I was covering the Indigenous People’s March in Washington, D.C. for the Armenian Weekly, when international headlines were made. According to reports, Covington Catholic High School students from Kentucky wearing Make America Great Again hats mocked Nathan Phillips, an Ohama elder, as he was playing his drum and singing. The video of this interaction went viral. Early reports by a student of University of Washington, D.C. say the youngsters were chanting the words “build that wall.”
While international news coverage focused on the debacle with the teenagers, there was much more to the day. The Indigenous People’s March was organized by a coalition of indigenous people to stand up to racism and make visible their histories, struggles and actions. The march of 5,000 started with a prayer circle at the Department of the Interior building, which used to be the Department of War building where US military officials used to plan genocidal attacks on native nations. The day was filled with fiery speeches by a number of influential figures from indigenous communities across the United States.
Demonstrators were first greeted by Gabrielle Tayac, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum, who welcomed the crowd to “Piscataway land,” referring to the once powerful and populous tribal nation that made up the Chesapeake Bay area. “The bones and blood and hopes of our people were taken violently,” explained Tayac. “Now we are in the time of water. The water is rising and so are we.”
There was also a speech from Roberto ’Mukaro’ Borrero, an artist, musician, writer and leading authority on ancient Taíno culture. Taíno is the name of the people and language native to the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico) that existed prior to colonial invasion. “They said we were extinct,” said Borrero, “but no one can make us vanish. We are our water, fire, air and earth. We are one heart, the fire inside of us.”
Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe Grandmother of the Sacred, also spoke. “We celebrate our lives today. Share in the breath of humanity. Today the truth behind hidden histories awakens. Millions of our ancestors are with us. Our footsteps are a drumbeat that will always be here.”
Native women held tremendous power in their matriarchal communities. Women were leaders and were considered sacred, but when the colonialists’ leader refused to deal with them, the women grew disempowered. Native Americans were continually oppressed by US government corruption. They became US citizens in 1924 and only were allowed to vote in some states in 1948. Today, Native women are reclaiming their leadership roles. For example, there are two Native women in the House of Representatives: Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation in Kansas.
Congresswoman Haaland said, “I campaigned for the environment, to heal the earth. We are living in a terrible time. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL will pollute our sacred water. Trump allowed mining on Big Bears Ears Monument, which will pollute this sacred site. The longest shutdown in history is creating massive hardships in Native communities. We have to elect people who care about us.”
Ruth Buffalo, the first Native American woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature, was also at the rally. She unseated Randy Boehning—the primary sponsor of a voter-ID law that has disenfranchised some Native Americans. She talked about the problem of missing and murdered Native women. She was on the search team looking for 22 year-old pregnant Savanna Greywind. They found her dead body on Buffalo’s birthday. It was a case of fetal abduction. The infant was discovered in the murderer’s house. Buffalo said she would work for all kinds of justice.
Vanessa Pastrana of Bohio Atabei Caribbean Indigenous Women’s Circle, a Taíno by blood, spoke at the event, and explained her rejection of the colonial name Puerto Rico (Spanish for “land of riches”) and reclaims its indigenous name, Borinquen (which means “noble and proud” in Taíno). Pastrana says, “We are still fighting being a US colony.”
Amanda Blackhorse’s group—Not Your Mascots—was protesting the disrespect of Native identity in American culture (i.e. naming cars Cherokee, cartoonish Halloween costume stereotypes of Indian princesses and caricatures, like the Tomahawk chop). When describing the group’s withdrawn litigation against the owner of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team the Redskins, she said, “While the oppressors are waiting for us to disappear, our voices only got louder.”
The Shinnecock nation, a tribe of historically Algonquian-speaking Native Americans based at the eastern end of Long Island, New York, was also represented. In 1640, the Shinnecocks were put in the stockade by their colonial oppressors if they spoke their language. Now the Shinnecocks are protesting the ultra-exclusive Shinnecock Hills Golf Club that was built on their ancient burial ground. Their reservation also has polluted well water from fertilizer runoff in the Hamptons. Nicky Banks, a former trustee, spoke at the event: “We can reveal our current memories of genocide and teach the colonizers their own history of genocide.”
The rally was packed with over 70 speakers and performers, including Martha Redbone and multimedia artist Johnnie Jae of A Tribe Called Geek. Fortunately, the Indigenous People’s March and rally was videotaped by the Lakota People’s Law Project.
At the march where we can see signs of each other’s struggles, I was carrying my signs which advocated for Armenians’ indigenous rights. Because of this, I was happy to meet another Armenian, Sophia Armen, an organizer concerned with the liberation of Southwest Asian/North African Peoples. Before the genocide, Armenia was listed as Western Asia.
I do a lot of educational outreach work about the Armenian Genocide and was curious if the newly elected Native women had heard about it. When I asked Congresswoman Haaland, she said she would look into it. Representative Buffalo said she didn’t know about the Armenian Genocide, but would welcome information.
The Indigenous People’s Movement is building a worldwide coalition for indigenous people to join together to stand up to similar oppression. It begins by sharing information about our cultures and histories. I felt moved when Rufus Kelly, a NottoWay of Southampton, Virginia said he had heard about the Armenian Genocide and started to educate himself about it.
As a token of hospitality, one of the organizers of the march, Hope Conoy, gave me a shell. She was holding an eagle feather. She said they were extinct from the Chesapeake Bay but have now come back.