There is a huge battle going on in North Dakota.
The Standing Rock Sioux have been in a legal battle and an on-the-ground stand off with the US Army Corps of Engineers. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) means the destruction and desecration of sacred lands, as well as the eminent threat of an oil spill, or leak, which would poison the nearby water supply.
The development of DAPL means a continuation of American dominance, exploitation and brutalization of our Indigenous people.
If you’re not aware of this issue you can get up to speed reading here, and here.
As the pipeline construction has continued, those who have gathered peacefully to protect the land and water with nothing but their own bodies have faced a military style opposition equipped with tanks, drones, tear gas, sound cannons, and snipers. Water Protectors (as they call themselves) have been doused with pepper spray for minutes on end. Rubber bullets have been fired at those holding cameras.
As of October, there had been few articles written about the Dakota Access Pipeline and none of the mainstream news agencies had sent out any reporters to observe. This seemed incredible given that Democracy Now‘s reporter, Amy Goodman, had been arrested while filming the abuse taking place at Standing Rock.
Last week, I saw many friends use their Facebook pages to make a virtual check in at Standing Rock. The original meme/post asking people to check in had presented this as a strategy to thwart any attempts from law enforcement to track people who were actually, physically there.
Over the course of the week, there were more than a million people who had checked in to Standing Rock via facebook, which is astounding considering the previous week I’d seen hardly anyone sharing about this issue on social media.
However, not everyone thought checking in served a purpose. Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu’s photo was used in a piece in NY magazine which stated that:
“there’s very little evidence that checking in to Standing Rock on Facebook makes much of a difference.”
I asked Vaimoana to weigh in on this issue with me and she was generous enough to give me some of her time:
I know you were really upset about your photo being used in NY magazine. Can you just expand on -on having your photo used, and seeing it used in that way?
Yeah. Well first of all, I looked up who the writer is and the writer is not an Indigenous writer, or a person of color. The writer is a white woman, and so, I just feel like… it’s over 1 million…the count is over 1.4 million people who checked into Standing Rock.
Right, that’s huge.
Clearly, that shows a difference. That shows solidarity which makes a huge difference to people like myself.
Where I come from- that’s definitely invisible to people. People don’t know where that is. So, if over 1 million people checked into where i come from-and where I was born which is Nuku’alofa- that makes a huge difference.
Living here in the United States I get asked every day-not only where I’m from- but they ask, “Well, where is that?” So it would make a huge difference for just my life and how i exist in this world if people not only knew where i come from but they acknowledged where i come from, and that it’s Indigenous land.
So, as a white woman writer for New York Magazine, I think if she’s going to have that- that certain opinion and perspective -she should have a picture of herself. Or, just other white people, who are definitely visible in this.
Whereas, putting a picture of me sitting at an Indigenous rally at Washington Square Park with my friend Emilio who is Zapotec, who is an indigenous person from Mexico… you know, it’s like- why would you put a picture of us when we’re from places and people and culture that aren’t visiblized, or talked about, or acknowledged in mainstream United States of America?
Right, right. Yeah, I honestly was going to ask- I’m so glad that was where this went right away because I was going to ask you if, in a way, that’s a continuation or an extension of Colonialism because it’s kind of um – it’s still usurping. Right?
Yeah, most definitely.
Okay. And, I was also going to ask, as a white woman writing any pieces covering any of these types of things myself, what types of things can white writers do.
I mean, you answered some of it already but what would you recommend for any white writers to do when they want to cover any situation involving somebody from a group they don’t belong to.
Mhm. Well, I think they first and foremost have to acknowledge their privilege- that their identity as a white writer, their privilege for being able to write this and therefore speak to people of color and just have that awareness-and say that. And also speak on why do they even want to say this in the first place when they could give that opportunity to a person of color, an Indigenous person, a black person, a black Indigenous person…
So, I wanted to ask you about some responses I saw to people who were talking and -this is just from Facebook but-folks who were looking at the check in, and some criticisms I saw, and what you think of them.
One of them was saying, “Is this all folks are doing? They should do more.” And, of course they should.
So, I just wanted to know, um-you know, what do you think about..it’s sort of – I view that as kind of a throwaway like -“Well then they shouldn’t even bother”. You know what I mean?
