Indigenous leaders welcome sacred totem pole after violent North Dakota protests

Indigenous leaders and activists were among thousands of people who walked a sacred totem pole through the streets of downtown Winnipeg to Oodena Circle Monday as part of a peaceful anti-pipeline protest.

1,300-kilo pole appeared at fossil fuel protests in U.S. before arrival in Manitoba

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      Indigenous leaders and activists were among thousands of people who walked a sacred totem pole through the streets of downtown Winnipeg to Oodena Circle Monday as part of a peaceful anti-pipeline protest.

      The seven-metre-tall, 1,300-kilogram totem pole was created by the Coastal Salish peoples of the Lummi Nation in Washington state. It was gifted to Treaty 1 people in Manitoba who are opposed to further fossil fuel development and the perceived threat pipelines pose to water supplies.

      The totem pole will eventually be erected at Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation, Man., Jewell James said.

      James is from the Lummi Nation and carved the totem pole. He and other members of his Pacific Northwest community travelled across the U.S. before reaching Winnipeg Monday, talking with environmental groups, churches and other community organizations along the way about water safety and pipeline production.

      Indigenous leaders, activists and pipeline critics marched through downtown Winnipeg with the totem pole, protesting fossil fuel and pipeline development.

      "We're asking them to work with First Nations to protect the water supply," James said. "I think we're all looking for that connection, that common goal that all of us know, that we have to work together."

      Before arriving in Winnipeg, the totem pole was in North Dakota, where it was used during ongoing protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. People there are concerned that at a multi-billion dollar, four-state pipeline will put local water at risk.

      'Sicced the dogs'

      On Saturday, that protest turned violent after construction crews destroyed American Indian burial and cultural grounds located on private land in the south of the state, according to tribal officials.

      There were reports protesters were pepper-sprayed and attacked by dogs owned by a private security company brought into the area.

      "They sicced the dogs on the people and that's outrageous behaviour," James said. "Private corporations do not have the right to just beat or tear people up with dogs or clubs or anything else, so I'm pretty sure there is going to be some major lawsuits."

      James said the violence was an attempt to discourage protesters and silence freedom of speech.

      "Every person is a sovereign person and they have the right to come together and voice their opinion that the world needs to be protected," James said.

      "All of our children, red, black, white and yellow, we all have the right to clean air, clean water and to clean up the damage the corporations have done to the world."

      'Use true power'

      Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said what went on in North Dakota happened because government has a "monopoly in the use of force against people."

      TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline would ship crude from Alberta to New Brunswick. (Canadian Press)

      "The only thing that we can do is use true power, and the true power of love and humility and compassion about our children and future generations is far greater in strength than any force that government can bring, and that's really what I see happening down there," Nepinak said.

      "I hope that appeals to the spirits of people, when they see that our people are going there peacefully, unarmed, standing for what's right, and they're meeting force head on with bravery and strength and humility, and that's a beautiful thing to witness."

      'Symbol of resistance'

      Nepinak said receiving the totem pole from the Lummi Nation was an honour and comes at an important time in the conversation surrounding Indigenous Peoples' rights and the proposed Energy East pipeline, which would run through the south of Manitoba.

      Indigenous leaders and activists were among thousands of people who walked a sacred totem pole through the streets of downtown Winnipeg to Oodena Circle Sunday as part of a peaceful anti-pipeline protest. 1:20

      "It's been said by many different groups that the totem pole is a symbol of resistance. Standing in the path of Energy East, that's one part of the discussion," he said.

      Nepinak said original peoples from all over North America are forming alliances against fossil fuel companies and taking a stand against unjust resource development.

      "This is a very significant moment in our modern society when the original nations of people from all over Turtle Island are forming alliance, and we're taking a stand against of further exploration of the ancestral homelands," Nepinak said.

      The totem pole and march ended at Thunderbird House on Main Street in Winnipeg, where Indigenous leaders took part in discussions about climate justice issues and how to keep pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make good on his commitments to First Nations.

      "One of the things we want to focus on is original consent. And as the original people here who negotiated treaty, it was always a discussion on the table that consent was required by original people first and that's what treaty is based upon," Nepinak said.

      "I believe that's what future energy developments [are] based upon is the consent of the people. Consent can't be manufactured or built through political structures or Indian act governments; it's got to be done by the people, for the people."

      The totem pole weighs more than 1,300 kilograms and measures at more than seven metres in length.

      With files from Courtney Rutherford and the Associated Press