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My Afternoon at Standing Rock

by Matt Farrell

Social media activism has always fascinated me. Clearly keyboards can raise wide awareness, but those who use them are commonly challenged by the question “what are you doing to help in real life?”

This is what made the 2016 Standing Rock protests so unique. When the Dakota Access Pipeline was announced to be drilling oil through sacred Native American land and water, protests got ugly and authorities were rumored to be using social media to identify people on site. This ignited a movement where thousands of people globally began “checking in” to Standing Rock on social media, theoretically confusing authorities as to who was actually there. It was a rare way of shutting down the question posed in the last paragraph. People could tell their friends to care about something AND help make it better, without leaving the couch.

Or maybe not. In the mere months since this was headline news, the protests ended, DAPL was built as scheduled, and most people moved onto numerous other issues facing our society. How could something that ignited such nationwide passion die out so quietly?

That was the question running through my mind as I drove up to Standing Rock yesterday to see it for myself.

The first thing I want to emphasize about Standing Rock is its isolation. The reservation is about 600 miles from Denver and 450 from Minneapolis, so most Americans will never even be within a seven hour drive. To add to the isolated feel, Standing Rock’s villages also have the hottest and coldest recorded temperatures in state history. I was visiting on a cold, dreary spring day where there it felt the rainy mist would never stop.

The second thing I want to emphasize about Standing Rock is the poverty. My first image coming in was an abandoned vehicle sitting on top of a massive hill, with white “No DAPL” spray-painted onto the side. There were rows and rows of smashed cars, crumbling homes, and it was hard to tell where its few residents actually lived. When factoring in the weather, Standing Rock would’ve just made me completely sad if not for the third thing.

Standing Rock felt happy. It’s hard to describe why, so I’ll give a few examples. I saw a high school football field with one tiny bleacher in the middle of the vast prairie. I saw a Happy Mother’s Day sign out front of an old school. I saw a mailbox with children’s colored fingerprints pressed all around the post. I even saw a handmade American flag made from fenceposts—the same flag representing a nation that took away so much from its indigenous people.

I understand my feelings can only tell a minuscule part of a complicated story. But I could feel the history of Standing Rock’s limitless ancestors. I could feel their understanding of having less things than they deserve. And above all, I could feel their connection to each other and their deeper purpose.

I think the main reason Standing Rock ended up being forgotten so quickly from the outside is that there is so much injustice we’re already exposed to. As members of college communities, we constantly hear so many stories of marginalized populations that it’s hard to keep track. Generally we choose the ones we are most passionate about or that impact our direct community most. Considering Native Americans’ small population, it is difficult to address their needs with the same detail and vigor as others. They’re not the only group affected in this way.

I applaud everyone who is championing social justice on college campuses and beyond. My afternoon at Standing Rock taught me that we need to be focusing on the social just as much as the justice.

Justice is noble, but extremely daunting. We have come so far and have so much farther to go. And it feels like even when we elevate others, someone will always be lagging behind.

Social, on the other hand, feels more achievable but less common. We all have the capability right now to be more curious, authentic, generous and vulnerable in our friendships. We all have the ability to choose love over personal attacks when debating issues important to us. And we all should realize that even when pipes are built through your sacred water, no one is stopping you from painting colorful fingerprints on a mailbox post. That’s what my afternoon in Standing Rock taught me.