By Heidi Travis
First-person narrative can be powerful. After a moving chant to drumbeat and self-introductions in their native languages, SXSW panelists Jade Begay, Sarain Carson-Fox, Clayton Thomas Muller and Eryn Wise shared their Standing Rock experiences. (If you’re not familiar with the controversy at Standing Rock and the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, you can read 3p’s coverage here.)
Upon finishing his story, Muller jokingly, “This panel should have been called ‘Because, North Dakota’ rather than ‘Standing Rock Awakens the World.’” Their stories help illuminate the many reasons why indigenous people should be commissioned to chronicle their own experiences. This topic also follows a common thread throughout this week’s interactive sessions at the SXSW Conference: storytelling.
First-person narrative is thoughtful and allows the listener to connect through empathy and understand a different perspective. To uphold the theme of a personalized storyline, links to information by indigenous media are provided where possible throughout. In relation to the ongoing threat to indigenous people’s lands and values, let’s explore from the panelist’s viewpoint: what’s helping the movement, the reasons why this is important, and how to support the cause.
What is working?
Like most situations, there is something to be learned from the experience. First, an unprecedented number of tribes have come together to stand up and speak out on environmental protection. A collaborative effort means many groups are combining energies to fight against destructive corporate greed. This isn’t the first time Indigenous Americans created an encampment to bring attention to and fight oppression. However, the gathering at Standing Rock is significant in that it is the largest native gathering in our time, possibly on record.
Large groups of non-indigenous people are showing support. Clayton Thomas Muller shared that the use of social media to check in — in support of the action — sends a powerful message of solidarity. He pointed out that many of the protests happening recently have a lot in common as “intersectional social movements that are anti-oppression, anti-racism and anti-colonialism,” as these injustices are being condemned. There is a common understanding that promoting indigenous rights also equates to the support of environmental justice.
Technology is also enabling people to support efforts through donation links embedded within social media campaigns. This popular and useful ‘donate’ button technology has been immensely important to funding causes like legal representation for Standing Rock.
In addition, tribal members are standing up to create a better community in an attempt to end the cycle of poverty. Leaders are emerging and sharing strategies to rebuild poor areas into sustainable, thriving communities.
Why does this matter?
Unfortunately the enumeration of history and much of the mainstream narrative has come from outside native culture. Moreover, corporations continue to offer misleading and often false information on impacts to people and planet in order to meet their own objectives.
According to the Standing Rock panelists, the consensus is that the media outlets covering the encampments arrived with a framework already created. Panelists attested that by doing this, the story being told was less authentic and lacked honesty.
Many of the people who were interviewed felt insulted by media descriptions of their lives — using a single traumatic life event to define them. While defining people by the conflict in North Dakota may prompt sympathy (or shock), it does nothing to inform the public about the complexity of their lives. As complex humans, protestors felt no real connection to their own story when written so simply.
Many who followed the protests may not realize in April 2016, the first grassroots camp launched near the Cannon Ball River at Sacred Stone. The original encampment’s purpose was to peacefully demonstrate against the pipeline crossing the river. Water crossing permits were issued by U..S Army Corps of Engineers in July despite the potential negative impact on the environment.
Due to this setback, a larger camp was created on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. According to Erin Wise, who was at the camp for five months, after permits were granted the camp grew to thousands of native youth protesting in solidarity. Between April and September, there was no media coverage.
Once the media arrived in September, the people in the camp were not asked to talk about why the protest was important to their lives, values or culture. Erin shared that reporters were more interested in when the next ‘trauma’ would happen — like the instances where people were injured from mace or dog attacks – and exploiting sacred traditions for their story, rather than asking those involved if they could share these in a way that honored them.
Panelist Sarain Carson-Fox, a TV host for Viceland whose cell phone case boldly read RESIST, advocates for people to have the ability to cover their own stories. She described that many people might “want to resist in their own way”. Standing Rock is covered by Viceland in a show called Rise, about indigenous “people protecting their homelands and rising up against colonization,” says Carson-Fox. Part of the series covered Rio Doce – possibly Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. Carson-Fox shared her shock of seeing the devastation from that mining disaster and shared how disheartened she felt at arriving in North Dakota to see how poorly her brothers and sisters were being treated as they tried to prevent a similar type of disaster. It’s an unfortunate fact that many pipelines spill. It’s just a matter of when…
Furthermore, both policy makers and corporations continue to lack respect for the rights of their land. Panelists also called out many related issues that are driving protestors including colonialism, racism, oppression, indigenous rights, and environmental justice. Presently, this also includes the historically dishonored Ft. Laramie Treaty. This treaty assigned land areas in North Dakota to tribes and is still debated legally and politically! A complete lack of social and environmental justice is conveyed by assessments of impact as shown by “Confidential Memo: Dakota Access LLC Knowingly Dismissed Standing Rock Impacts.”
What can you do to help?
- As a journalist or just a mere human, listen first and think about the context of the story you’re engaged with.
- Fund technology through donations or a shared economy system so people have the means to tell their story. Jade Begay hopes people will entrust native organizations with platforms, grant funding, and share media tools.
- Build partnerships to coordinate efforts to cover information. According to Muller, it would be beneficial to partner with an experienced organization or University to help train people to effectively share in their own way. He shared an example of a project: Indigenous Rising Media would like to create and maintain an archive of stories for future generations.
- Lobby financial institutions. Consumers should put pressure on banks to pull out of socially bad investments. Explore opportunities to change your banking institution to one that isn’t funding pipeline projects. So far 63 mill. / 6 bill. has been divested according to Muller (especially from European Banks).
- Banks should consider a adding a section on environmental liability to the funding application process. Projects like this include a risk that isn’t currently considered. Companies should be held responsible for cleaning up after themselves and therefore undertake responsibility – not government (ie. consumer taxes).
- “Separate oil and state”. “Exxon should not run state department” – Muller.
- Call your representative and tell them that the government should not be allowing companies to explore in our protected regions – National parks, arctic, or under native lands (where a significant percent of fossil fuels are estimated to exist).
The problem with the implementation of these pipelines goes well beyond the direct threat to water and ecosystem. We should all be concerned with how and why policies and regulations are failing to protect our people and the environment from this type of injustice. If all people have access to tools to tell their own stories, we might be able to listen and understand one another a little bit better. Think about how you can help create access for native people to communicate their own stories through the landscape of their own values. It’s both powerful and empowering to be able to tell your own story.
Image courtesy of the author
Heidi Travis is a full-time planner, designer, and lover of being active in the beautiful outdoors. Heidi recently made a move to discover everything Austin has to offer after growing up in Atlanta, enjoying life in the mountains of Asheville, and appreciating the convenience of living in a city like Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, she earned her Masters in Environmental Studies at Penn and enjoyed biking to work, as well as being involved in many campus sustainability projects. You can follow her on twitter @heidi_travis15