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A Heavy Message: Native American Activists Deliver 5,000-Pound Totem Pole To Washington DC 

PHOTOS: “Red Road to DC” campaign tried to soak up the pain and hopes of more than 100 communities into a single 25-foot message.

WASHINGTON — By carrying a 25-foot-long and 5,000-pound traditional totem pole some 20,000 miles from Washington State to Washington D.C., members of the Lummi Nation wanted to deliver a message: when public works are forced upon their sacred lands, the burden they bear is heavy.

The Pacific Northwest indigenous nation’s “Red Road to D.C.” journey finally reached the nation’s capital on Thursday after two weeks and eight stops at sacred sites threatened by oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure.

The journey of the totem pole stopped briefly at the National Mall in D.C., before being transported to the National Museum of the American Indian, where it will be on display until July 31. The totem will eventually find a permanent residence in the D.C. region. (Zoey Zou/Zenger)

After arriving at the National Mall, a blessing ceremony was held, with Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American to head the department which oversees indigenous affairs, and the first Native American cabinet secretary in any capacity — delivering remarks.

Secretary Deb Haaland was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior by President Biden on March 15, 2021. She is the first Native American person to ever hold a cabinet position. (Zoey Zou/Zenger)

Speakers throughout the afternoon spoke about the links between environmental conservation and their culture and heritage, as well as the oppression of Native American people in the centuries since the European colonization of North America.

They also spoke about the devastation wrought upon their lands by public works projects, including oil pipelines.

The Thacker Pass Project is the development of an open pit (continuous mining) lithium project located in Humboldt County, Nevada, also known as the land of Numu (Northern Paiute). (Zoey Zou/Zenger)

One speaker, the Woman Who Stands In The North, said the devastation was often twofold: people were forced to witness the destruction and pollution of ancestral lands with no recourse to fight back, and were then left to deal with the physical consequences of the damage. As an example, she cited Enbridge Line 5 — a pipeline that shifts petroleum from the west to the east of Canada, through the Great Lakes.

“Just as we rely on water for our livelihoods, we also understand in our teachings that as women, as water protectors, as water carriers, that we rely on water to give birth to those next seven generations,” she said. “Enbridge Line 5 has spilled more than 1.1 million gallons of oil and natural gas in the state of Michigan since it was implemented.”

The Woman Who Stands In The North, representing the Waters of the Great Lakes and the original territory of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, speaks of the sanctity of Water. “[Water] is necessary to maintain our culture, our sacred lands, our sacred grounds.” (Zoey Zou/Zenger) 

It was a message mirrored by many at the event, with most decrying the simultaneous spiritual and environmental harm caused by the construction of large projects on their ancestral lands.

As the 5,000-pound totem traveled across America, it “collected” the prayers, intentions, and spirit of the lands and people who work to protect their Native lands. At the event on Thursday, many of the same people wore traditional clothing, proudly representing the communities they came from and calling for lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Haaland, to pay more attention to their plight.

John Harrington, also known as Itstanskee (he who sings by the water) and Na doyi dapboyi (holy standing singer), is a descendant of the last chief of an Oregon tribe. He, along with his brothers, recovered his father’s warbonnets, which were stolen after his death. (Zoey Zou/Zenger)
In the Top Hat Long Skirt society, a woman holds her child. (Zoey Zou/Zenger).
A woman from the Hawaiian Out Rigger Canoe Voyaging Society waits for her people to speak to the crowd. (Zoey Zou/Zenger) 
Brothers Arden (R) and Mark (L) Sammons are part of the Nanticoke and Lenape people. They are members of the Redrum Motercyle Club, an Indigenous based motercycle club. The name Redrum comes from an abbreviation of their original monniker ‘Red-Drum’. (Zoey Zou/Zenger)

In an exclusive interview with Zenger, Jamie John, a member of the Anishinaabe nation and one of the people who welcomed the Lummi Nation into the Michigan Mackinac Straits during the national tour, said he believed that it is a matter of when — not if — the Enbridge Line 5 leaks once more.

Pictured in the Mackinac Straits, Jamie John and his mother, Tera John, in their traditional jingle dresses. Jaime helped welcome the Red Road caravan into the Straits of Mackinac in Northern Michigan. (Courtesy of Jaime John)

But he said he also holds out hope the land would one day return to his nation.

He voices, “I want indigenous lands to be looked after by indigenous people. I want us to be the stewards of where we had lived for hundreds of years. I want our sovereignty respected and implemented by policy makers. As simple as it sounds, I want land back. We want our land back.”

The totem pole was traditionally carved by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. Standing at 24 feet 8 inches, and weighing approximately 5,000 lbs, this totem bears various symbols and stories from Native American culture–from the ‘Indian in the Moon’ at the top, to the protruding eagle head, to the ‘Flowing River Waters’ at the bottom of the pole. (Zoey Zou/Zenger) 

The totem, meanwhile, also carries with it hope: as indigenous people see more representation in government, it is possible that those dreams and prayers may eventually become reality.

Edited by Claire Swift and Alex Willemyns

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