#NoDAPL Movement Brings Native Voices to the Forefront on Social Media

Sarah Steimer
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? The movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline used social media to connect Native American voices to the public.

So what? Those opposed to the pipeline couldn't rely on traditional media to tell the story, so they turned to Twitter, Facebook Live and other platforms to share.

Now what? Messaging that uses similar hashtags or imagery allows anyone to unify under one banner or brand, and it can help deepen the message's authenticity.

​April 3, 2017

The #NoDAPL movement may not have successfully stopped a pipeline, but it brought Native American voices and issues to the top of social media feeds

The camera is focused on 13-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes. The sun is bouncing off her cheek as her eyes beam and she tells the audience, “I feel like I got my future back.” As if on cue, she begins to cry.

There were, of course, no cues from a director—no producer who plucked this young Native American from a pile of headshots. It’s unscripted and it aired in real time, with almost 2 million views on the Facebook Live video to date. The clip is of Iron Eyes celebrating a since-overturned decision by the Army Corps of Engineers not to grant an easement to allow construction of the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline, designed to carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The video captures the youth of the anti-pipeline movement, a group that helped propel its messaging across the U.S. and beyond using some of the simplest (and cheapest) of marketing tools: social media.

The movement—known via hashtags that include #NoDAPL, #WaterIsLife and #StandWithStandingRock—did something still relatively new in storytelling. Not only did it tell its story in real time, but it opened that voice up to anyone who would listen. Brands with some of the greatest expertise, manpower and editing skills still haven’t quite mastered the art of live storytelling, and they certainly wouldn’t give that power to just any average web user, free to attach the movement’s name to whatever is produced.

The NoDAPL movement chose to open this story to gain traction and awareness, placing a spotlight on an issue that wasn’t getting much mainstream media traction. It used promotional tools familiar to many marketers, but the voices that rose weren’t from polished brands—they were from people and organizations rarely projected through a corporate megaphone.

The pipeline has yet to be halted as of this article’s publication, which may suggest the movement wasn’t a complete success. But is it a complete loss if it led to Native Americans gaining a larger audience within the national conversation? In this case, a battle may have been lost, but a considerable following was won—an outcome marketers would consider a win in the long game.

Introducing a movement and reintroducing a people

The general consensus was that the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline began with young indigenous people. Specifically, many point to the Oceti Sakowin Youth, or the Standing Rock Youth, and a number of relays they ran to garner awareness and support for their stance against the pipeline.

Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a young Lakota woman from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, organized the runs, which grew in size and distance from March 2016. The second run was a 500-mile relay from the Sacred Stone Camp, ground zero for the movement, to Omaha to deliver a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Indigenous Environmental Network set up a social media campaign around the run, and the Standing Rock Youth designed a Change.org petition for their efforts. The run then expanded to include Washington, D.C., and New York. Juliana Britto Schwartz, a campaigner at Change.org who supported the Standing Rock Youth petition, says the group’s storytelling ability, particularly on social media, and use of Change.org’s update tools were huge contributors to gaining more than 500,000 supporting signatures.

The real-time documentation that so many young people do naturally throughout the day only deepened the story for those following. Schwartz recalls an instance on the relay to Washington, D.C, when the runners learned one of the final permits for the pipeline had been granted by the Army Corps. The group turned to Facebook Live to record their reaction.

“It was so powerful,” Schwartz says. “I was tearing up just watching them feel like they had run all this way and no one was listening. And then they made the decision as a group to keep going.”

Schwartz says there were two unique parts of the Standing Rock Youth’s campaign: This was not just a youth effort, but an organized youth effort that also had the backing of elders. She says this campaign was also particularly compelling because it brought the Native American voice to the forefront of a massive, mainstream campaign, something she says there isn’t a lot of at Change.org or elsewhere. They amplified their message through authenticity.

“They didn’t manufacture a story to pull people in. The campaign just escalated in a way that you couldn’t put your phone down,” Schwartz says. “You wanted to see what was happening next.”

Some of those who took note included celebrities. Actress Shailene Woodley was among those who picked up on the story, particularly via the relays, and boosted the messages through her own social media channels. This was no small victory in getting the opposition’s word out, as Woodley has more than 1.9 million followers on Instagram and 1.22 million followers on Twitter.

While Woodley and other celebrities, including actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, showed their support on social media and in interviews, the indigenous people being directly affected saw their own voices rise to the top. Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist and activist, emphasizes that Native Americans want to tell their own story, and social media provided the platform to do so.

