November 3, 2016

LEUNG | Checking In

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A few days ago, I began seeing numerous people on my Facebook feed “checking in” to Standing Rock Indian Reservation. As of yesterday, over 1.3 million people have done this. I knew this was related to the Dakota Access Pipeline, but I was confused by its direct purpose. Just like people were able to put a French flag banner over their profile pictures to show their solidarity with Paris after the terrorist attack, I assumed this was a similar type of coming together.

Checking in to the location on Facebook serves as a way to make a statement against something that is capable of inflicting disastrous consequences. People who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline have found a way to protest the pipeline without standing on the actual grounds in North Dakota. The Dakota Access Pipeline will transport over 450,000 barrels of crude oil from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to Illinois daily. The pipeline will cross four states and travel under the Missouri River — an important drinking water source. Although builders of the pipeline insist that measures will be taken to safeguard against any potential disaster, PHMSA has reported more than 3,000 incidents of oil and gas pipeline leaks. The smallest contamination by these leaks could severely impact the tribe’s water supply. Environmental activists comment on the environmental aspects of the pipeline, for the continuous use of fossil fuels will worsen the effects of climate change. But to some people an even more important issue is that the pipeline will damage and destroy historic, religious and cultural grounds that are greatly significant to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, such as burial and prayer sites.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline since 2014 when the first plans for the pipeline were proposed. However, it has only been in the few recent months that wide national attention has been brought to this issue. Indigenous rights have been violated since the very beginning of American history. Why, now, have such a large number of Americans decided to take a stand against this particular issue?

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly oppose the pipeline and am impressed — if not, a little surprised — that so much attention has been given to the issue at hand. Because of economic, environmental and political factors that will directly impact the American people, I understand that the pipeline should be getting attention. But I’ve also realized that the sudden interest in the pipeline stems from the number of celebrities who have publicly taken a stand against it. Shailene Woodley, an actress who has starred in movies such as The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent and The Descendants was arrested on October 10 and charged with criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot. This story was instantly shared on news outlets and triggered a twitter hashtag: #FreeShailene. Ever since her arrest, other notable actors and actresses have come forward to take an anti-pipeline stand.

If the problem is not already obvious, even Shailene Woodley acknowledged that it took a privileged person to bring so much publicity to the issue. I respect how passionate the actress is in protesting the pipeline and how she consciously used her privilege in a way that could bring about positive change. But I also find it disheartening that Indigenous tribes have been protesting the pipeline for two years and it is only until recently that the issue has gained an increasing amount of attention. In a full statement that was released, Woodley wrote, “We fail to act. So much so that it took me, a white non-native woman being arrested on Oct. 10 in North Dakota, on Indigenous People’s Day, to bring this cause to many people’s attention. And to the forefront of news publications around the world.” And she’s right: her arrest has drawn attention from people all over the country. Those who would have remained unaware or uncaring of the pipeline issue have gained interest because of what Woodley stands for.

I don’t want to negatively target Shailene Woodley for what she’s done. I respect and appreciate her decision to make a statement and raise attention on a problem that is not just important for the future of America, but a group of people who currently live in it and have been ignored and oppressed for too long. I remember when Emma Watson gave a speech to the UN about gender inequality and was immediately faced with backlash. She was targeted by men who thought that what she said was unfair, and other women who thought her arguments were not encompassing for they came from a white woman. Emma Watson brought the issue of gender inequality — an issue that has been continually talked about — to national attention because of who she is and the power she holds in influencing public’s views. She is indeed a wealthy, famous, white actress, but she used her privilege to raise important questions.

When we check into Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Facebook, it’s important to know why we are doing so. Indigenous people have been oppressed for centuries and their rights have been stepped over countless times before. Just because public figures have brought new attention to these issues, it’s up to us to continue to remain aware of the things that we suddenly find so interesting just because of the people who stand up for them.

Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gl376@cornell.edu.Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

2 thoughts on “LEUNG | Checking In

  1. It’s pretty common for people in Hollywood to be told by their managers or their studios, “Hey, let’s not get so far out on an issue that goes against the policies of the administration in power in Washington. They can make life very difficult for you. Why don’t you support something like the, uh, American Cancer Society? Everybody’s against cancer.”

    When Ed Asner spoke out against the Reagan administration’s campaign of murder in Central America, his TV show Lou Grant was promptly canceled by CBS, despite the show’s extremely high ratings. We were deprived of the talents he could have provided in film after film in subsequent years.

    When Eartha Kitt criticized the Vietnam war at a White House event hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, her singing career in this country was destroyed, although she continued to get concert gigs abroad.

    None of this was any accident. We can and should be grateful to both of them, as we can be to Shailene Woodley and others, for speaking out. It’s not as easy as it seems.

  2. “Kitt became a leading light in the civil rights movement in the 1960s but when she condemned the Vietnam war on a visit to the White House her career in the US ended and the CIA branded her ‘a sadistic nymphomaniac.'”
    -London Observer, Oct. 19, 2013 (accessed through Eartha Kitt Wikipedia biography).

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