After setting out from their homes in Manitoba and upstate New York, respectively, teams from the Dakota and Onondaga nations in full traditional dress marched through Lower Manhattan on their way to the United Nations building on August 9, 2013. The Dakota had traversed thousands of miles and an international border on a horseback "Unity Ride" to plead with the international governing body for help.
The march signified what the Dakota and Onondaga consider a state of emergency: desecration of their way of life, ongoing environmental destruction and their home governments' inability or unwillingness to do anything about it.
"We're doing this for all mankind, not just our own people," said Dakota Chief Gus High Eagle. "In the next 10 years, what's going to happen? Are we going to have any clean water?"
Both groups are deeply concerned over the growing pervasiveness of hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as fracking, a process that extracts natural gas by sending pressurized chemicals into the Earth's layers and fracturing rock. The practice has raised widespread concerns over ground water contamination and environmental pollution.
The Onondaga Nation, part of the Iroquois confederacy, canoed from upstate down the Hudson River to Manhattan and joined the Dakota at the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. Onondaga paddling coordinator Hickory Edwards said a key message of the campaign was to renew a 400-year-old "Two Row Wampum" treaty and bring healing to both the land and relations between settler nation people and First Nations while raising the red flag on environmental destruction.
In many indigenous traditions, Earth and nature are seen as sacred and nature's bounty is viewed as gifts from the Creator because of a lifestyle dependent on it for survival, engendering a culture of respect and reverence for it. Fracking has garnered opposition among indigenous groups for its perceived destructiveness to the environment. It has also resulted in the subverting of native land rights, raising the ghost of a continuing history of broken treaties with Native Americans by settler nations.
"We're trying to educate people on the dangers of hydrofracking," he said. "If we destroy and poison the water, we're destroying and poisoning ourselves. We're hoping to raise consciousness and save that water for generations to come."
Indigenous tribes still threatened by genocide
From the Keystone XL pipeline extension threatening a Dakota burial site near the Montana-Saskatchewan border and what's left of native ancestral lands in Canada to housing developments plunked on top of an ancient, sacred burial site in Orange County, California; to indigenous people being murdered in attempts to keep their homelands in spite of brutal land grabs in Brazil , the struggles for survival and preservation throughout the continent have reached a crossroads.
Many worry if they can't win today's disputes, all will be lost for future generations. Literally and figuratively, it's do or die. And going through the normal channels to address their grievances has produced loss after loss. Five tribes pushed for protection of the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, only to have the courts decide one of their holiest sites could be used as a ski resort made of recycled sewage snow.
The Dakota's Great Sioux Nation cousins to the south, the Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, embarked on a "Truth Tour" in 2013, traveling to New York and marching to the UN in April, filing official grievances with the US State Department and UN over charges of past and ongoing genocide. They finally met with United Nation officials in August.
"We're the generation. It is us that must continue whatever knowledge we have and leave it to our kids to continue the fight to protect and preserve our culture, our heritage, and preserve the land and sacred sites," said Andrew Salas, chair of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, native people of Southern California's Orange and Los Angeles counties. "It's up to us. If we don't do it, who is going to?"
There are only about 650 documented Gabrieleño surviving after centuries of brutal Spanish, Mexican and American occupation. With every passing year, more of their history is torn out of the ground with each new development project. In 2011, the Gabrieleño suffered a massive loss when Los Angeles County tore the graves of their ancestors out of the ground at what's now known as La Placita Olvera.
The little Catholic chapel, now a tourist attraction and heavily used worship site for LA's Spanish-speaking migrant community, was founded in 1784 in what's now downtown LA, but was at the time the large Kizh village of Yangna. It was a sub-mission for the main site of the Spanish occupation, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, from which the Kizh were given their Europeanized name: the Gabrieleño.
Like the Sioux, the Gabrieleño have appealed to the world for help in a Hail Mary pass. In June, they sent a letter to The Hague, expressing their grievances over the destruction of the burial site to build LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican cultural center.
"We went to the governor. We went to the state, the county, the federal. We went to the police department," Salas said. "All the agencies we could think of, we went to and we could not get anyone's attention."
Even the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), a California agency tasked with preserving California Indian culture, couldn't stop LA County from plowing into the cemetery. The NAHC demanded the county stop digging when human remains were found in 2010.
But like Hearthside Homes, the developer that destroyed an ancient religious site at Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach to build luxury homes, the county kept going. Despite protests by descendants of Gabrieleño Indian mission slaves and LA's Pobladores – descendants of the original European settlers – who said their ancestors were buried on the church grounds, LA County dug up the remains and buried them miles away near the Pomona Fairplex. Salas has pictures of the remains placed in what look like paper lunch bags awaiting reburial.
In neighboring Orange County, Hearthside had a long-standing permit to explore the wetlands for its Brightwater luxury housing development on the waterfront. In 2005, the developers dug up stunning evidence of major cultural significance. The site was not just a seasonal, lightly trafficked village as originally suspected. It was a site of continual inhabitance in use for at least 9,000 years and a major religious, spiritual and cultural hub. Along with about 200 human burials, archeologists uncovered a rich variety of ceremonial items, a dolphin burial, evidence of multiple building structures and clues about what the finds were used for.
Laws designed to protect Native American sites for state-recognized tribes in California are largely toothless, because while requiring ancient sites be protected, they lack any recourse when sites are desecrated. In Southern California, where land values are among the highest in the country, developers often prefer to pay for destruction after the fact instead of stopping or relocating a project.
"You see something happening that's illegal and wrong, and you want some professional help. So you ask for help and you get ignored," Salas said. "You're on your own. We are basically on our own, and it seems like we've always been on our own."
