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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Native American Scholar Talks #StandingRock, Social Media Activism

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

During a Civic Life Lunch, Prof. Cutcha Risling Baldy highlighted the value of online campaigns to raise awareness and inspire action.

Standing Rock Civic Life Lunch

Written for Tisch College by Jess Blough, A21

On November 6, 2017, as part of our Civic Life Lunch event series, Tisch College hosted the conversation “#StandingRock: Starting + Sustaining a Movement”. A crowd of about 40 students gathered to enjoy lunch together and hear from Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University and researcher focused on the intersection of indigenous people’s activism and social media.

The event began with a short introduction from moderator Jami Powell, a Tufts University Lecturer in American Studies and member of the Osage Nation. Powell showed a video featuring LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the Historian and Genealogist of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as well as the founder of the Sacred Stone Camp in Standing Rock. In the video, Allard implored viewers to view the Dakota Access Pipeline and the dangers it would cause the tribe as an issue about the right to life. “Have you seen my beautiful land here? I have a right to live, and I have a right to ensure that future generations can live on this land,” she expressed.

The conversation with Baldy began with the idea of #activism and slacktivism, a concept that some argue has replaced real action with social media posts and functions only to ease the social conscience of participants. Rather than condemn so-called slacktivists, Baldy applauded the role of social media in social justice movements like #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipieline), especially when over a million Facebookers “checked in” at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to try to prevent protesters at the reservation from being tracked.

“I don’t think that there is any harm in Twitter or Facebook or social justice media. I actually think it helps to build a narrative that we, as people, do have stories that we care about that aren’t just the stories that are on the media, or maybe aren’t the stories that the media are covering,” stated Baldy. “You have to be willing to fight from the land, but you also have to be willing to fight from wherever you can. I’m not trying to pretend that everyone can pick up and pack their bags and go someplace, but everybody can tweet, so why aren’t you?”

Baldy also countered the slacktivism argument by referencing the awareness that social media can spread, especially when it comes to movements like #NoDAPL. When social media can be used as a tool to reveal injustice to a bigger audience, Baldy explained, “we can interfere, we can disrupt this idea that tries to make us silent. We can show that we’re here, and the issues that we care about are everybody’s issues, that people all over the world care about these issues.”

Powell then began the guided question segment of the conversation, asking simply how people, especially students, can take the next step beyond activism purely on social media. Baldy addressed the importance of amplifying the voices of indigenous people on the internet and in the media in order to increase diversity of experience in the public sphere. She cited this as a key starting point in addressing the issues faced by indigenous people.

In particular, Baldy stressed recognizing native women and their impact on indigenous people’s movements like Standing Rock, especially since native women are the most likely of any group in the U.S. to experience violence and sexual assault. Mass media tends to recognize men as leaders of indigenous groups when “it is women who are really tied to this movement, and it is women who center this movement,” Baldy said.

During Q&A, students asked Baldy about topics ranging from interactions between indigenous and nonindigenous communities to accountability within the current presidential administration. Baldy focused on unity based on respect for the environment and the Earth, as well as solidarity around causes and defending the rights of others. Again, Baldy acknowledged the critical role of social media: “it breaks down this idea that no one else really cares about your movement, because it can feel very lonely, but if you just start putting stuff out there, you’ll be surprised by the number of people who start saying ‘me too.’”

Though dissatisfied with the current presidential administration, Baldy did voice some optimism about the lack of lasting impact that she believes the Trump administration will have. “He can do a lot a damage in those two or four years, but we’re still here. We’ve been through worse and we’re still here,” she said. At the end of the conversation, Baldy repeated her call for greater representation of indigenous people, saying, “even just having a person at the table is important.” She finished with a call to action, imploring a generation of media-savvy students to change the narrative around indigenous people’s rights.