A call for cultural change over celebrity culture in our media
Twenty-eight people were arrested for resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline in southern North Dakota on Oct. 10, Indigenous People’s Day. And yet only one name seemed to matter — actor Shailene Woodley — and not the countless indigenous people who have been actively struggling for water and land rights, as well as for their lives.
I was there that day, chanting toward a row of police officers in riot gear, overwhelmed with gratitude and humility to both witness and participate as an ally in the Standing Rock Sioux’s peaceful struggle for cultural and environmental autonomy. It was an honor to be an ally — but this movement is not about me, or Shailene Woodley. We shouldn’t need the involvement of celebrities to validate important struggles for justice, especially when these celebrities are often not even part of the group most directly affected by injustice.
This diverse movement is about the hundreds of tribes coming together in solidarity for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who have been peacefully resisting the 1,100-mile long, $3.8 billion pipeline for months — and indigenous cultures resisting white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism for half a century.
The pipeline, which is already almost halfway completed, would transport 400,000 barrels of oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois, continuing to the Gulf of Mexico. The Sioux have launched a legal battle arguing the path of construction under the Missouri River just half a mile from the reservation’s tribal boundary threatens sites of cultural significance and vital resources. Pipelines can certainly break — and, in this case, an oil spill would threaten the water supply of the reservation, not to mention the ecological and human health of surrounding areas downstream.
This movement is rooted in indigenous practices of prayer and ceremony; those in the resistance are called water protectors, not protestors. And this matters. It matters who we talk about when we talk about justice and injustice — and how.
The mainstream media’s coverage of the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline had already been sparse — yet when a celebrity got involved, outrage and attention was much more visible. Woodley recognized this, chastizing the mainstream media — and broader culture — for what amounts to white supremacy and the systemic erasure of indigenous people in an article published Oct. 20 in Time. “Treaties are broken. Land is stolen. Dams are built. Reservations are flooded. People are displaced. Yet we fail to notice. We fail to acknowledge. We fail to act. So much so that it took me, a white non-native woman being arrested,” she wrote.
At stake here in the representation of the movement is also the narrative of the movement, which carries crucial implications of power. It is violence when the face of the environmental movement has been and largely continues to be white, middle class and otherwise privileged, erasing lived realities of people of color and poor people who suffer from environmental racism. It is violence when solutions to climate change are framed as moralized individual choices that distract from the deeply embedded systemic forces.
We can’t change the underlying systemic institutions of oppression without a narrative that acknowledges and challenges those structural injustices. Native Americans can’t be treated as full people if representations and treatment of them continue to be dehumanizing, criminalizing or erased. A new investigation by In These Times reported that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by the police than any other group, compared to their percentage of the U.S. population. (The graphic beneath this story reflects that as well.) The study also found that while police killings of African Americans tend to dominate mainstream media, killings of Native Americans are largely excluded from headlines.
Like the media itself, celebrities are endowed with significant cultural power, and many use that to further awareness of and action towards important social justice issues, from Emma Watson’s gender equality campaign to Leonardo DiCaprio’s speeches about climate change. Woodley, who pleaded not guilty for her misdemeanor charge for trespassing and engaging in a riot, has been outspoken about environmental issues before. Perhaps the ends justify the means. If sensationalized celebrity news is what gets people to pay attention to important issues, then that does something.
But we can’t simply stop there. It matters what people are actually paying attention to when a story breaks. Imagine if people can get as outraged about celebrity gossip, let alone celebrity arrests, as the historical structural injustices against marginalized groups.
To name just a few people in the No Dakota Access Pipeline movement who should be receiving more attention, learn about Ladonna Bravebull Allard, who founded the Sacred Stone Camp and has addressed the United Nations calling for assistance. Or David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who has also testified at the United Nations. Or Debra White Plume of the Lakota tribe who has been fighting for water and land rights for decades. There are many others.
The mainstream U.S. — myself included — has a lot of work to do in relearning histories and recognizing how injustices continue today. Real meaningful and substantiative change can only happen from the bottom up, from the frontlines. We can’t let gossip drown out the shouting voices of the marginalized.