Tampa, FL

Native Americans and allies gather to honor and protect the Earth in Tampa

Justin Garcia

Native American dancersJustin Garcia

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

- Sitting Bull

In Native American culture, the shape of the circle represents the sun, moon, the Earth and the interconnectedness of all beings. From humans, to winged and legged creatures, to the dirt and the water, the circle shows how everything that exists relies on everything else.

It’s for this reason that people at Curtis Hixon Park in Downtown Tampa sat in a circle as speakers from all walks of life came forward during an Earth Day Healing Event on Friday.

They vocalized the causes for the Earth's suffering, from individual decisions, to colonization, to Capitalism, to widespread war and ignorance.

“Without love, humanity will no longer exist,” proclaimed Wici Tok Ab Iyanke, a descendant of the Lakota Tribe leader Sitting Bull. “But together and with care for each other, humanity can conquer any machine.”

Iyanke was in Standing Rock, North Dakota in 2016, fighting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Natives refer to as “the black snake”. Natives prophesied that the black snake would attempt to spread across the land. If it were to succeed, it would cast a shadow across the spirit of the people and sew destruction. That’s why Iyanke, whose grandmother survived the Wounded Knee Massacre at the hands of the U.S. Army, stood tall with fellow Lakota, other Natives and activists to defend not only their water, but Florida’s water as well. As Iyanke points out, the water from the Missouri river near Standing Rock flows into the Mississippi, which ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Iyanke (left) addresses the crowd next to Alicia Norris of FIREEJustin Garcia

Iyanke told the crowd that when they were resisting the pipeline, he looked around the camp to see they were surrounded by military police, and he remembered his ancestors. He got the sinking feeling that history was repeating itself.

Despite the force used against them by the police and military, their fight convinced former president Barack Obama to revoke the permit for the pipeline, but when Trump was in office he signed an executive order to re-permit the project. This decision was overturned by the Biden administration in January.

The purpose of defending water became a constant theme throughout the gathering. Adam Shield of The Feather, an Indigenous activist who created the non-profit Tree of Light, spoke about water as the main carrier of information on Earth.

“Think about it, even all of us humans are basically sacks of water,” he said. The audience responded with a collective chuckle and nodding of heads in agreement.

Adam Shield of The Feather speaksJustin Garcia

He spoke about the suffering of the water in Florida and the ongoing struggle in the Everglades, where Natives are pushing back on a current proposal to drill for oil. He gazed at the Hillsborough River, which runs alongside Curtis Hixon Park. With a deep conviction he said, “We have to help her heal.”

Adam referred to the river as 'her' because Native Americans believe in the divine feminine; that femininity is responsible for all life on Earth. This is why most Native tribes are matriarchies.

Alicia Norris, co-founder of Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE) played a drum and sang the song Huey Tonantzin, which originated from the Aztecs of Central America. The lyrics translated mean: we are all one, heart in vibration, I love you, thank you, Mother Earth, Great Mother Earth. She invited people to sing along, and those who picked up the words sang in unison with her.

She spoke about FIREE’s work in Florida to protect nature and the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty before introducing Sheridan Murphy, who talked about the politics behind the dire situation humanity finds itself in, and how the environment’s struggle is connected to racial and social justice movements. His message: people haven’t done enough collectively to fight back against those who wish the Earth and humanity harm.

“They tell you that they have power, but all they have is authority,” Murphy said. “The Hillsborough River is power. Hurricanes are power. All of you here are power.”

ErrDaisha Floyd spoke on behalf of the activist group People’s Safety Coalition, and said that as a socialist, she sees Capitalism as the root cause of earthly and human suffering. She argued that in order to save our situation, society as a whole needs to be radically and systemically changed.

ErrDaisha Floyd speaks to the crowd at the Earth Day Healing EventJustin Garcia

Other activists spoke out about their own journeys to realize the importance of protecting nature. Caitlin Hagney, a junior at Plant High School, expressed that during the pandemic, she felt the urge more than ever to speak out about protecting the environment. She started talking to classmates and quietly putting up flyers around school during her sophomore year. Now, she’s helped start a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a nationwide youth-led activist group. Ollie Ruth, a fellow young activist and poet, read a poem about the suffering of Mother Earth.

Between each speaker, the organizer of the event, Mary-Liz Estrada of Sustainable Souls Tampa Bay, praised the speakers and put their words in context. She announced and helped facilitate activities that took place, from the traditional Earth blessing of placing tobacco on the grass at the beginning of the event, to the prayers, songs and dances that took place.

Native dancers took center stage in the middle of the event, and performed dances in colorful traditional outfits. Suddenly, they initiated a circle dance and asked all 30 people in attendance to join in, moving in a counterclockwise circle as Native music played in the background. The dance ended with cries of joy and unity from the crowd.

Near the end of the event, a moment was offered for people from the crowd to speak out about environmental issues. Jeannie Mounger with the Save the USF Forest Preserve spoke about the proposed development of over 700 acres of preserve land in Tampa, and encouraged people to get involved with protecting the land.

To close the event, Adam Shield of The Feather called on everyone to participate in a water blessing. Here, people announced their intentions toward a vase full of water. “Healing”, “love”, “hope” and “learning” were some of the words shouted from the crowd. Each person took turns adding gifts to the body of water, placing flowers around it, and putting herbs and water they brought to the event inside the vase. Adam encouraged everyone to take their time with the offerings and to be intentional with their gifts.

Event attendees offer gifts during a water blessingJustin Garcia

The entire crowd followed as he carried the vase full of water to a dock on the Hillsborough River, where he asked everyone who identified as feminine to come to the front and each pour a bit of the water into the river. Onlookers on nearby boats gawked and smiled as each took their turn.

Water from the blessing vase is poured into the Hillsborough RiverJustin Garcia

Tears and joyous sounds of celebration poured through the crowd as the last bit of water left the vase. Lively conversations broke out as people prepared to part ways. They spoke about their hopes for the healing of the river, and for the rest of Mother Earth.

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I write stories about Florida politics, environmental issues, interesting people and music. I strive to shine a light on issues that are still in the dark, as well as help to give voice to the voiceless.

Tampa, FL

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