“Your Presence Has Brought the Attention of the World”: Native American Protest and the Media

On December 4, 2016, Native American water protectors won a major battle against what they call the “black snake” — the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The Department of the Army announced that the oil pipeline, which would pass near the source of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s drinking water, would not be drilled under a section of the Missouri River. The Army opted to look for alternative routes, bypassing the Standing Rock Sioux reservation’s main source of water.

Upon hearing the news, Dave Archambault II, the tribal chairman of the Standing Rock reservation, told protectors “It’s wonderful … You all did that. Your presence has brought the attention of the world.”1 And indeed they had; since August, the water protectors had begun blocking DAPL construction sites, bringing both national and international press to the North Dakota reservation. Support grew as word of the protests spread. Other tribes joined in, as well as veterans, environmentalists, and even presidential candidates Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders.

The protectors used social media to their advantage; there are hundreds of unofficial NoDAPL protest pages, and the Sacred Stone Camp’s Facebook page has almost 400,000 “likes” while the reservation itself had over 750,000 “likes.” In addition, a protest where Facebook users “checked in” at the Standing Rock Reservation drew over 1 million supporters. Although the original purpose of checking in was to try and confuse authorities (a tactic that was later debunked by the authorities), the NoDAPL protectors used the opportunity to share their message and solicit financial and moral support for the protest.2

Dakota pipeline protest. (Victoria Pickering/Flickr Commons)

While the NoDAPL protest is a clear indication of the way Native American activists have used the media to bring attention to their protests, it is far from the first time a group of indigenous protestors have effectively used the media to their advantage. For groups with relatively little “official” power, the media can be an effective tool to raise support and bring the voices of the powerless front and center. Letter-writing campaigns, visible protests, and courting journalists have all been used by indigenous protesters to bring attention and support to their causes.

And while the NoDAPL protest might be the most recent, Native American activists have consistently used the media to their advantage. Indeed, the story of a small domestic violence shelter in South Dakota received national attention due to the savvy efforts of a small group of indigenous women.

In 1990, the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) — a health advocacy group and center headed by Yankton Sioux tribal member Charon Asetoyer located in Lake Andes, South Dakota — decided to open a domestic violence shelter next to their center.

Previously, the NAWHERC provided what they called “crisis services,” which included housing women and children in local motels or people’s homes. The nearest long-term shelter was 170 miles away in Brookings, South Dakota. While there were other shelters a bit closer (there was one in Yankton, 75 miles away), these shelters were small and filled up regularly. Asetoyer and the center’s board decided to purchase a residential home next to the center to begin housing domestic violence victims.

There was a small problem, however; the house wasn’t zoned for a domestic violence shelter. Asetoyer and other leaders of the NAWHERC found this out at a city council meeting, when they were informed that would need a zoning variance which had to be approved through a special community hearing. Asetoyer was understandably concerned. The council meeting was hostile, and she feared the council wouldn’t be willing to approve the zoning variance. The local consensus was that such decisions were generally easy and casual.

Charon Asetoyer, founder of Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. (National Organization of Women/Flickr Commons)

For example, Asetoyer chatted about the issue with a local grocer who told her “aw, hell, they’ll give it to you, they gave us a building permit on a handshake.”3 Nonetheless, Asetoyer engaged the services of a lawyer and requested that Karen Artichoker, a consultant for the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, attend the zoning meeting to help explain the critical need for a domestic violence shelter in Lake Andes. In addition, independent filmmaker Jone Miller was also there filming the meeting. She had heard about Asetoyer in an issue of Mother Jones and thought Asetoyer might make a good film subject. Luckily for the NAWHERC, Miller’s camera captured the meeting and the council’s response to Asetoyer.

From the beginning, the council meeting was hostile toward Asetoyer and the NAWHERC. Questions abounded regarding policing of the shelter, day to day security, taxation, and the necessity of a shelter. During the hearing, Mike Whalen, Assistant State’s Attorney and brother to the council’s attorney, read a prepared statement, a lengthy attack on Native Americans. He noted:

Indian culture … is presently so mongrelized as to be a mix of dependency on the federal government and a primitive society wholly on the outside of the mainstream of Western civilization … the Native American culture … is a culture of hopelessness, godlessness, of joblessness, and lawlessness … Your young men and your women are raised without a sense of moral responsibility.4

At no point during Whalen’s speech did any council member object. Asetoyer defended her community but it was all for naught. The zoning variance was denied.

The NAWHERC went into action almost immediately. They filed a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit against the Assistant State’s Attorney, the City Zoning Commission, and the City of Lake Andes. Asetoyer managed to convince the Center for Constitutional Rights to argue their case and she launched a major letter-writing and protest campaign.