Yeah, totally. I mean, for me I’m just like, “Well, what are you doing?” You know? Like, just for someone to say “They should do more.” First of all- as people who are on the ground and on the street and who work with the communities every day and who’s a part of these communities every day it’s like- who are you talking to, again, who are you talking to? Is your audience white people? Like, I don’t know who you’re talking to.
People who do this work every day- and they don’t say that they do this work everyday. Or, they don’t really say, “Oh, I’m an activist for Standing Rock.” Or, I would never say “I’m a social activist” or, “this is social activism” Like who created that term. This are our lives we’re talking about.
Of course we’re going to share this. Of course we’re going to check in. Of course we talk to our families and for Indigenous people everyday, who are at Standing Rock every day, who’ve been at Standing Rock everyday, who organize, who have these types of conversations every day or our lives. So, for them to be like “You should do more.” It’s like ..okay. Again, who are you talking to. Address a specific audience who does not – who do not have these conversations every day, who do not live this life- every day.
Right. I think that answers the other two, too. Because one of them was, “Is this actually thwarting law enforcement” and, um, my feeling was – we can’t know that for sure even if they tell us that it’s not thwarting law enforcement because who would let us know that it was. You know? And then the other one was “You’re just letting people collect data about you,” which I found the most amusing ‘cause I thought-so you’re not going to risk that? That’s like the least amount of thing you could risk is making a status update on Facebook, but that’s too risky?
Yeah, again, it’s like “Where are you coming from?” Because, clearly, we’re checking in. We’re putting as much from Standing Rock- for those who cannot be at Standing Rock- on our pages because this is what we’re talking about everyday. We live invisibility every single day in this country. And so, it’s like, of course we’re going to do everything on our Facebooks, everything on social media, and it’s a given that we’re organizing every day. And, an action every day.
Right. Yeah, I have to say I definitely had made the mistake of calling what was happening out at Standing Rock “protests” until I read to only be speaking of it as “Water Protectors.” And, it made sense when I read it.
But I have people who are asking me “Well, I can’t go out to Standing Rock, so what can I do.” Which, we’ll get to that question in a second- But before we even get there, you know, you said the thing about “Where does that term even come from – social activism”. So, you got me thinking well, I call myself a “Social Activist” but I guess that’s really it is that- most of the issues that I’ve gotten involved with have not directly affected me at the time I got involved with them.
You know, getting involved in the Fracking movement- it hadn’t hit New York yet, so you could argue that it wasn’t directly affecting me yet.
I’m sorry, sorry. Say that one more time. I missed couldn’t really heard the first part.
Oh, okay. Sure. Regarding the term “Social Activism” when I got involved in the Fracking Movement, it wasn’t affecting me yet. It was affecting- you know I had gone to see the documentary “Dear Governor Cuomo,” and I watched how it was affecting people in Pennsylvania who were being poisoned. And so my desire to be involved was really on behalf of other people at that point, with the threat that it could be affecting me in the future.
But most of the things I’ve gotten involved with are not things that affect me, directly. So, I’m not sure- I guess I’m trying to get some clarity. Would I still call myself a “Social Activist” but it’s important to recognize that that’s a third person struggle term? Kind of empathetic…you know what I mean?
Mhm. I’m sorry I made the mistake- I didn’t mean “Social Activist” I meant “Social Media Activist” that that is what the writer said on her article. She was like -“Social Media Activism”. That’s what I meant. I don’t understand “Social Media Activism”. Like, who created that term? You know. Cause to me social media is just social media. I’m sorry. I definitely think it is activism with the direct face-to-face relationship and building with community that’s how it becomes…or, it’s a part of a person’s activism. But I don’t think it stands alone. Social media… I think just doesn’t stand alone for a person to say like “Yes, I’m a social media activist.”
I definitely understand Social Activism!
Okay! For a second I was like..I’m always trying to learn new things so I was like…Oh! maybe I shouldnt’ be saying that.
Yeah, I think that’s awesome. Social Activism. Social Justice Activism. I think that’s amazing. And, I think there’s nothing wrong with not having it directed towards you- I think that’s great. And I think that’s a big thing that white people say: “Well, it doesn’t directly affect me.” Just how they say that about racism. And I think that’s a really privileged thing to say.
And, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that that is what white people need to understand – it does affect them directly. And those kind of conversations- it is an impact of this whole thing of Colonization, or racism, or even patriarchy from men, and they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t affect me directly.” Well, it does- it just…it’s underneath.
It’s a privileged conversation for you have that because you get to be either saying like “Well, I feel so guilty because I’m a man.” you know. Which is another privileged conversation because that should give you even more umph to be like- “Man, where I’m at- where I’m standing of privilege should give me that much more – I should be in action and be organized to stop patriarchy, to stop racism, to stop what’s happening, because it does affect us.” I mean it does affect everyone.
That’s the whole point of why they’re called “protectors” and not “protestors” is because they are saying like- this affects every human being on the planet.
Not just Indigenous people. And, Indigenous people are grown up to know that we’re all connected to every single person. But then you’re raised in the United States of America, and the history, and mass media tells us we’re not; we’re so disconnected. And, that’s the biggest lie that this country has shown because the Imperialistic country is saying that we’re separate from other people, which we’re not.
Right. It’s an illusion of the mind-an abstraction right- to create that separation. Yeah, cause scientifically we’re… I mean everyone who studies science knows everything’s connected..so
Yeah, right? Exactly so.
Yeah. I was going to say, that when you mentioned this thing about guilt, I was mentioning to somebody that if they were following my page there’s probably people who think all sorts of things about me, and one of them would be like- Oh, she has white guilt.
But I responded to this one person and I said “I don’t have white guilt I have white responsibility and white accountability.” You know, and I think it’s a difference- a subtle difference to be able to look at it and and say…I think the guilt part leads to despair the responsibility leads to action- so it’s a different road. And the guilt part means that you’re looking at yourself.
I was looking and thinking, I think that checking in- I thought it was incredible to see because the previous week I didn’t really see, too many people talking about this issue..
Yup. You’re so right.
And I was looking, I was looking for it. I was hashtagging on twitter, and I was looking, and reading, and saying “who else has stuff?” And it just really wasn’t that many people.
And again, and again- i think you need to be specific. Are you talking about white people? Cause I mean – because I work with Indigenous communities around the world, it’s like Standing Rock is on my feed all the time, every day.
Well, I was seeing it, yes, but if I just that’s because of who I subscribe to but if I look at overall, and you know like I said- if I hit the hashtag and put it into twitter and see how many people are posting on it-it’d kind of be the same people over and over again, and not as wide… I guess I wanted to see more people, do you know what I mean? I wanted to see a wider group.
And, I started to see people who- up until that point- they hadn’t said a peep, you know they hadn’t put anything and here, and they are checking in. And yes, I did think- for all the people doing the criticisms that they should do more- I was thinking, it’d be great if you could take it one step further and post and article about it, and educate people around you.
But one thing I did think was- I think checking in can have the same effect as a hashtag in that it creates a measurable sense of how much a given population supports an idea.
Totally agree with you.
Cause I mean that’s one thing that -everyone knows that from twitter that that’s -oh look, by this hashtag we know this is trending and what does that mean? That suddenly it’s a bigger issue and news agencies will have to pay attention to it.
This is so true. You’re so right. And therefore- just right after those check ins now ABC and NBC these mass media outlets now they have -they are at Standing Rock and they have shown what has happened at Standing Rock in the past 48 hours.
Right. I mean – one of the things I was looking at in writing this was- you have this major event taking place and the media isn’t there, and you have more alternative media like “Democracy Now” being there, and Amy Goodman getting arrested, and for any reporter who actually has any integrity- if you saw another reporter being treated that way that should be your call-to-action of- “I’m going to show up, everyone show up, we all have to be there no matter what the issue is.” You would just say, “Listen- we all have to be there now.” And when I didn’t see that happen, I was like “Wow, what are they DOING?” And of course, we can all think of what they could be doing..
