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Water is Life

What do protests by the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access oil pipeline construction (DAPL) in North Dakota have to do with the culture of Seattle? The answer is: plenty. First, it is part of our shared battle against the fossil fuel industry. Second, it is part of the explosion of Native culture and activism. Right here in our city and around the Salish Sea, we have observed the vigor of native culture from the revival of disappearing languages to the construction of the Duwamish Longhouse. Each year the Canoe Journey brings together Indians who have paddled from far flung tribal lands to a different location to celebrate their heritage. The Seattle Art Museum’s collection of Northwest Tribal Art, including spectacular contemporary works and their exhibition “Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection ” last year leaves no doubt that the days when indigenous culture was brutally suppressed are over. The solo exhibit of paintings by Robert Davidson at SAM in 2014 showed how an artist nurtured by his forebears in Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia can embrace today’s world without losing his identity.

Native people have taken a lead in the environmental movement and offered traditional wisdom about our relationship with the planet we all inhabit. They contributed vitally to the protests in 2015 around the Shell Oil Arctic drilling platform, by joining the kayactivists in their splendid canoes and inspiring the crowds with flute and drum music as well as eloquent homilies broadcast from a barge.

(March in support of Standing Rock Sioux, in opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline DAPL, downtown Seattle, September 16, 2016. Photo courtesy Susan Platt.)

In May this year the Lummi nation, backed by an 1855 treaty, succeeded in preventing the construction of a massive coal port at Cherry Point, Anacortes. In the same place, with the Swinomish, Makah, and Tulalip tribes as well as partnership with Greenpeace, and our own Backbone Campaign, they participated in the protests against an expansion of an oil refinery that would infringe on their fishing and increase the pollution of air and water. The truth is that the tribal elders and articulate spokesmen who have engaged in the environmental discourse have a lot to teach us, particularly about collaboration over critical issues that affect us all. Here is a quote from Paul Cheokten Wagner, the amazing flute player based in Seattle who has just returned from Standing Rock:

“We must step back into the circle of life and learn to honor the gifts our Mother Earth has to offer us, the linear action of the colonial world has a finite end and if our Mother Earth reaches the tipping point, the point of no return for stable climate, the human race will reach that end and there will be a great reciprocity or giving back to our Mother Earth but not of our liking…. It will be the bones of our grandchildren and their children being given back to our Mother Earth due to our lack of respect for the gifts our Mother.”

It is no surprise that tribal leaders from the Northwest have joined their brothers and sisters at Standing Rock in the fight to protect their water and cultural heritage from destruction by Dakota Access LLC. The point is that their cause is a universal one. They are asking the question: can we allow big corporations to take fossil fuels from the earth and use them in a way that will threaten drinking water, increase air pollution and desecrate cultural heritage? Not surprisingly, representatives of over three hundred tribes have joined the Sioux at Standing Rock and the solidarity with them nation-wide is phenomenal. Protecting future generations by environmental action is central to the culture of Seattle. On September 16, our city council passed a unanimous resolution in their support; the mayor issued a proclamation from the city hall steps, before the march set off to Westlake.

The next morning the Seattle Times, which has been known to belittle or ignore demonstrations, published an article by Lynda Mapes that did justice to the endeavor and endowed it with well-deserved dignity. Describing the procession, she wrote: “As they marched from City Hall to Westlake Center along Fourth Avenue the songs of drummers and singers echoed off the tall buildings of downtown. Some of the protestors wore their finest white buckskins and splendid beaded regalia; others carried eagle feather fans and carved rattles.” Walking with the tribal members and many supporters, I experienced their magnificent singing voices and thundering drums. I felt their anger, their resistance and their authority. From time to time, the whole crowd shouted: “Water is Life! Water is life!” The truth of this slogan resonated through the streets.

At Westlake the eloquent Matt Rimley, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who lives in Seattle and had just returned from North Dakota updated us, in his lilting musical voice, on the aggressive actions of the corporations and the ever-expanding resistance. Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Nation and of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, galvanized the crowd:

“I call on the voices and ancestors and children yet unborn; we stand on sacred trusts. Do you feel the power? The power of our ancestral teachings?”

As Lynda Mapes reported: the crowd “thundered its affirmation with voices and Drums.” The core of Fawn Sharp’s message is we must resist climate change and pollution:

“We stand for environmental justice and we will not stop. An offense against any of our rivers, or our forests, is an offense against all of us.”

Keep yourself informed and also donate to support this crucial resistance by looking at

By guest author Henry Matthews

Henry Matthews, Professor Emeritus of Washington State University, is an architectural historian. His most recent book is Greco-Roman Cities of Aegean Turkey.

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