On a chilly November morning, four figures stood in a circle along a bank. The water receded. As the sun rose, Luis Ramos, a short, stocky man, prayed to the water and the sun. He chanted “Lee-naaa-peee, Heee-yooo, heee-yooo, waa-nee-shee,” four times over while clapping his hands in a slow, four count beat.
They were standing on ancestral Lenape land. The prayer honoring the elders and thanking for the existence of water and sun were uttered in Lenape, the language of the Native Americans of Manhattan. Four people of Native American heritage born and raised in the New York City stood on one of the less trodden corners of Inwood Park looking over a creek. They call themselves urban natives. It was the eleventh day in a row that at least two urban natives convened on the northern tip of New York City as the sun was rising offering a prayer for the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters in Cannonball, North Dakota.
New Yorkers of indigenous descent are displaying their support to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies who have been protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing under Lake Oahe. Eagle and Candor, an indigenous community center in Astoria, Queen organized the prayers.
In recent months this fight has reached nationwide attention leading to spinoff protests in major cities like Los Angeles. Since September, there have been at least four protests and rallies around New York City to spread awareness about the pipeline. Previously native communities were only seen on the streets at the annual march for Indigenous Remembrance Day. A day dedicated to honor the indigenous people of North America. The recent activism has galvanized the invisible community of the largest population of indigenous people in any American metropolitan area. The two community centers in the city have received a double or trifold increase of supporters coming to events, marches and ceremonies.
Ramos, 50, a social worker by day, directs and creates ceremonies as part of his side job as the director of ceremonial events for Eagle and Candor. His roots are the indigenous people of the Caribbean or Taino. In his native community he is regarded as the behike, the medicine and spiritual leader.
When Ramos first describes who the Taino people are he goes for his classic punch line,“ Tainos were the first people to tell Columbus that he was lost.”
Born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, Ramos’ mother left him to be raised by his great-grandmother. As a child, he recalled a different sense to his great-grandmother, whom he fondly refers to as “Mama.” It wasn’t until she died when Ramos was 11 that he began to ask questions about his great-grandmother to her younger sister. Through oral tradition Ramos realized that “Mama” was Taino and that both of his parents roots went back to the indigenous people of the Caribbean. But he didn’t identify with these origins until 20 years ago.
“I created plays on the Taino history, a mobile indigenous library and culture center and led prayer events,” Ramos explained. “My own community was eventually created by word of mouth.”
The community he has created is not compromised of one tribe but of many indigenous tribes including the Mohawk, Lenape, Taino and more. Ramos gets excited when discussing the diverse native population in New York City. Rather then exclusively learning about Taino culture and tradition, Ramos believes the beauty of the urban native population allows natives from different tribes to learn and borrow each other’s traditions and history.
Unlike other communities and major populations in the city, there is no indigenous neighborhood comparable to Chinatown or to Little Italy. Native Americans don’t come into the city and know right away where to find other like-minded people. This resulted in an unseen community, which relied on word of mouth and connections to find each other.
Native Americans started massively moving to urban centers in the1950s when the Indian Relocation Act was instated. The policy aimed to assimilate Native Americans by giving them incentives, like paying for moving expenses and vocational training, to leave Indian reservations. Experts have estimated about 750,000 Native Americans moved to cities between the 1950s and 1980s. In 2000, it was calculated that the urban native population was greater by 63 percent than before the relocation act. New York City has been home to the largest population of urban natives for more than the past three decades.
In the late 1960’s the American Indian Movement, an American Indian advocacy group, grew out of the federal actions to deconstruct native’s right to govern themselves. The group addressed sovereignty, treaty issues and leadership protests and various actions. They aimed to regain their sovereignty and it has been described as the urban native version of Black Panthers.
The American Indian Movement protests across the nation spurred the New York native population to step into the spotlight for the first time. Led by Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson in the 1950s, New York’s natives resisted governments plans to acquire tribal land upstate, which would be used to supply New York City with hydropower.