And- in analyzing this- when people were so dismissive about the check in- it made me think about Trayvon Martin, and how when he was murdered I didn’t hear- I only knew about him again from alternative sources that I read about, and there was a change.org petition to get George Zimmerman arrested because- at that time when he was first murdered no one was arrested and it was only in the local paper the article that I shared it was only from the local newspaper in Florida. It was not nationally known. And, it took people sharing it, and sharing it, and sharing it on social media before the major news industry started to pick up on this and say – “Well I guess we have to pay attention to this.” So, checking in- I feel like it’s another way to force their hand to say- “Are you going to ignore this??”
Totally. Especially because we understand -people who are invisible-people of color, black and brown people, queer people, people who are invisible to the mass media. And people who are also woke. They know why. We know why we’re not visiblized. Because we’re part of a system that oppresses us, and that live and thrive on us. It’s not like- “Oh my gosh, why wouldn’t they show that?” A black man got killed in the Bronx just yesterday. It’s not on mass media. Our stories are- it’s a normal thing. So, of course we’re going to organize. So, the checking in- people don’t realize that this is intentional. This is organized. This is a whole group of people who are like- “What are other ways that we can be visible and we can share this?”
Yesterday, when CNN shared our story- it was my friend Lorena Ambrosio’s footage that they used. So these mass media outlets really are coming to us to be like- “Man- can we use your pictures? Can we use your footage, now?” Because- of course- they don’t have staff writers or hire people or pay people to be in these Indigenous groups-right? They don’t know anyone, so of course they have to come to us now. Which I think is amazing. Of course they have to come to Facebook. My friend Kyle Goen- his footage was used for NBC.
You know, so, it’s like because of the over 1 million- and I love how you said that- how it’s a measurable result because people look at measurable results, right? Man, if over 1.4 million people checked into Standing Rock? That equals viewers, that equals consumers, – that equals money.
What is going on now? Because we know this is all connected to not only our homelands- which were international. This is what happens in Syria, about Syria, this is what happens about Palestine…which… the US funds Israel. They’ve been using rubber bullets for how many decades in Palestine, which they’re using at Standing Rock but is that on the mass media? No, it’s not. Why? Because they just want to keep people sleeping and keep people not awoke on what is happening all over the world.
Right. So that gets to- this is tying together so nicely. One of the things I analyze, too, is just how we get information out there. And so, from an activist point of view, when I have a lot of people who ask me about activism: “How do i get involved?” “What do I do?” “I can’t physically go out to Standing Rock; how can I be supportive?” One of the first things I tell people is – click on every article you can about something because that tells all the news agencies- guess what? There is an interest.
But then also you educate yourself about it, but then, really i feel like – if i go back to the Fracking movement I was able to see this there- that the first job was to teach people. To raise awareness about it. Because you’re talking to them and they don’t even know what Fracking is, and so, how can they think there’s a problem?
So if I mention what’s happening at Standing Rock and someone says, “What’s that?” And… I had that happen earlier this week. I was in a conversation with someone. I was working, and he didn’t know what it was. And when I told him, his face just dropped. I said “Yeah, can you believe this is our government this is our tax money and we’re still continue to do the same thing to our native people that we have always done?” Like can you believe this? Please go home and look this up.
So, he couldn’t even be opposed to it if he didn’t know about it. And sadly, of course, he was relying on mainstream media to tell him about it. Well, how do I know about it? I have to say that I’m following some different sources.
So, I feel like it’s about raising awareness, first. Because, you know, people can say “What’s the goal?” And we can say the goal is to not break treaties, and respect native voices, but obviously to get there…you can’t get there without raising awareness. And you can’t get there without putting pressure.
Yesterday I had shared about President Obama saying he was looking for alternative routes and then- the bad news -when he says he’s going to let it “play out” for a couple of weeks.
And I was thinking “play out?” What does that mean? Are you waiting for someone to die? What are you waiting for here? And my sister’s response was “Well, you know what that means- he’s waiting to see enough white people show that they actually care about this issue.” And she’s being sarcastic but also…not.
It’s one of those things where you’re actually asking – who does matter? Right? When did you have to pay attention? From an activist standpoint it’s still important for us to push it and to do it. But it’s an important for us to realize for all of those who say “Oh, everything’s great and racism isn’t here”… you know looking at… when did they respond?
And I know some people will say that’s about money, too- there’s so much money involved in this. But they moved it away from the white community – they moved the pipeline away from Bismark.
