Native protectors at Wash. State Capitol square off with riot police, and stay put

Members of the Indigenous group, Protectors of the Salish Sea, vow to stay until Gov. Inslee declares a climate emergency and terminates fossil fuel expansion projects

“Where’s Jay?” That's what Indigenous protectors occupying the steps of the Washington State Legislative Building have been saying for over two weeks.

Members of the group, Protectors of the Salish Sea, founded and led by Paul Chiyokten Wagner of the Saanich Nation, have kept a 24-hour vigil on the steps of the capitol building since September 24. They say they’ll stay until Gov. Jay Inslee meets their four demands, which include issuing an executive order terminating all fossil fuel expansion projects in the state.

Northern Cheyenne member Raymond Kingfisher speaks to the gathering at the October 5 Climate Emergency Rally on the capitol steps sponsored by the Protectors of the Salish Sea.
Northern Cheyenne member Raymond Kingfisher speaks to the gathering at the October 5 Climate Emergency Rally on the capitol steps sponsored by the Protectors of the Salish Sea.Frank Hopper

But their efforts to hold a peaceful vigil were met with riot police.

“We’re inviting Jay Inslee to come here and become a national hero by declaring a climate emergency,” Wagner told Indian Country Today.

Shined on by the governor, then snubbed

After placating Native and environmental protection groups in May by withdrawing his unnecessary support for a liquefied natural gas plant and a methanol refinery in Washington, Gov. Inslee snubbed Indigenous pleas to appear at Wagner’s Climate Emergency Rally held Saturday, October 5.

Gov. Inslee has ignored demands by the Protectors of the Salish Sea group that he declare a “climate emergency” and issue an executive order terminating fossil fuel expansion projects in Washington.

Paul Chiyoken Wagner speaks beside a cardboard cutout of Gov, Jay Inslee at the October 5 Climate Emergency Rally in Olympia.
Paul Chiyoken Wagner speaks beside a cardboard cutout of Gov, Jay Inslee at the October 5 Climate Emergency Rally in Olympia.Frank Hopper

In the same week the group made its demand, Gov. Inslee caved-in to the multi-million dollar anti-vaping lobby by signing an executive order banning flavored vaping products in his state. The anti-vaping lobby gained momentum in September when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he is contributing $160 million to the fight against flavored e-cigarettes.

Many Native protectors and climate change warriors have stated that Gov. Inslee putting his support of the fight against vaping ahead of the fight against climate change shows how misguided his priorities are.

“Without anybody teaching them about what it means to be a human being,” Wagner explained during a September 28 interview, “they’ll reap the lives of our children and yours eventually because they’ve never had an elder. They’re an adolescent society. They destroyed them and we’re an ancient society, an elder society, and we’re here just to pray for your children.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee speaks at the UN Climate Summit in New York City
Washington Governor Jay Inslee speaks at the UN Climate Summit in New York City.Photo Courtesy Office of the Governor

Inslee sends 70 riot cops to Native prayer gathering

Gov. Inslee further showed his disregard of local Indigenous tribes by sending 70 troopers from the Washington State Patrol in riot gear to a Native American prayer gathering at the foot of the Washington legislative building. They came Tuesday night, September 24, just before midnight to disperse the gathering and to confiscate the group’s four sacred tipi-like structures called “tarpees” that they had erected.

Wagner refused to leave or take down the four tarpees. He designed them to keep elders warm during the bitter North Dakota winter during the Standing Rock standoff. Wagner donated about 70 tarpees to the water protectors there.

“We gathered to protect those tarpees and the sitters on top,” Wagner explained, “and by then we saw a wall of them come from here over to that lamp post, seventy of them, the militarized riot police in riot gear with these rubber-bullet guns. So we started singing our songs and praying.”

A line of troopers in body armor advanced on them, marching in lockstep. The protectors sang Native songs, drummed, prayed, and held their ground. To Wagner it appeared the police had never seen anything like it.

“They’d never seen a prayer like that. They’d never dreamed of that kind of power. Some of those officers had tears in their eyes. Some of them couldn’t step forward when they were commanded to by their superior officers,” Wagner said.

Police and protectors held negotiations. The protectors agreed to take down the tarpees and the police agreed to allow a small contingency of protectors to remain indefinitely on the Legislative Building steps. They have been there ever since, occupying the site in shifts and sleeping in tents at a nearby camping site.

The history of the occupation

Paul Chiyokten Wagner, leader of the Protectors of the Salish Sea stands vigil on the steps of the Washington state capitol building in Olympia, Washington.
Paul Chiyokten Wagner, leader of the Protectors of the Salish Sea stands vigil on the steps of the Washington state capitol building in Olympia, Washington. Photo byFrank Hopper

Wagner helped organize a nearly identical event in January 2018 in which four tarpees were similarly erected in front of the Legislative Building. That occupation lasted four days. Five months later he and four of his tarpees participated in a direct action event against pipeline financer Chase Bank in downtown Seattle.

But this action is different. It started with a four-day, 47-mile march from Tacoma to Olympia. Members of the group and its allies started on September 20 as part of the Global Climate Strike inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

The march began at the site of Puget Sound Energy’s 8-million gallon liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma on land once owned by the Puyallup tribe and still protected by The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854.

After the march, the confrontation with police, and subsequent occupation, the group held a rally on Saturday, October 5, in front of the legislative building. A cardboard cutout of Gov. Inslee attended, but not the actual governor, who had previous engagements scheduled. He did not send a representative from his staff, however, nor did he send any form of message or statement to the gathering.

Gov. Inslee dropped out of the race for president in August and is instead running for this third term as Washington governor in 2020. To his detractors, Inslee’s image as a climate change governor is maintained to appeal to his largely liberal voter base. In reality, they say, Gov. Inslee, is simply using the issue to advance his political career, which the protectors and others call “greenwashing.”

“In our backward world where leaders act like children and children act like leaders, Native protectors must be both prayerful and bold to save our planet from a climate catastrophe,” Wagner said referring to the occupation.

“We’re healing all of this backwardness, yes,” Wagner affirmed. “This is our prayer for the children’s future.”

As of publication, the protectors continue occupying the steps of the capitol building.

Related article: Washington governor withdraws support of LNG plant, sides with Puyallup Tribe

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now lives in Tacoma.

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