black or brown and Phillips was white? In either scenario, it’s hard to fathom that the confrontation would have had a peaceful resolution, or that a student would be granted national media attention to defend himself or would receive an invitation to the White House.  

Marcus Frejo was singing and drumming beside Elder Nathan Phillips during the confrontation. In a facebook post on January 20, 2019, Frejo wrote, "Somewhere in that circle that spirit was moving, I was told that when that happens it slowly moves out the sickness. We were in the center of that circle, pushing the good medicine outward. Everything happens for a reason at a certain time and people are chosen to do great things.” 

This is the story we want to lift up first and foremost, to combat indigenous erasure, and to lift up the inclusion, beautiful diversity, respect, the honor for ancestors and future generations and all relations, which we witnessed all day. We want to elevate the peaceful, prayerful leadership of Elder Nathan, Marcus Frejo and indigenous leaders more broadly, and the generous healing that they brought in with the drum to defuse the confrontation. 



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