“Occasionally through out the years in order to stand in solidarity with environmental racism, urban natives come out to show their support,” said Andrew Lipman, an assistant professor of early America at Barnard College.
Lipman believes Standing Rock activism has been an extraordinary example of indigenous people coming together since the American Indian Movement in the 1960s.
“They are coming out full force by really taking advantage of social media,” said Lipman. “I think they are again borrowing practices from other activists. This time Standing Rock is modeling their outreach after the Black Lives Matters movement.”
This past August, Melissa Rivera, 23, a native New Yorker, visited Washington D.C. with her mother. Invited by an Instagram friend, Rivera attended the protest the youth of Standing Rock organized before delivering petitions to government officials. More than 140,000 Native Americans and their allies signed the letter.
“I was overcome with emotion. I got goosebumps everywhere and my mom was crying,” Rivera recalled. “We did a round dance and that’s when it started raining. The sky was clear then it started raining and then it got clear again. It was very powerful.”
At that moment Rivera began to follow what was happening at Standing Rock on social media religiously.
Rivera, a writer, always had an suspicion of her indigenous roots but she was never sure of her family origins. Daughter to first generation American-Puerto Rican parents, she never fully identified with Latino culture. When she was around 10 or 11 years old, Rivera asked her grandmother about the history of her family. Her grandmother told her both of her parents are from Taino families.
“I have the Latino, Puerto Rican side, but I have always been more towards the native culture and their beliefs: one with the earth, creator and animals,” Rivera said. “My sister is more Spanish than I am.”
Although the Riveras came from an indigenous background, Rivera did not grow up exposed to the Taino culture. She did not pay attention to her background besides acknowledging that she felt more at ease with Native American culture versus the Latino culture. Not until the moment in D.C. did she suddenly feel the pull to learn more about her Taino roots.
The Standing Rock protests began in April in Cannonball, North Dakota when Energy Transfer Partners, a energy and propane company, proposed the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross beneath Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The 1,172-mile project, spanning from North Dakota to southern Illinois, is over 90 percent complete.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe contests the section of the pipeline that transverses the Missouri River. The tribe claims they were not consulted during the environmental and cultural assessment of the pipeline. The protestors believe the pipeline imposes a threat to their water source and anyone who depends on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers’ quality of water. In addition, the tribe states the pipelines construction will disrupt sacred sites and culturally important landscapes.
“This is a struggle for native sovereignty,” said Karl Jacoby, a professor of history at Columbia University. “We live in this era of multiculturalism but we need to acknowledge the relationship Native Americans have with the American government.”
This is not the first or last pipeline that indigenous people are fighting. Just a year and half ago, after years of protest, President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline. It posed similar concerns regarding the possibility of oil spills contaminating water.
But protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were localized until journalist Amy Goodman published footage of dogs attacking protestors in the beginning of September. Suddenly supporters of indigenous heritage organized rallies in support of Standing Rock around the nation.
Fueled and horrified by the violence to the protestors at Standing Rock, Rivera decided she had to go to the camp. She appealed to her parents and convinced her mom to come with her. Within days they were on a flight to Bismarck, North Dakota.
“When I saw the first attack, I already knew that was injustice and I wanted to be out there,” Rivera said. “I was prepared to be maced and to be arrested. It’s not just about indigenous people, it’s an act for everyone to stand up for what is right.”
Both Rivera and her mom’s eyes lit up when they talked about their three-day visit to the camp.
“The feeling at camp is as Jane Fonda said, ‘I’ve never seen so much love,’” Rivera said. “It is such a strong community and everyone helps each other.”
Most of the protests and rallies held in New York City have been organized mainly on Facebook. One of the first protests in September organized by a group of native graduate students who later named themselves NYC Stands with Standing Rock was promoted through Facebook and word of mouth.
“I don’t know how many people I expected would show up but at that point I kind of felt that I must know every person of indigenous descent in New York City,” said Anne Spice, a NYC Stands with Standing Rock collective member who is currently attending The City University of New York for a PhD.
