- The Red Road to DC began last week in the coastal state of Lummi north of Seattle and will end on July 29 in Washington, DC
- The caravan will arrive on Saturday at the Bears Ears National Monument in the state of Utah, a special holy place for Native Americans.
- Dominant images on a colorful totem that stretches across the country: an eagle descending to the ground, a man praying and a salmon.
Two dozen American activists in 10 cars pulling one totem pole across the country.
While this protest caravan may seem small, its message to Congress is too big: Give it Indigenous peoples a word before giving access to land that tribes consider sacred. The opposite argument: public lands are for everyone and for the state energy needs it cannot be ignored.
Nowhere is this debate more heated than in Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, a stunning archeological and natural wonder activists will encounter on Saturday.
Former President Barack Obama set aside 1.35 million acres for the monument in late 2016. Conservatives criticized the move as outwitting the government, and then-President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bear Ears by 85% in 2017. His fate is still at stake.
“Sacred places and public lands are under constant pressure due to climate chaos and reliance on fossil fuels, and we feel that under this administration we can change the role the federal government plays in this equation,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Homeland Organizers Alliance, which is TODAY talked to the U.S. as the caravan drove through Utah. “This is a political moment.”
The original organizers were prompted by the appointment of former U.S. Representative Deb Haland of New Mexico Lagoon Pueblo, who will head the Department of the Interior, as well as the relaunch of President Joe Biden’s White House Council on Indian Affairs.
Activists say the role of indigenous peoples in the recent elections should give them greater prominence in policies that can help support tribes with employment, education and health.
“Indians must be at the decision-making table,” said LeBlanc, who belongs to the state of Caddo Nation from the southeastern state.
For most of the country’s nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, land use and ownership are top priorities. Although some tribes have had success on that front – last year the Supreme Court ruled that half of Oklahoma is in their home countries, resulting in implications for court cases – most have protested in recent years against access to federal states, many in India, that the Trump administration awarded to energy and mining companies.
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The result, activists say, is deep concern over land destruction due to fracking and oil pipelines, which often have deep historical and religious significance for the natives.
“Much like Notre Dame Cathedral is a symbolism structure for Catholicism, these landscapes are our cathedral,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Intertribal Council based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We ask people to be of the same mindset and show respect for this landscape as our people and tribal leaders do.”
Gonzales-Rogers added that while no holy place is more important than another, Bears Ears, named after two high ears similar to thighs, are likely to test the power of the presidency when it comes to overseeing the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorizes the president to authorize “declare historical landmarks by public proclamation.”
Bear-ear supporters say that’s what Obama did when he made a monument to one of his last gestures in the office. Critics say the act is not designed to separate such large amounts of land, potentially limiting access to a wide range of users.
“This act should be used to prevent acts of looting for the least compatible area,” said Jeffrey McCoy, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm that represented ranchers who said the Obama Declaration denied them access to land they long used. That case was kept while Biden reconsidered the actions of his predecessor.
McCoy said it is not up to the presidents of any party to decide the fate of massive federal land holdings, but it is “the job of Congress and the proclamation of national parks.”
Bears leader Ears Gonzalez-Rogers said activists are pushing lawmakers to increase the size of the national monument to more than what Obama approved, to nearly 2 million acres.
Recognizing that the fate of the Indian country has long been tied to federal politics, various indigenous groups came up with the idea of getting from Washington state to Washington, stopping at some of the most controversial holy places for the natives.
It’s called Red road to DC.: The Totem Pole journey to protect holy places – a name that suggests a journey from addiction to sobriety – the journey began last week in the coastal state of Lummi north of Seattle and will end with events in the state capital on July 29th.
Stations along the snake route include Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (July 18), where fracking is underway in an area where thousands lived between 850 and 1200 AD; Standing Rock, North Dakota (July 24), home of years of protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline; and Mackinaw City, Michigan, where tribes are struggling to shut down the pipeline for fear the spill will contaminate lake water.
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The idea of traveling together with a massive carved totem was in the best protest tradition: to have something that makes those who see it ask questions, LeBlanc said.
“It’s about raising the awareness of all people about what’s going on on the land of our nation,” she said.
Totem pillars are a traditional characteristic of Indian tribes from the northwestern Pacific and are considered sacred symbols. This totem was created by Lummi masters over three months under the name House of Tear Carvers. It is 25 feet high, 43 inches wide, and carved from a 400-year-old red cedar.
Among the dominant images of the colorful totem are an eagle diving to the ground, a man praying and a salmon. A woman and a girl are also nearby, which is a tribute to the way grandmothers often teach the younger generation their mother tongue and language. There are also seven tears carved into the totem, representing seven generations of Native Americans who perished from the natives, according to Red Road organizers DC.
As the caravan continues, activists hope to draw attention to the universal need for nature conservation through both totems and gatherings at a time when climate crises – from fires in the west to storms in the east – pose an increasing threat.
The Indians, they claim, are uniquely willing to be stewards of a land that once belonged only to them.
“Holy places are where our people have gone from the beginning to collect medicines, to be in communication with our ancestors and to pray and lift their spirits,” LeBlanc said. “We understand how best to preserve and protect to ensure that these places continue to be for our people and all people.”