On Nov. 24, families across America gathered to celebrate the annual day of gluttony we call Thanksgiving. As every child is taught, Thanksgiving commemorates the peaceful harvest meal shared centuries ago by the Pilgrims and their Native American counterparts. This year’s festivities featured turkey, political strife and a painfully ironic NFL showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
While millions of families were watching football and enjoying their meals, the men, women and allies of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation camped out in sub-zero temperatures, protesting a $3.7 billion project called the Dakota Access Pipeline. Supporters of the underground oil pipeline believe it will bring in an estimated $156 million of revenue and provide thousands of construction jobs. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe, meanwhile, contends that the pipeline will disturb sacred burial grounds and contaminate the reservation’s water supply.
Strained indigenous relations are about as fundamental to the American identity as apple pie and the 2nd Amendment. Native Americans have been systematically written out of U.S. history for centuries, with little to no recognition of their plight by the federal government (see Columbus Day and the twenty-dollar bill). This year, with the power of social media in full force, relations may have finally reached their tipping point.
The Sioux leaders established their campgrounds last spring, but it wasn’t until a thirteen-year-old girl brought the tribe’s grievances online that the protests evolved into a movement. She and several other members of the Standing Rock Youth spearheaded a Change.org petition that today has more than 458,000 supporters. The petition served as a foundation for what would become a massive, multi-platform social media campaign under the hashtags #NoDAPL, #ReZpectOurWater and #StandwithStandingRock.
In October, law enforcement unleashed dogs and pepper spray on the protesters, who in response began live streaming police standoffs. Later that month, nearly 1 million people “checked in” to the Standing Rock Facebook page, as rumors swirled that the Morton County Sheriff's Department had been using the platform to determine who was gathering at the campsite. It’s debatable whether the act of social solidarity actually had any logistical effects, but what’s certain is that it helped drum up the national support Standing Rock needed to get their voices heard.
On Dec. 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would reroute the pipeline, signaling a temporary victory for the protesters. The Army Corps has yet to deny the final easement process, so the conflict isn’t over yet. Standing Rock and the rest of #NoDAPL still face a daunting opponent in the next federal administration, but having unlocked the power of hashtag activism, they’ll be in much better shape going forward.