“This is the first time in history that the Native American voice, the authentic, bona fide Native American voice has been ubiquitous,” Moya-Smith says. “You have people utilizing their phones, their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever they can to get the narrative out.”

According to Moya-Smith, a large part of getting the narrative out is reminding people that Native Americans do, in fact, still exist. In speaking with an online audience, indigenous people aren’t only trying to battle the pipeline, but they’re also tasked with educating their readers or viewers of their existence. It’s a basic marketing conundrum: How do you convince people to convert or transact if they don’t even know you exist?


A holy woman of the Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli Nation offers prayers for the water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp in October 2016. Each nation performed a welcome dance in their full regalia from the camp’s entrance to the main prayer circle. | Photo by Laura Fong 

This reeducation is happening online, and Moya-Smith says the narrative of evicting Native Americans hasn’t changed much, but the way this story is being told has. It’s being told in real time, and sometimes it’s a brutal story to watch.

“When you see these images and videos coming through of unarmed water protectors being assaulted, it starts to wake people up and it bridges the space,” Moya-Smith says. “The idea of reservations was to remove Native Americans out of sight, out of mind, to geographically isolate us. Through social media, that geographic isolation isn’t there anymore.”

When it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline in particular, he says, social media pushed Native American voices to the front. Both young Native Americans and the elders have embraced social media for responding in real time to the national conversation, which can often include correcting misunderstood or mis-told stories that have circulated for centuries.

“This isn’t revisionist history, it’s history,” Moya-Smith says. “We’re telling you what’s been canceled out of the conversation, and what has been canceled out has been our voice. But not with social media. With social media, we get to speak loudly and people are listening.”

Messaging and unification

Messaging has remained relatively consistent among the various stakeholders, be they individuals or organizations. Anything that includes #NoDAPL or similar hashtags could be considered branded content for the movement, and this pseudo trademark has spread like wildfire over the internet.

A “Twitter Listening Report” provided by marketing and communications agency Media Cause, whose clients include nonprofits and educators, shows #NoDAPL was used on Twitter an average of 48,517 times per day between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 2016, for a total volume of 4.41 million. Joining the conversation became as simple as searching for and using the hashtag over any social media platform. Amplifying the message was as easy as a retweet.

Taylor Johnston, account director at Media Cause, was involved in creating social media content about the Dakota Access pipeline on behalf of her agency’s client, the National Resources Defense Council. She says the NRDC’s conversation about the pipeline, to which they are opposed, would most often include the #NoDAPL and #WaterIsLife hashtags. They also frequently retweeted or reposted other accounts’ posts about the pipeline.

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The NRDC and other organizations made sure to tag and check in to Standing Rock as part of their social media messaging as well. Johnston says this only strengthened the unification against the pipeline, suggesting the protest was far larger than just those on the ground and included a massive online community. She credits the Indigenous Environmental Network for helping to unify the messaging used by so many opposed to the pipeline. IEN acts as an umbrella organization that builds alliances among indigenous communities, environmental organizations and other groups in an effort to organize campaigns, direct actions and create public awareness.

“They (IEN) were the ones that were really creating these coalition groups, these coalition messaging points, and distributing it out,” Johnston says. IEN figured out who was involved, who was protesting and unified the audience, she says. They pushed out different pieces of information, and other organizations put IEN at the forefront, letting them push out messaging and direct the dialog. “Having a coalition with cohesive messaging helped to strengthen that messaging, get out the truth and fight through all the cloudiness … of all the other dialog,” Johnston says.

The way this unification works on social media is relatively simple. Johnston says the NRDC would amplify the messages posted by others—for example, reposting items from the Standing Rock Sioux social media accounts. There was a day of action (#NoDAPLDayOfAction) on Nov. 15, 2016, that many organizations opposed to the pipeline took part in, with their varied social media accounts working to get petitions signed and create buzz.

Donations piled next to the common eating area and main prayer circle at the Oceti Sakowin camp. In early October, night temperatures were as low as 30 degrees. | Photo by Laura Fong 

Jade Begay, a producer and communications coordinator for IEN, calls social media use crucial for grassroots movements. Begay says one example of its success was in bringing U.S. military veterans to defend Standing Rock water protectors.

“I conducted interviews with veterans who were there [at Standing Rock], asking them how they heard this call and what it felt like to get this call of duty, so to speak,” Begay says. “A lot of the response was, ‘Well, I first heard of Standing Rock on social media,’ or, ‘I first heard of the movement from social media and then I continued to follow, I continued to stay engaged via Facebook and when the call was made for veterans to come, that’s when I knew it was the right time for me to join.’ Everybody I interviewed or who our team interviewed said that they heard of the movement or learned about it via social media.”