First of all, I just want to say that I totally agree with you in terms of having conversations and raising awareness. That to me is super huge and I like to put that within the context of building relationships which is an education in itself. For white people to talk to other white people who have access to certain knowledge, and access to certain things, and then teaching each other about- “Hey, this is what’s happening at Standing Rock.” That’s a big deal. That’s great. That’s amazing.
That said, just connecting to Standing Rock- the video I watched was the police taking out a white woman medic from her car. There is a lot of white people on the line that Obama doesn’t even care about- that have been on the line since months ago- that have been hurt, that have been doing the work with Indigenous people, and have been putting their bodies on the front line. And that has not been shown at all to the world.
And again, I think that’s just part of the separation, you know? I mean going to Grand Central the other day- it was mostly white people there. Who knows, maybe they had to miss work. And I think it’s a class issue as well. That it’s just like these white people again – putting themselves lives on the line- and the cops and police yelling at them, looking at them as shit. That’s not shown on the mass media…which I definitely think it should.
And also a lot of white elders. One of our great friends Laurie, who has been part of “We Will Not Be Silent” for how many years, her and Sara, are both white women- Jewish women- they’ve both been on the front lines for Black Lives Matter, for Palestine, or Standing Rock. She just came back from Standing Rock a week ago and now she’s going back. And, she’s an older white woman. She’s on the front lines but no one wants to share that story. She’s a queer woman and she’s going today, actually, to Standing Rock to be with other older white women who’ve been at Standing Rock for several weeks now. You’ve probably seen her signs -they make these black signs. It’s white bold words on black signs.
And they’re like- at so many rallies. They’re at Standing Rock. They’re seen at Standing Rock. They’re beautiful. They’re amazing.
So, we’re talking about racism and at the same time we need to not only acknowledge the Indigenous black and brown voices, but we need to acknowledge the white voices that are acting on the front lines and are giving their time, money, and energy, too.
Yeah, I’ve certainly seen them. And then… I can say the propaganda from the gas people takes it to the other direction. I’ve seen comments that said that there aren’t even native people there; it’s all a bunch of white people who are…you know…have all this time on their hands. And you know of course- gas people- you can always identify who they are because their comments are so outrageous.
So, I think, just one last thing I had here- this gets back to what else people can do. Before the internet people had letter writing campaigns…well, they still do.
Yup, that’s right.
And I remember my Mom telling me when I was a kid that one letter was considered to represent a lot of people. If they just got your letter they knew that most people didn’t have the time, or the courage, or writing ability, to voice their opinion.
So, do you think that in a way, this is similar and we can be generous with people who don’t have much of a voice but can take time to check in on Facebook, or to do any smaller activity? We should probably also follow up with larger activities that people can do. But if we look at smaller activities and I see people being dismissive -and I can already hear you say, “Well who are these people? And are they actually doing anything” cause that’s all I thought, too- are you involved in the movement because I think you’d be more generous with what people contribute. But even those tiny actions – they still matter.
Of course they do. First of all- it all matters. This conversation you’re having with me, it matters. I think it’s amazing. Just standing alone as a conversation.
Because you and I as human beings are connecting. And when I go out in my day, I’ll probably share this with my friends. It totally matters- you know- and it’s a ripple effect.
These so-called small things that people do are huge. They’re magnanimous. They’re just – they really are. And I think, again, that’s just the context of “Well, those are small things and they don’t matter.” That’s coming from a context of people who don’t realize their power. And realizing that their voice, and their actions, and their non-actions have an impact on people.
Me living in New York City when someone smiles at me, people may say that is just a small thing. Actually, that’s a big thing, cause that just made my day. Cause there’s so many people who don’t connect And they’re just like machines, really and, right?
So, when I’m on the train and people look at me in the eye- that’s a huge thing for me. Because I have experienced where people don’t look at me in the eye. Or, white people don’t look at me in the eye. Where men harass me- all the time.
So, when I have a man who is looking at me in the eye but isn’t sexually harassing me, but is just connecting with me as a human being to another human being, that really has changed my life. Because I’m like -wow, I’m seen for who I am, you know…for how I want to be seen.