"The First Cemetery is listed as a City of Los Angeles Historical Monument, a State Historical Monument and is on the US Government's Register of Historic Places. All of these ostensible "protections" were ignored and the county of Los Angeles proceeded to the substantial desecration to take place," the tribe wrote in its grievance to The Hague, sent June 1. "We have exhausted every legal avenue we have as a people of modest means. Since we have gotten no justice here in the United States, we are now appealing to you for assistance in rendering a verdict that will hopefully aid us in protecting one of our most important sacred sites."
They have yet to hear back, Salas said.
Appealing to the world for help
Like the Gabrieleño and Lakota, the Dakota hope taking their plight to the world stage finally will give them some relief. They presented the UN with a proposal to expand international laws governing sacred sites to native peoples whose definition of "sacred site" is the planet itself, or often mountains, trees and rivers as opposed to churches, mosques or synagogues. Along with environmental concerns, one of their immediate fears is that the Keystone XL pipeline extension will destroy a Dakota burial ground.
The tribe has a map of sacred sites and burials, Gus High Eagle said.
"One was in Montana-Saskatchewan border," he said. "We rode up there, and there's a pipeline going through at this time. And we're trying to stop it. It's going to reach the burial ground this fall."
When Native American burial grounds are destroyed to make way for development projects, it's a case of racism, plain and simple, according to Salas.
"Imagine if it was an Anglo cemetery; they wouldn't stand for that," he said. "They don't want anyone desecrating their graves. But it's OK to desecrate our graves?"
Aside from physical destruction of sacred sites, modern laws, land ownership barriers and bureaucracy can make practicing Native American religious traditions all but impossible. The Sioux had to raise $9 million to secure one of their most sacred ancestral sites, Pe' Sla in the Black Hills of South Dakota, from being sold and likely built up by developers.
Stephanie Smith, a volunteer and Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Minnesota who helped organize the Unity Ride, said it took her six months and cost $10,000 to negotiate permits with all the various local governments along the Unity Ride route.
Smith said she hopes her work to facilitate the Unity Ride will allow the Dakota and all indigenous peoples the freedom to embark on spiritual ceremonies and give them access to sacred sites without similar obstacles in the future.
"For Christians, we have land and location, a physical address" for churches, Smith said. "What if your traditional way of communicating with the Creator is a ceremonial horse ride, where it's the pilgrimage and the journey that matters?"
Contrary to Western practices, many indigenous cultures hold the environment itself and its life-supporting bounty as sacred gifts from the Creator. Many view themselves as caretakers of the land, not owners.
According the Salas, pre-colonial Kizh custom dictated the Creator "provided fish, soil, water, all the animals. Everything was created for all of us, for survival. But we're killing ourselves because we're polluting the air, polluting the water, desecrating the land. They're building houses where there should be places to grow things."
It's a human right to be able to pray in the traditional or cultural way, she said. But indigenous people often find their rights bulldozed - sometimes literally - by modern interests.
"If you can't get a permit, do you go ahead with your event and risk arrest? I personally believe they should never be in a position to have to make that decision," she said.
Riding for reconciliation and recognition
2013’s month-long Unity Ride was a spiritual journey meant to bring peace and reconciliation. It started eight years ago, when a Dakota Vietnam War veteran named Jim Miller had a series of visions in which he saw 38 of his ancestors hanged. He later interpreted his vision as of 38 Dakota men hanged by Abraham Lincoln in the country's largest, but perhaps least-known mass execution. The rides traditionally have trekked to the Mankato, Minnesota, site of the 1862 hanging as a healing ceremony. This year, like Canadian First Nations people who sparked the widespread Idle No More movement, the Dakota have decided to raise their profile.
Along the Unity Ride route, they stopped in Newtown, Connecticut, locale of the Sandy Hook massacre, to meet with the 2nd Company Governor's Horse Guard and present 26 prayer ties - for the 26 Sandy Hook victims - to the mother of slain 6-year-old Jessica Rekos. They were met by hundreds of cheering residents who enthusiastically looked on as the Dakota riders were made honorary members of the governor's cavalry. The two groups would have been enemies in the not-so-distant past.
The ride was filled with powerful moments, like when the Federation of Black Cowboys, based in Queens, escorted the Dakota along the way to the UN through Manhattan in a show of friendship and solidarity.
For John Nelson, deacon at Live Peace Woodstock, who also helped raise funds and organize the ride, it was another form of reconciliation.
"I'm ashamed of how the name of Christianity was used to subjugate these people," he said. "It's one of the greatest misrepresentations of Christianity the world has ever known. So my involvement is an active public apology for the terrible way they were treated during that time."
If the UN were to adopt the new language regarding sacred sites, the result could be a new paradigm in the way the planet and environment are treated.
"It will redefine uranium mining, tar sands, and protect their sacred sites," Nelson said. "This international code is key to redefining how Planet Earth will be managed in the future."
It's high time, according to Salas. The Gabrieleño have been trying for years to gain federal recognition to protect their heritage and identity but have been blocked so far. Despite three occupations of Spanish, Mexican and American governments that in turn enslaved them and tried to wipe them out, they're still trying.
"We went through three holocausts, and we survived," he said. "We're not extinct. We're here, and today we're still trying to survive and protect our culture and heritage. But we're being ignored still."
Hickory Edwards gave a warning along with the call for reconciliation.
"We all share this place," Edwards said. "We're still here; we're not going anywhere. You guys are still here; you're not going anywhere. But the way the world is going and the way we're treating it, we may not have a future here."