Protests have been occurring around San Luis Obispo concerning the new president-elect, but there have been gatherings concerning other issues too. In this case, the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
A smoky scent overtook the scene. Burning white sage leaves were passed around. A glowing crescent moon seemed to materialize out of the embers.
After enough people gathered and the signs were made, they formed a circle outside of Mission San Luis Obispo. Thoughts and prayers were given one by one.
Then the march began.
“The real patriots are the people that are marching,” 33-year-old San Luis Obispo resident Joaquin Mendez said. “This whole situation isn’t just something in a movie.”
An American flag with a Native American chief superimposed in the center was draped over Mendez. The combined images made for a powerful statement as Mendez and a group of peaceful protesters walked through San Luis Obispo’s weekly farmers market last Thursday night.
Their goal: to spread awareness about the Dakota Access oil pipeline and the activist efforts at Standing Rock Reservation.
The holdup on the $3.7 billion project has created a surge of attention between the North and South Dakota borders. Native Americans on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation say the oil pipeline trespasses on their sacred lands and threatens water usage and resources. This has prompted protests against the construction of the pipeline, which aims to reach south toward Illinois. However, the protests have become a national topic, adding to today’s political stress with the emergency of climate change and tension of the presidential race.
“Mni wiconi!” the group chanted.
The next cheer revealed the translation as, “Water is life!”
The group of around 20 people marched down Higuera Street through the crowds and lines of tents. As they walked and protested, many onlookers showed little reaction. There were occasional smiles and cheers but also huddled whispers.
“You definitely turn heads, but are they gonna look into it afterward?” 18-year-old Erica Shapiro said. “We’ll never know.”
Shapiro is originally from San Diego but moved to San Luis Obispo about a month ago. She created the march as a Facebook event and drew a small group together. She wanted to have a peaceful protest in response to the violence that protesters at Standing Rock Reservation are facing.
It was by no means an age-specific event. An elementary school boy beat the drum for part of the march while the voice of 60-year-old John Reid rallied.
“For the first time in this county we had a voice for Standing Rock,” Reid said. “At least we’re able to make a statement of support.”
Reid lives in Paso Robles and explained how this problem is locally relevant.
“It affects all of us,” Reid said. “There are a lot of local projects that could potentially have a negative impact on water.”
Two Cal Poly students who saw the march were senior industrial engineering student Logan Kregness and sophomore anthropology and geography major Rosalie Leborgne.
Leborgne commented on how national news has impacted San Luis Obispo.
“It just adds more reality to it when it’s in your community,” Leborgne said.
“I think it’s really great,” Kregness said. He added that this is especially true because of the large demographics of the city that aren’t affected by this issue.
Mendez shared the same view as Kregness and had his own feelings towards the protest and the situation in Standing Rock.
“Everyone here is so comfortable,” he said. “They don’t wanna hear about it.”
Mendez said his grandfather was Aztec, so he relates heavily to issues surrounding native peoples and land ownership. While Aztecs are mostly associated with Mexican culture, Mendez described how indigenous survivors have a strong connection as a people with similar heritage.
“There’s not many of us left,” Mendez said. “That’s what’s special about Standing Rock is that the tribes are coming together.”
The oil pipeline’s construction is currently on halt. People are speaking out across the country and some are even traveling to Standing Rock to protest with the Native Americans there.
Even though many people may not feel connected to Native American history or culture, Mendez explained that those things are much closer to home than people know.
“You’re sitting next to natives every day, you just don’t know it,” Mendez said. “We’re all native.”