Indigenous Peoples March spotlights pollution, border wall threat to reservation

Amy Juan wears the flag of the Tohono O’odham Nation during the Indigenous Peoples March to bring attention to border problems on her reservation, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

By Keerthi Vedantam

WASHINGTON – Nataanii Means, a 27-year-old hip-hop artist and movie actor, spent part of his childhood on the Navajo Nation with little electricity or running water, while energy companies mined coal and uranium nearby.

He said those operations left the water polluted and undrinkable.

Means — son of the late Russell Means, a prominent American Indian activist — brought the experience of life on a reservation to the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington Friday where he heard the same story from people suffering from similar conditions.

Native Americans  from South Dakota, Minnesota and Washington talked of pollution caused by mining or leaking oil pipelines on their reservations.

“It’s our duty as indigenous people to … be conscious of what’s happening in the world,” said Means, who now lives in northern Minnesota where he fights against a proposed pipeline. “To be a protector.”

The first Indigenous Peoples March brought thousands from all over the country and as far away as Australia and the Caribbean to raise awareness of a number of issues: violence against indigenous people on and off reservations, environmental regulation, safety for women and the border wall.

“It was just time,” said Kelly Holmes, a march organizer from Denver. “We were all rallying locally about the same issues so we decided to come together.”

The march was a solemn affair recognizing ongoing hardships of Native Americans as well as a celebration of defiance and activism. It began in front of the U.S. Interior Department, where many agencies serving Indian Country are currently part of the government shutdown, and ended at the Lincoln Memorial where activists from around the country took the stage to share stories and offer resources.

During the march, parents and relatives held signs of loved ones who have been missing for months and years. Others sported #NoDAPL banners in reference to 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a planned oil pipeline that crosses tribal land as it carries crude oil from Canada to Louisiana.

Jingle dancers maneuvered through the crowd to the beat of drums and traditional songs. People wore everything from traditional dresses to Patagonia jackets and shared stories about going to Standing Rock – home of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests – about traveling to Washington and about how woefully under- or over-prepared they were for the cold and snow.

-Cronkite News video by Keerthi Vedantam

Emma Robbins, a Navajo woman who splits her time between the reservation and Los Angeles, said it was important to have a place where Native Americans could come together.

“We are all going through the same issues, all over the country,” said Robbins, who works to bring running water to the reservation. “Being around people who understand each other is amazing.”

Amy Juan marched with a bright yellow Tohono O’odham flag draped around her shoulders. She came to Washington to protest the president’s proposed border wall with Mexico, which would cut through the reservation.

Tribal members who live on the Mexican side of the reservation have difficulty crossing the border for tribal events or healthcare services, Juan said. Even driving through checkpoints to get groceries or go to the movies has made her more stressed.

“Just imagine: In order to leave your neighborhood or your community, having to go through checkpoints with armed agents,” she said. “There are children who are traumatized each time they go through the checkpoints.”

Juan compares it to the situation around the Dakota Access Pipeline construction.

“To have strangers that close to your land is so difficult,” she said.

Though the march is not about one specific issue, Holmes said it is about the larger goal of bringing people together to come up with universal solutions.

“It’s about, how can we fix this ourselves?” she said. “We need to be part of that conversation.”


  1. the will to have the children learn the ways of the old tribal peoples who observe their ways as best they can from what is left – I can understand that – I don’t know that I can agree when it means raising a child on that reservation – but then we American’s raise our children in our cities – are they better? or worse? Guess it depends on the area your in – the walls you have around you – but more than anything ‘the manner in which you choose to conduct your life’ rich or poor – so there are good places on the reservation – but they are indeed isolated – worth the effort? worth the effect? worth the price? worth the lost souls? are we? are we any different than they are? I have a lesson I was told about Indians and their relationships with people – don’t blame the son for the sins of their fathers – but remember them so they are not repeated – so I guess it all depends on which side of the fence your standing on when you think about that.. I’m as native American as anyone of them am I not?

  2. I used to travel the reservation sometime daily, but very often, to many locations on the southern tribal land doing health care – I liked meeting the people, meeting the families, seeing the nation, seeing the land… there were parts that I learned from – some parts that I wanted to look away from – I got TB in Sells – I know exactly the house and moment – I found desperate Indian people wandering in the desert saving them with water and transportation – did I find them – or was I lead to that place to pick them up – I think the later – I was told and found true that look ‘anywhere’ on the reservation and you will find beer bottles – glass – some form of ‘beer was here’ and I find that to be true to the most desolate areas and locations to which I traveled. I also found evidence of illicit business in the most remote locations. I found great Americans living in homes – Christians who’s faith was one to learn from – as well as those the preyed on their elders. It’s a rough place this place they call reservation.

  3. Border security no matter where is essential. If the border is not secured along the reservation, it will be a spot that border bunnies will use to sneak across illegally. A crossing point manned by BO could be set up at a determined spot at the border barrier. As for issues crossing from Mexico to the USA… well its all part of life if you reside on the border. Its that simple.

    • That reservation go’s into Mexico, but not that many living there would object to a wall. Over a ton of trash is left behind the crossers each day right now, and that doesn’t count the vehicles that break down. Let alone the dead bodies that have to be picked up every year or what they steal or destroy as they move across. What would help is allowing the Shadow Wolves arrest/hold them as they come in then turned over to the border patrol. Their area was reduced under the last President to stop drugs only, and nothing else.

  4. Give the tribes their property and let them live off casinos. Alcoholism runs rampant and yet there are NO treatment centers on a reservation. When you automatically get a check for doing NOTHING you become a slave to the state. Get the HELL off the reservation, stop being a victim and work to HELP Indians rather than teach them to become professional victims. Democrats won’t like it.

    • After all that was taken and the commitments that were made, comments like this show what’s still really wrong with America. Even now. Hate and resentment.

      • On the contrary Mr. Denomie, the status quo has not helped, it has made conditions worse. You are the only one spewing out hate here.

  5. What’s wrong is Congress, and the BIA. 1924 that’s 90 years ago Congress made American Indians citizens unless they lived on reservations so the act of 1934 which was 80 years ago they became citizens. It would be 1968 that’s 46 years ago they gained the right to vote with-out testing first, and a year later 1969 which is 45 years ago gaining the Right of Freedom of Religion.
    Less than half of all the Tribes have Federal Recognition. From the BIA there are 566 Tribes that have it along with 54 that have only State. 2378 have none with 798 that have applied for Federal right now which includes the 54 that has only State. At this time American Indian or Native Americans make up less (just under) than one percent of the population of this Country. Only Federal can have anything on the Reservation to generate funds, but it has to be approved by the State who also gets a cut from the profits, then Both Houses of Congress, the BIA along with the BLM. If any of them say no then it doesn’t happen, and you apply again.

  6. For the most part, reservations and a litany of social programs & benefits were created in the interest of helping these people. None of it has worked, and in most cases it has made situations worse. It is a fine example of the failure of welfare, plain and simple. I would be in favor of dissolving every reservation in our country, along with all the special programs that have turned them from a proud people to a bunch of helpless victims.

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