Courtesy of Shandean Bell

I'm An Indigenous Woman Who Marched On Washington & The Fight Is Only Just Beginning

I woke up at 6 a.m. Eastern Time on the morning of the historic Women’s March on Washington, heart beating fast, excited and honored to be a part of history. After the usual morning routine — washing my face, brushing my teeth — I grabbed the leather pouch that had been mailed to me just days before. Inside laid the heirlooms of my matriarchs, turquoise and silver, symbols of the strength and beauty of the Navajo women. Each bracelet, necklace, and ring served as a piece of armor. The turquoise necklace belonged to my great-great grandmother, handed down and worn by every woman in my family. Each woman would wear it during a coming of age ceremony called a kinaalda. To me, it is a symbol of womanhood and resilience. The brooch, bracelets, rings, and earrings all had belonged to my grandmother, passed down to my own mother. As I put each item on, they were with me as I marched on Washington. A source of wisdom, protection, and power.

I live in Alexandria, Virginia, right on the border of DC and within the DC metro system. When I heard about the march, I was a little hesitant to make the decision to go. I was concerned about safety and about retaliation from groups looking to cause trouble after the inauguration. As a brown, indigenous woman, I didn't want to be a target. But after some contemplation, I knew I’d always regret not going and not being a part of the history made right in my own backyard. I decided to attend with a group of friends while my daughter and husband stayed at home, as I felt she was a little too young to handle the crowds and weather. I realized that I had an obligation to march for every woman I know, but especially for my grandmothers, my mother, my three sisters, and my daughter.

Courtesy of Shandean Bell
Going to the march was not only an opportunity for me to present my message to America, but to remind my fellow feminists that I am still here. My fight is your fight, my struggle is your struggle, and as I proactively fight for your rights, I need you to fight for mine as well.

As an indigenous woman, this march meant so much more to me than just resisting the behaviors of a new administration. I come from one of the most underrepresented minority groups in the country and the issues of my people commonly go unheard and ignored. Going to the march was not only an opportunity for me to present my message to America, but to remind my fellow feminists that I am still here. My fight is your fight, my struggle is your struggle, and as I proactively fight for your rights, I need you to fight for mine as well.

I marched proudly with my “Native Women Matter” sign and it was an odd experience to have people come up to me and ask to take my picture, touch my turquoise jewelry, and compliment my long hair. It was almost exciting for them to meet an “Indian” in real life, as if I were a novelty worthy of a spot in their Instagrams. Though I know all of these interactions were positive and covered in good intentions, it spoke to a larger issue about native rights and issue visibility. I wasn't sure if they were actually interested in the message I had, or if the visual representation I provided made them feel like they were being inclusive without having to educate themselves on indigenous issues. To be honest, I was taken aback by all the attention, but can only hope that their interest in the “Indian” woman would spark a curiosity about our struggle. Native cultural appropriation is nothing new, if not generally accepted by America. From “Native”-inspired fashion, to the ironically named “Washington Redskins,” our culture is often reduced to a costume. Marching on Washington was my way of showing up, standing tall, of reminding all those in the fight for equality that doing so includes us too.

Courtesy of Shandean Bell

Standing in a sea of hundreds of thousands of women was exhilarating. Women from all creeds, all colors, all beliefs — LGBTQIA+ advocates, non-binary folks, Latinx Americans, Muslim Americans, and more — came together to make history, to fight together. There were many speakers prior to the march, but over time I noticed a trend of the same issues being brought up over and over again by different people. I was happy to hear all of these speakers and their concerns and would have listened all day, but I waited hoping I'd hear someone mention native women, to tell us that yes, you see us and that we also matter. Finally, an announcer told us we would be marching in the opposite direction and instructed us to all turnaround.

Every step I took at the March on Washington was for my daughter, for my mother, for my grandmother, and for every Indigenous woman who lived and breathed and inherited the earth before me. I marched to show my toddler that even just one voice can make itself heard, and also that we, as a people, will not be silent.

As the crowd turned to face the national monument, we began to march, holding our signs high, excited to walk forward, but as we were walking away I heard a low and familiar sound. The sound of drums beating and the call of warriors singing. I turned to look at the screen broadcasting the rally and there they were: my warriors. Native women, standing in solidarity, speaking of broken treaties and undrinkable water. I stood there with tears of pride welling up in my eyes. I wanted to honor them with my ears and listen, even though I could barely hear, even though the crowd had turned their backs to march in the opposite direction. If it were Shailene Woodley talking about DAPL, would they have stayed? What more can we do to make them watch? What can we do to make them listen? Regardless of the irony of the situation, I was beaming with pride. I could feel the heartbeat of every native woman beating in sync with my own.

Courtesy of Shandean Bell

As the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, it’s my duty to raise my girl with a strong sense of respect and identity for her culture. To have her know where she came from and to honor her ancestors by respecting all living things. Every step I took at the March on Washington was for my daughter, for my mother, for my grandmother, and for every Indigenous woman who lived and breathed and inherited the earth before me. I marched to show my toddler that even just one voice can make itself heard, and also that we, as a people, will not be silent. I want my daughter to grow up with pride for her ancestors, to know that their blood is pumping through her veins.

I can't help but think ahead to the future and to what tomorrow will bring. When my daughter starts kindergarten, will they make her wear a hat with a feather for Thanksgiving? Will they tell her what Columbus really did, or will she have to celebrate him like I had to? Will they make fun of her and call her a “savage” in the cafeteria like my peers did to me?

More often than not, we, the mothers and defenders of our culture, are afraid that the sentiments of the past ring true today, that we are just a “bump” in the road of American progression and an embarrassing scar in US history. I have a sign up in my living room that says “feminist." On Sunday, following the march, my daughter asked me what it said. I could have cried. I told her that a feminist is someone who helps others, who loves her body, and who wants equality for everyone. At the young age of 2, she looked up at me and asked, “we love everyone?” I beamed with pride. Yes, I said. We do. And as I become more proactive in the women's rights and Indigenous rights movement, I know I'll have her beside me, watching and participating when she can so that she always knows that there is work to be done, and that it starts with us.

Courtesy of Shandean Bell

In the aftermath of the march, I can't help but think ahead to the future and to what tomorrow will bring. When my daughter starts kindergarten, will they make her wear a hat with a feather for Thanksgiving? Will they tell her what Columbus really did, or will she have to celebrate him like I had to? Will they make fun of her and call her a “savage” in the cafeteria like my peers did to me? The Navajo culture is traditionally a matriarchal society where women are highly respected as leaders and decision makers as well as heads of the household. On Saturday, I marched not to change that history, but to ensure that we don't ever go backwards. I want to instill my daughter with the confidence and pride my mother gave to me and I hope that by being an activist, she'll understand her own power and claim the matriarchal role that is her inheritance.

The march felt like just the beginning. The opportunity for women everywhere to ban together, and see each other for who we really are. I am optimistic that this renewed sense of sisterhood will shed light on the issues that indigenous women face and that we can work harder to be inclusive when we stand up for minority groups. I'll never stop fighting for the collective rights of minorities and women everywhere and although on a personal level I share articles, donate money, and stay informed about indigenous issues, moving forward I'm going to make a much more solid effort to broaden the visibility of these causes and partner with Native organizations to demand acknowledgment.

So I ask all those in the fight for equality, as we stand with you, will you stand with us?