On Oct. 31, more than one million Facebook users “checked in” to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This was done in response to a post purporting that inundating Facebook with public check-ins could divert police monitoring of activists who were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
As reported in The Guardian, “Members of more than 90 Native American nations have converged on Standing Rock in North Dakota since April to protest against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, saying it would jeopardize the tribe’s water supply and threaten sacred tribal sites” (The Guardian, “Standing Rock: One million people ‘check in’ on Facebook to support Dakota pipeline protesters,” 10.31.2016).
The proposed pipeline would run from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Southern Illinois, crossing parts of the Mississippi River and Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Tribal leaders expressed concerns about potential impacts on water quality and the risk of desecrating sacred lands. The Army Corps of Engineers would later approve water crossing permits anyway, despite protests from the Standing Rock Sioux and concerns expressed by the Department of the Interior (Common Dreams, “What You Need To Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline,” 09.09.2016).
In defense of land that is rightfully theirs, indigenous protesters faced heavily armed riot police and a multi-pronged operation to clear encampments with pepper spray and tear gas. Hundreds of protesters were subsequently arrested and jailed.
Cody Hall, a member of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, described his harsh treatment in jail to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Hall related to Goodman that Morton County police strip-searched him, describing the process as “one of those tactics that they try to break down your mentalness of everyday life, because not every day do you wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to get, you know, naked and have somebody search me today,’ you know?” (Democracy Now!, “Dakota Excess Pipeline? Standing Rock Protectors Strip-Searched, Jailed for Days on Minor Charges,” 10.27.2016).
While the public check-ins have not yet been verified as having any effect on police surveillance, this trend imbues one of the most critical controversies of 2016 with much needed visibility. The Facebook campaign, while easily dismissible as “armchair activism,” centers indigenous struggle against such blatant violations of both national sovereignty and the constitutional right to organize.
Reckoning with toxic solipsism in public expressions of solidarity–especially among white folk–is essential. Furthermore, public displays of solidarity are only first steps in collectively aiding indigenous peoples in their struggle to stop the pipeline’s construction. For readers with sufficient financial means, consider donating to the Legal Defense Fund for the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp or directly to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at standingrock.org.
One thing that can be said is the Facebook check-in phenomenon has certainly helped generate greater awareness for an issue that has been consistently excluded from mainstream media outlets since the protests began back in April. Most outlets did not begin reporting extensively on the protests until confrontations turned violent in late October.
Moreover, such visibility is especially crucial when indigenous narratives of resistance are further silenced in the realm of national politics.
One would assume that the ongoing struggles in North Dakota would be a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. This has not been the case whatsoever.
Donald Trump’s relative silence on the pipeline can be traced to the fact that the real estate mogul owns stock in the pipeline. Financial disclosures show, “[H]e owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners … Trump’s form also shows he holds between $100,000 and $250,000 in Phillips 66 stock, which has a one-quarter share of Dakota Access” (ABC News, “Trump Holds Stock in Dakota Access Pipeline,” 10.26.2016).
His opponent’s response was not much more substantive. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wrote, “Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects. Now, all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest” (Indian Country Today, “Clinton Campaign Responds to DAPL Face-Off,” 10.27.2016).
The Clinton campaign’s words reflect a thinly-veiled attempt at neutrality in regards to an issue where neutrality isn’t an option.
Vocal support from the Democratic presidential nominee could have pressured Energy Transfer Partners and the government of North Dakota to cease plans for further construction of the pipeline. Her campaign’s cop-out response, instead, implicitly justifies the actions of these entities as potentially serving “the broadest public interest.” This is an unacceptable insinuation that ignores the reality on the ground for indigenous organizers.
According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Native Americans constitute 1.9 percent of police killings, though make up just 0.8 percent of the country’s population.
In South Dakota, indigenous individuals “were handed down 57 percent more prison time than whites, according to research from the University of South Dakota” (Al-Jazeera America, “5 things that may surprise you about Native Americans’ police encounters,” 01.27.2016).
The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline must be viewed in the context of persistent erasure of indigenous struggles in the United States.
As indigenous social justice organizer and commentator Kelly Hayes wrote, “The harms committed against us have long been relegated to the history books. This erasure has occurred for the sake of both white supremacy and US mythology … Our struggles have been kept both out of sight and out of mind … It should be clear to everyone that we are not simply here in those rare moments when others bear witness” (Transformative Spaces, “How To Talk About #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective,” 10.27.2016).