- As I wrap up my Diwali celebrations this month, which is also Native American Heritage Month, I find myself yet again raising awareness about the importance of protecting sacred tribal land.
Native American Heritage Month brings with it the ideal of the “First Thanksgiving” — a meal between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag in 1621. As an Indian immigrant with my own experience and understanding of colonialism, I find common ground with the indigenous peoples here in America through my spiritual identity as a Hindu. Their persistence inspires my own efforts to preserve and protect our natural resources and gratitude that I have allies in my concern for all of creation.
I share many spiritual beliefs with First Nations peoples: that the earth is an organism of its own and a divine manifestation of feminine energy; that people are in a sacred relationship with each other and the land they live on; embracing the non-binary nature of gender identity; and so much more. We take on fights here at home similar to those in other parts of the world, where development threatens biodiversity, where corporate interests strain and pollute water resources, where sacred lands are desecrated.
On a Diwali weekend five years ago, I sought to shed light through my column at Patheos.com on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It all started with grassroots opposition to the construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline in the northern United States. Spanning four states and nearly 1200 miles of pipeline, the focal point was a Missouri River crossing just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Members of the Sioux tribes and their supporters were concerned that the construction would jeopardize the primary water source for the reservation, further damage sacred sites near Lake Oahe, and violate tribal treaty rights. Nearly 15 thousand people staged sit-ins that year and the protest even got its own hashtag, #NoDAPL.
Unfortunately, the pipeline became operational in 2017 under the last president. However, as of March 2020, it is now operating illegally due to court decisions. Indigenous peoples across the country are still engaged, waiting for either additional court rulings or a simple executive action by the current president to shut it down.
The Native American community doesn’t have time to rest: in July of this year, a 25-foot totem pole, intricately hand-carved and painted by Native Americans from the Lummi Nation, arrived in Michigan as part of its cross-country journey, known as the Red Road to D.C. The pole’s two-week voyage from the state of Washington to Washington D.C., with stops across the country was part of yet another campaign to rally people to protect sacred tribal lands. Hauled on a flatbed trailer, this roughly 5,000-pound totem pole, carved from a 400-year-old tree by tribal artists from the House of Tears, was brought to Fort Michilimackinac Park at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge.
The Bay Mills Community, including members of the surrounding tribes and allies, gathered to honor the land as a historic archeological site, recognize their ancestral right to live in synergy with the land and protect the Straits of Mackinac. I joined the newly launched Hindu Community Relations Council of Michigan represented by executive board member Lakshmi Vadlamudi, a couple of other Democratic legislators, and hundreds of others, to stand in solidarity with Michigan’s Bay Mills Indian Community and other First Nations people from around the country.
This month, all 12 of the federally recognized tribes in Michigan sent a letter to President Joe Biden and his administration, asking him to honor a tribal treaty and promises he made to heed their concerns. Bay Mills Indian Community President Whitney Gravelle said “We view Line 5 as an existential threat to our treaty-protected rights, resources, and fundamental way of life as Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes.”
Michigan’s Governor and the Attorney General have stood by the state’s tribal leaders, and have pushed to shut down the controversial, 78-year-old Line 5 oil pipeline owned by Canadian company Enbridge. Their efforts are currently locked in a court struggle but could be aided by the President taking action.
As I wrap up my Diwali celebrations this month, I find myself yet again raising awareness about the importance of protecting sacred tribal land. Ancient traditions should be valued for their intrinsic wisdom that the planet is sacred and must be protected, whether these traditions are rooted in Hindu or Native American beliefs and practices. I continue to seek collaborations between people of faith and spiritual traditions across our state and country to protect our natural resources and our planet. The First Nations of Michigan are committed to prioritizing ecological conservation and spiritual preservation. And I am committed to lifting their voices.
Padma Kuppa is Democratic State Representative for Michigan’s 41st House District and has been just re-elected for a second term. A mother, an engineer from NIT Warangal, and an automotive and IT professional for over 2 decades, and a civic and interfaith leader for years, she is the first Indian immigrant and Hindu in the Michigan state legislature. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at ElectPadmaKuppa.com or Kuppa.housedems.com.