So these actions of writing letters, of making calls, they make a huge difference- of talking to your friends, of talking to your parents, of putting something on Facebook- that’s huge. Because that could impact of someone being like “Oh, why did she post that on Facebook?” I think all those actions matter.
I love that this just came back full circle because at the beginning you were talking about brown and black people and just being invisible and needing to be seen and I think that with any- any of the struggles where there is somebody who’s being exploited, you know, there’s that kind of idea that evil likes dark places, like somebody who’s not watching what you’re doing and nobody’s seeing what’s happening. So that usually that’s going to be the case that whatever is happening that person feels like – well nobody sees me nobody cares, and I’m alone. And why isn’t anyone paying attention?
So much of this seems to be about visibility, and amplifying visibility. Right? Of anything that’s negative.
And in that sense- you know I thought I was making this kind of corny at the end but- one of the thing’s I’d written was: Checking in matters because it left the folks at Standing Rock know that the world is watching, they can feel less alone. Think of the words “courage”, “encourage”, “heartened”, and “disheartened” and um- what do you feel from that? How that… I’ve always loved that “courage” and “encourage,” and that -you know -encouraging someone…you’re giving them more courage, right? Even if you can’t physically be there, right?
And a lot of people can’t..again..people ask me..”If I can’t go out there…” I’m thinking- most people can’t. Most people can’t drive out there.
Most people can’t! It’s so true. But you can talk about it. Yeah. There’s…so many things to do.
Right, right. So, I think we’ve pretty well established that that article and people who were dismissing check ins were not valid. So, beyond that for someone who does have a little bit of extra time but maybe can’t go to Standing Rock, what else could people do?
Well, like you said, educate yourself and educate other people. And just bring a self-awareness to Indigenous people.
Well, that’s happening in Standing Rock, how is that happening in my neighborhood? You know? And what are other pipelines, too? Standing Rock is just a – what can I say- is on the forefront so it has bigger visibility to us, but there’s a pipeline that’s being built here- in Upstate New York.
All of us are on Indigenous occupied land, so how can we take what’s happening in Standing Rock and bring it to our local places. What is “settler colonialism”? What is “racism”? What does it mean- “to matter”? These are great conversations to have with ourselves, and with our friends, and our family- if we don’t want to necessarily be a part of an organization.
Also, I so acknowledge just where people are at, whether they want to organize on a community level, or just have conversations with their friends is fine. And, that matters. But yeah- what is “Indigenous identity”? What is the white activism legacy? Who can I talk to about this? And what are my strengths?
Colin Kaepernick is a football player. So, he’s chosen to kneel during the National Anthem. That’s huge. That’s great. But he’s not at rallies. He’s not you know- because maybe that’s not necessarily what he wants to do. He’s created his own activism. So people can create their own ways. And I say, do it in a way that you love and that you’re passionate about.
I’m an artist so of course I’m going to create art, and banners, and things that talk about Standing Rock, talk about Palestine- right? So, that’s my forte. But my friends who are cooks they love to talk about the colonization, and colonialism, through food, and where food comes from, and how is food given to people. So, wherever people are at, I say – use that.
Right. That’s wonderful. Yeah, oh that’s great. That’s so empowering.
Vaimoana Niumeitolu is an Artist and Educator born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga and based in NYC.
This conversation took place on Thursday, November 3rd, 2016. The number of people virtually checking in at Standing Rock continues to grow. On November 1st, President Obama did say that the Army Corps is looking for ways to reroute the pipeline. Sadly, he added,
“We are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”
Meanwhile, it’s clear that President elect Trump intends to help all pipelines progress.
This work matters. People need their voices amplified; a great organization to follow is Food and Water Watch.
Religious leaders have gathered to add their voices and presence:
FOR ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE TO HELP STANDING ROCK:
EDUCATE YOURSELF HERE:
AND HELP MAKE STANDING ROCK MORE VISIBLE by:
checking in, using hashtags like #NoDAPL and #StandWithStandingRock. Google “Standing Rock” and click on every article. Talk with your friends. Talk with strangers. Ask all your representatives to speak out on it. Ask people who know about it first hand and then share that knowledge. More than ever before, we will need to learn, teach, and have conversations to raise awareness.
It all matters.