WASHINGTON: Native American groups staged a march to the White House Friday against the construction of a controversial oil pipeline, which they fear could desecrate tribal lands and threaten drinking water.
Chanting “water is life” and shouting out tribal calls, a circle of dancers beat on drums in protest at the Dakota Access Pipeline, part of which runs through lands inhabited by the indigenous groups.
Slushy snow fell as more than 500 demonstrators marched through the capital before rallying in a park across from the White House, many wearing traditional dress and feathered headdresses and draped in colorful printed blankets.
“The government is violating our public right to clean water,” Sarah Jumping Eagle, 44, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, told AFP.
A physician, Jumping Eagle arrived in Washington late Thursday after making the long trek from North Dakota, where Native Americans and their supporters camped out for nearly a year, physically blocking construction at the site and drawing international attention.
She travelled to the capital with a group of fellow demonstrators to show her concern over the potential for oil spills and contamination from the nearly-completed construction project.
“We know that we have to protect the water for future generations,” she said, the aroma of burning sage used for tribal prayers wafting through the chilly air.
“People are tired of the government not listening to us and not listening to the word of the people,” she added.
“They are supposed to represent us and not corporations.”
In the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump signed executive orders to revive the Dakota Access project, along with a second pipeline put on hold by the Obama administration, Keystone XL.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their backers say the pipeline threatens the Missouri River and the Lake Oahe reservoir, a key drinking water source.
They also worry about the impact on nearby sacred lands.
“We face a lot of obstacles,” Standing Rock chairman David Archambault told the rally. “But we are not defeated. We are not going to be the victims.”
“Together we can rise.”
Friday’s march rounded off a week of workshops, rituals and cultural events in the capital intended to spotlight Standing Rock’s cause and express unity among tribes.
Protestors set up a teepee camp earlier in the week next to the Washington Monument in the city’s National Mall.
“We must remain of one voice, one heart, one spirit — to speak for those things that cannot speak for themselves” JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council in the northwestern US, told demonstrators.
As they marched past Trump International Hotel en route to the White House rally some paused to erect a teepee in front of the building.
The Dakota pipeline, which will transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil each day, is expected to become operational later this month, according to Energy Transfer Partners, the company handling the construction.
Melanie Carpenter arrived in Washington Thursday from the northern state Vermont. Though she is not personally connected to any tribe, the 43-year-old said she felt inclined to stand in solidarity.
“I’m living on occupied land,” she said. “If we’re ever going to live in peace we have to honor where we came from, and part of that is respecting people who were here first.”
During warmer months, the North Dakota encampment swelled to thousands of demonstrators, some of whom stuck it out through the winter before they finally left last month, facing an ultimatum to quit the site.
Janie Pochel drove to Washington from Chicago for the event after having joined the protest camp from August through November of last year.
Wearing a shawl she normally dons during traditional dances, the 31-year-old voiced optimism at the turnout and the past year of protests.
“As native people we can mobilize,” she said. “The government is going to do what the government has always done, but we’ve mobilized millions of people around the world.
“They can’t break this prayer that we’ve started.”