Theresa Braine
Indigenous Environmental Network leader Thomas Goldtooth, Activist Melina Labouca-Massimo and other Indigenous Peoples begin the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21.

Biggest Climate March in History a Watershed Moment for Indigenous Peoples

Theresa Braine

Monumental. Empowering. Unifying.

Such were the strong sentiments evoked among Indigenous Peoples who helped lead off the People’s Climate March on September 21.

“In a word, empowering,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, Ponca Nation actress and activist. “Not just for personal reasons, [but] because of everyone who came out and stood together. So many like-minded people.”

RELATED: Indigenous Peoples Essential to Climate Movement, March Organizers Say

There were quite a few like-minded people thronging the streets of New York City on Sunday. The number topped 400,000, in fact, according to the organizers. They included such luminaries as former Vice President Al Gore, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, various congresspeople and none other than United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who has called upon the world’s leaders to meet this week and commit to solving the crisis.

RELATED: Indigenous Peoples at Forefront of Historic People’s Climate March in New York City

In addition quite a bit of celebrity power graced the proceedings, with actors including Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as musician Sting, marching alongside indigenous activists fighting further development in the Alberta oil sands of Canada.

The march stretched out longer than its official two-mile route, with walkers streaming down Sixth Avenue from Columbus Circle for hours upon hours. They periodically stopped to chant and cheer. Hundreds of thousands more marched worldwide, in dozens of cities, all trying to bring world leaders’ attention and commitment to the world’s climate crisis. Excitement and determination hung electric in the air. There were Buddhists and others of faith. There were trade unions. And there were Indigenous Peoples from all over the world. 

“Today was a historic day,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, a co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute and an organizer with Defenders of the Land.

It sent a strong message clearly telling President Barack Obama that “we need legally binding regulation” on pipelines and other instrusive industries. The march, he said, could “usher in a new era” of solidarity.

“Never before has there been such a demonstration on climate,” Thomas-Muller said. “It sends a strong strong message.”

Activist and comedian Dallas Goldtooth was equally inspired.

“It was most definitely empowering and monumental,” said the member of the 1491’s comedy troupe of the experience. “Amazing—very empowering to see the presence of indigenous peoples.”

He noted that one of the hopes for the march had been bridge-building, connecting different facets of the environmental movement to find their common ground. One way that that happened was that the march had room not only for big issues such as the Alberta oil sands, pipelines and fracking but also space for lesser known issues, such as mountaintop mining.

The day also demonstrated the ways in which climate justice and social justice go hand in hand, he said, adding that having indigenous peoples on the frontline, starting off the march, was key to illustrating that.

“That was vital, and had a very strong purpose to it,” Goldtooth said. “It was such a monumental experience. It hits me really deep in a good way [that everyone’s] so strong, so united in this message. I have a overall sense of gratitude.”

RELATED: RELATED: On the Cutting Edge of Native Comedy With the 1491s

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These inspiring cross-cultural alliances will continue, Camp-Horinek said, at next week’s Harvest the Hope concert to be held in Nebraska on traditional Ponca lands, headlined by Neil Young and Willie Nelson.

RELATED: Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Frank Waln to Play Anti-Pipeline Concert in Nebraska

“We’re going to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from coming,” she said, as well as show solidarity with “the people at Ground Zero, the tar sands,” where the oil would come from in Alberta, Canada.

The groundswell fit right in with the prophecies, Camp-Horinek said, which have long predicted that Indigenous Peoples would be the ones to lead Turtle Island, and the world, out of crisis.

“It’s either this, or our children and grandchildren have no air to breath,” Camp-Horinek said. “It’s not for us, it’s for everyone. It’s not a choice.”

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