- The Red Road to D.C. started last week at the coastal Lummi nation north of Seattle and will finish on July 29 in Washington, D.C.
- The cross-country caravan will arrive Saturday at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, an especially sacred site for Native Americans.
- The dominant imagery on the colorful totem being towed across the country: An eagle diving down to earth, a man praying and a salmon.
Two dozen Native American activists in 10 cars towing one totem pole across the country.
While this protest caravan may seem small, its message to Congress is outsized: Give Indigenous peoples a say before granting access to land that tribes consider sacred. The opposing argument: public lands are for everyone and the nation’s energy needs can’t be ignored.
Nowhere is that debate more heated than at Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, a striking archaeological and natural wonder that activists will reach Saturday.
Former President Barack Obama set aside 1.35 million acres for the monument in late 2016. Conservatives criticized the move as government overreach, and then-President Donald Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by 85% in 2017. Its fate is still in play.
“Sacred places and public lands are under sustained duress from climate chaos and fossil fuel reliance, and we feel that under this administration we can change the role that the federal government plays in this equation,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, who spoke to USA TODAY as the caravan motored through Utah. “This is the political moment.”
Native organizers have been buoyed by the appointment of former U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, to run the Interior Department as well as President Joe Biden’s relaunching of the White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Activists say the role Indigenous peoples played in the recent election should give them greater say in policies that can help support tribes with employment, education and healthcare.
“Native Americans must be at the decision-making table,” said LeBlanc, who belongs to the southeastern states’ Caddo Nation.
For most of the nation’s nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, land use and ownership is a top priority. While some tribes have had success on that front – last year the Supreme Court ruled half of Oklahoma is on Native lands, with resulting implications for court cases – most have spent the past years protesting against access to federal lands, many in Indian country, that the Trump administration granted to energy and mining companies.
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The result, activists say, is deep concern over the despoiling of lands due to fracking and oil pipelines that often have deep historical and religious significance to Native peoples.
“Much like cathedral of Notre Dame is a structure of symbolism for Catholicism, these landscapes are our cathedral,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Council, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We ask people to be in the same deferential mindset and show respect to this landscape as our people and tribal leaders do.”
Gonzales-Rogers added that while no sacred site is more important than another, Bears Ears, named for two towering ear-like buttes, is likely to test the power of the presidency when it comes to oversight of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president powers to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks.”
Bears Ears supporters say that is what Obama was doing when he made it a monument in one of his last gestures in office. Critics say the act is not designed to set aside such vast amounts of land, thereby potentially limiting access to a range of users.
“This act should be used to prevent acts of looting for the smallest area compatible,” said Jeffrey McCoy, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm that represented ranchers who said Obama’s declaration deprived them of access to land that had long used. That case has been stayed as President Joe Biden reviews the action of his predecessor.
McCoy said it is not for presidents of either party to decide the fate of massive federal land holdings, but rather “that’s the job of Congress and the declaration of National Parks.”
Bears Ears leader Gonzales-Rogers said activists are pushing lawmakers to increase the size of the national monument to beyond what Obama granted, at nearly 2 million acres.
Recognizing that the fate of Indian country has long been tied to federal policy, a variety of Indigenous groups came up with the idea of driving from Washington state to Washington, D.C., with stops at some of the most contentious Native sacred sites.
Dubbed the Red Road to D.C.: A Totem Pole Journey for the Protection of Sacred Places – a name that references a journey from addiction to sobriety – the trip started last week at the coastal Lummi nation north of Seattle and will conclude with events at the nation’s capital on July 29.
The stops along the snaking way include Chaco Canyon in New Mexico (July 18), where fracking is underway in an area where thousands lived between 850 and 1200 A.D.; Standing Rock, North Dakota (July 24), home to years of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline; and Mackinaw City, Michigan, where tribes are fighting to shut down a pipeline for fear that a spill would contaminate lake water.
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The idea of making the journey along with a massive carved totem pole was in the best of protest traditions: having something that makes those who see it ask questions, said LeBlanc.
“It’s about raising the awareness of all people of what’s happening to our nation’s land,” she said.
Totem poles are a traditional feature of Native American tribes from the Pacific Northwest and are considered sacred symbols. This particular totem was created over three months by Lummi craftsmen called the House of Tears Carvers. It stands 25 feet tall, is 43 inches wide and was hewn from a 400-year-old red cedar tree.
Among the dominant imagery of the colorful totem is an eagle diving down to earth, a man praying and a salmon. There is also a woman with a girl nearby, a tribute to the way grandmothers often are teaching the younger generation of the Native ways and language. There are also seven tears carved into the totem, which represent seven generations of Native Americans who have suffered at the hands of non-Natives, according to Red Road to D.C. organizers.
As the caravan continues, activists hope to draw attention with both the totem and their gatherings to the universal need to protect nature at a time when climate crises – from fires out West to storms in the East – seem to pose a growing threat.
Native Americans, they argue, are uniquely poised to be stewards of land that once belonged solely to them.
“Sacred places are where our peoples have gone since the beginning of time to gather medicines, to be in communication with our ancestors, and to pray and lift their spirits,” said LeBlanc. “We have an understanding of how best to preserve and protect to ensure these places will continue to be for our people, and all people.”