While the defendants painted this as a personal vendetta by Asetoyer against men with whom she’d had previous conflicts, the plaintiffs made clear they saw this as a conflict over a racist government. As a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Sara Rios, noted, “race did play a motivating role in the defendants’ decision to deny the zoning variance.”5

#NoDAPL protest in San Francisco. (Peg Hunter/Flickr Commons)

For the NAWHERC, this wasn’t simply a courtroom battle: it was a battle of perception. If they could win the support of the public, Asetoyer believed they would win the larger fight against racism and discrimination. The NAWHERC sent a letter called “A Call to Fight Racism and Assaults Against Native American Women” to groups, individuals, and news agencies across the country. The issue was covered extensively in South Dakota newspapers and was even mentioned in an issue of Ms. magazine. Numerous editorials were written in support of the NAWHERC and many called for Whalen to step down.

Journalists were also there for the interracial protests in the small town of Lake Andes, where protesters marched in front of Whalen’s office, calling for his resignation, before ending at the local courthouse. In addition, thousands of letters flooded the offices of the Lake Andes mayor, the South Dakota Governor, and the South Dakota Attorney General. The letters came from hundreds of domestic violence shelters across the country; from women’s health organizations including the National Black Women’s Health Project, the National Latina Health Organization, the National Women’s Health Network, and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective; from feminist icons like Gloria Steinem; and from South Dakotan politicians including conservative senator Tom Daschle. The NAWHERC had successfully mobilized a massive campaign in support of a small shelter in rural South Dakota.

Ultimately, the NAWHERC was unsuccessful in their discrimination suit. During the trial, however, the NAWHERC managed to purchase a different house for their shelter which opened its doors in September 1991. Although the lawsuit was decided in favor of the defendants, Asetoyer saw the media campaign as successful. Financial donations came in to fund the shelter and many Americans who had never come into contact with a tribal member saw the racism and vitriol they regularly experienced. Indeed, success for Asetoyer and the NAWHERC was more complex than a zoning variance. Success meant bringing attention to the plight of indigenous communities.

NoDAPL protectors also have a complex understanding of success. Since December, water protectors have seen a series of setbacks under President Trump’s administration. This month, the Army offered an easement on a disputed section of land, allowing for the pipeline’s construction.6

Protectors, however, haven’t stopped fighting. In January, water protectors unfurled a large “DIVEST #NoDAPL” banner at a Minnesota Vikings game, once again bringing national attention to a battle many thought was won.7 Many in the media stressed the vocal “boos” hurled at the protectors by game attendants, but the water protectors understand that the media attention is critical to their larger goals of divestment, environmentalism, and support of indigenous sovereignty.

Indeed, the DAPL divestment movement is gathering steam; Seattle cut ties with Wells-Fargo, one of the seventeen banks providing credit to the DAPL builders, as did Davis, California.8 And thousands more protesters across the country have called for support of the water protectors through divestment.

Women’s Solidarity with Standing Rock. (Peg Hunter/Flickr Commons)

While the closings of the NoDAPL camp this past week is undoubtedly a major setback, water protestors aren’t finished with their fight. Numerous activists have vowed to continue their fight in the courts. As Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, recently noted to the New York Times, “Our hearts are not defeated … The closing of the camp is not the end of a movement or fight. It is a new beginning. They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started.”9

Without their savvy use of the media, few Americans outside of the Dakotas would have known much about the pipeline and its impacts, nor would there be a national conversation on indigenous rights at this scale. As the stories of both the NAWHERC and the #NoDAPL movement show, Native American activists have (and continue to) utilize the media to bring power to the powerless.

Notes

  1. Jack Healy and Nicholas Fandos, “Protesters Gain Victory in Fight Over Dakota Access Oil Pipeline,” New York Times, December 4, 2016. Return to text.
  2. Katie Rogers, “Why Your Facebook Friends Are Checking In to Standing Rock,” New York Times, October 31, 2016. Return to text.
  3. Charon Asetoyer Affidavit, Box 8, Folder 2, 1990. Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Return to text.
  4. NAWHERC Complaint, Box 8, Folder 3, 1990. Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Return to text.
  5. Todd Nelson, “Jury: Shelter decision not discrimination,” Box 7, Folder 16, 1991. Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Return to text.
  6. Julie Turkewitz, “Army Approves Construction of Dakota Access Pipeline,” New York Times, February 7, 2017. Return to text.
  7. Eliott C. McLaughlin, “2 Arrested After Dangling Alongside #NoDAPL Banner at Vikings Game,” CNN, January 2, 2017. Return to text.
  8. Matt Egan, “Seattle to Cut Ties with Wells Fargo Over Dakota Access Pipeline”, CNN, February 8, 2017. Return to text.
  9. Mitch Smith, “Standing Rock Protest Camp, Once Home to Thousands, Is Razed,” New York Times, February 23, 2017. Return to text.

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