“I guess I was expecting hundreds and we had 2,000 people. I don’t think I ever felt that kind of visibility in New York. It was a kind of visibility, support and recognition of each other that I didn’t even think was possible in New York,” said Spice.
When Rivera returned to New York City, she still felt in contact with her native roots. After the initial interaction with indigenous people at the camp, Rivera felt that she knew people from all over the country: North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Los Angeles. One of these connections told her to contact an indigenous friend in the city. She did and they now are good friends.
“I was initially unaware of the indigenous community in the city,” Rivera said. “After I went to camp, you just connected with so many people. This amazing community was revealed.”
Before Standing Rock caught mainstream attention, the two local Native American community centers organized prayer marches and ceremonies to show their support with the Sioux tribe. The initial number of steady attendees averaged around 20 people.
The American Indian Community House located above a Chinese pre-school in Chinatown provides education, health and welfare programs and events in the city.
“There has been a surge of support for Standing Rock as members come to see how they can show their support,” said Sheldon Raymore, the community educator at the American Indian Community House.
The Eagle and Candor Community Center opened in 2014 with the aim to connect and empower all indigenous communities living in urban environments.
“We were the first to do a rally,” said Brooke Keiahani Rodriguez, the Chief Director of Eagle and Candor Community Center. “The first one was intimate. It catches people that want to be part of the movement.”
The first rally occurred in May. About 10 protesters walked from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to Union Square. By the beginning of November, Eagle and Candor organized a second march with over a thousand participants. The interest in the native community in New York strengthened as people came to support the cause and some returned to their indigenous roots.
Since coming back from North Dakota, Rivera has made a point to go to all the events related to Standing Rock. She believed dragging friends and family along with her and spreading awareness to her peers around New York City is what she can do best as an urban native.
At one of these protests in the financial district Rivera recalled an epiphany, “I was crying because I didn’t know there were so many supporters here and that hundreds of people came out and were willing to support us and get arrested,” she said.
A few days after returning to the city, Rivera met Ramos. A common friend that was out at camp introduced the two. She was inspired by his wealth of knowledge of the Taino culture and he by her excitement and enthusiasm for learning about indigenous people.
Rivera has done everything she can to raise awareness on the Standing Rock protest and native culture when in the city. She is learning two native languages from new native friends and will be partaking in the Thirteen Moon Ceremony organized by Eagle and Candor.
“I want to meet up with Luis and be part of all the ceremonies,” said Rivera. “It is an honor to be offered the chance to educate myself and gain that respect and that name that comes with the thirteen moon ceremony.”
The Thirteen Moon Ceremony will be the first of its kind. Ramos inspired by other native tribes borrowed the concept and will apply it to the Taino culture. Starting in January, Rivera and 15 others will meet monthly. Each month will introduce a new topic of the Taino history and culture like the language, music, and religion. After a year, the participants will be honored with a Taino name.
“We want to educate people at Eagle and Candor,” said Ramos. “People want to learn about the history but they were never taught.”
On a recent cold December afternoon Rivera and her mom sat at a picnic table each eating a hot dog with kraut at Papaya King on Saint Marks Place. Mother and daughter plus a friend were celebrating Rivera’s new tattoo. A rough outline of a thunderbird over a wave rests on Rivera’s inner forearm. Ever single edge and shape stands for the principles people in North Dakota are fighting for, mainly water is life.
As the group enjoyed coconut champagne out of bright yellow paper cups, a friend’s iPhone lit up with a news alert. Her jaw dropped and she handed it over to Rivera who squealed. The BBC had just announced that the Army Corporations of Engineers, the federal branch in charge of the nation’s water, temporarily paused construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Rivera sat silently but a smile crept on her face.
“That’s a victory for them,” said Rivera tearing up talking about the native protesters. “I can’t wait for them to get all the respect they deserve because this country has been stepping on them for centuries. I can’t relate with them because I wasn’t born on a reservation but they can teach me. I hope they appreciate the fact that I am standing in solidarity with them.”