National Museum of American Indian expresses 'regret' for Native Nations Rise incident

Jolie Varela with her "Mni Wiconi" (Water Is LIfe) patch at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. "They can TRY to make me take it off," she wrote on Facebook on March 11, 2017, after a security guard said she couldn't wear the symbol on her jacket. Photo: Jolie Varela

The National Museum of the American Indian is apologizing for the way a group of Native women were treated in Washington, D.C.

A security guard asked the women, who were in the nation's capital for the historic Native Nations Rise event, to remove their jackets before entering the facility on March 11. When asked why, they were told they were weren't allowed to bring signs or banners inside.

The explanation was troubling to Jolie Varela, a citizen of the Tule River Tribe who lived at the #NoDAPL encampment in North Dakota for two months last year. She and other members of her group were wearing jackets with the familiar "Mni Wiconi" (Water Is Life) patches that are typically pinned or stitched on the backs of items of clothing.

"I endured freezing weather, tear gas, verbal abuse, abuse at the hands of law enforcement to stand up for water," Varela said on Facebook after the incident. "To stand up for our rights as humans and our rights as Natives. When asked to remove these items that are so much a part of me now I was in utter disbelief."

But it turns out the security guard was wrong. After conducting a review of the incident, museum staff said the employee "misinterpreted" a rule barring signs or banners inside the facility.

"The two water protectors were allowed into the building but unfortunately and incorrectly they were asked to remove their jackets," the museum said in a statement, referring to Varela and one other woman in her group. "The rule has been clarified with all of our officers."

"It is not the museum's intention that people — and certainly Native people — ever feel unwelcome or unacknowledged here," the museum said.

"We sincerely regret this happened," the statement concluded.

Varela and her group indeed entered the museum after the holdup at the security check. They offered a song and prayer in the atrium of the facility that drew attention to the struggles facing Native people and showed why they came to D.C. for Native Nations Rise in the first place.

"I just want to thank the powerful women who stood with me yesterday and everyone who followed," Varela said on Facebook afterward. "This movement started with standing against DAPL but it's become so much more."

Native Nations Rise drew about 5,000 tribal citizens and their allies for a march from the headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the White House last Friday. They came to send a message to President Donald Trump, who previously discounted Native opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline as he approved the controversial project without consulting the affected tribes.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe are now hoping to secure justice in the federal courts. They are hoping to stop oil from flowing through the pipeline, which is all but complete except for a small portion in North Dakota.

"We faced a lot of obstacles and we faced a lot of setbacks," Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said at the March 10 rally in front of the White House. "But we're not defeated. We're not defeated."

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