Begay says a large part of IEN’s work prior to rallies or marches is focused on unifying messaging and visuals: What will the banners say? What artwork will be present? If IEN is holding its own action, it will bring its delegates together from across the nation and huddle on the messaging.

“We’re learning more and more that we need to be very clear in our messaging,” Begay says. “We can’t just say, for instance, ‘protect indigenous rights.’ To indigenous people, we know what that means. We know what our goal is. But when non-native people see that message … we don’t know if people understand what indigenous rights are really because of hundreds of years of erasure and not respecting treaties.”

She says the use of phrasing related to treaties, such as “honor the treaties,” is often debated because the audience may not know that any treaties even existed between the U.S. government and Native Americans. Another key point of phrasing, she says, relates to how those opposed to the pipeline are referenced. She says her organization has worked to get journalists to use the phrase “water protectors,” rather than protestors. Not because these people aren’t protesting, but because of the negative connotation that can be attached to the word “protesters.”

With the messaging defined and the audience growing, the calls to action came rolling in. Chief among them has been the call to defund the pipeline, often referenced via the #DefundDAPL hashtag. The dedicated website for defunding explains how to do so, with individual, organizational and governmental steps. The site describes how to remove money from banks involved in a key loan for the pipeline, but also urges those who took specific action to post about it on their social media accounts. The site’s tracker claims $74.91 million has been divested from the Dakota Access Pipeline in personal funds and $4.07 billion divested in city funds. The #DefundDAPL hashtag is seen on almost 6,000 public posts on Instagram, with users showing their divestment letters and envelopes or standing in front of their former banks.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Native Organizers Alliance and Indigenous Environmental Network also called for the organization of a camp and march on Washington, D.C. Much like the Women’s March before it, the call went out via social media: Invitations came through Facebook, and the hashtag #NativeNationsRise grew in use as attendees posted from the event. The number of RSVPs on Facebook came to about 2,000.

Ancient culture, modern technology

The impact and necessity of social media was clear from the start of the movement. While the land at Standing Rock is considered sacred, some modern updates were needed. Specifically, the movement required an internet connection to broadcast the stories in an area where cell service was notoriously spotty. There was even a ridge nearby that was nicknamed Facebook Hill, where people would try to get cell service.

Begay says IEN and some other groups were able to get Wi-Fi connectivity in some of the tents in the Standing Rock camp, but there still weren’t ideal internet conditions. Live video from some of the final days of the camp in February was fairly poor, but vital, still, in telling the story.

“Having this ability to go live gives us a really useful tool to bring attention to what is happening in the moment,” Begay says. “Those live feeds were such a powerful way to show what was happening, and not necessarily from a biased place because you’re not editing. You’re showing exactly what is happening in the moment.”

Marketers speak constantly about the use of live video and social media to tell stories, and young people in particular have taken to these formats for their everyday lives. It can, however, feel like a clash of cultures to digitally document such an old, indigenous population.

Moya-Smith says there are some situations and ceremonies where people are not allowed to use a cell phone or take photos. But where Native American elders request sacred ceremonies remain undocumented, they also understand the importance of social media to connect the community.

The Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli Aztec Nation arrived at the Oceti Sakowin camp in early October 2016. More than 200 indigenous tribes offered their support and solidarity with the water protectors. | Photo by Laura Fong 

“Native Americans are the smallest racial minority in their own ancestral land, only 5.2 million people,” Moya-Smith says. “That’s a very small community of people, but social media brings our people together and our elders want us to come together. They want to make sure that somebody who wasn’t born on the reservation can go back to the reservation and learn the language, learn ceremony, etc. That’s where social media helps you become that community, but it can’t be in certain situations like [a] ceremony. Turn it off.”

There have been some instances where modern, digital light has illuminated certain Native American practices for the rest of the world. For example, a member of Standing Rock Rising posted a photo on Facebook of a Sacred Fire, by request of the water protectors, prior to the final prayer walk and exit from the campgrounds on Feb. 22. The post read, “For those of you not aware, the Sacred Fire has always been off limits for media, as it contains the spirits. I was honored to be asked to do this.” A Facebook Live video of this final prayer and fire also exists.

Another strong tech presence has been from drone footage. Myron Dewey, a producer at Digital Smoke Signals, used a drone to document Standing Rock and surrounding camps, posting the video regularly to Facebook. Some of the footage went up raw, while some went into edited video used on other Facebook pages or websites.

Documenting the movement for the web may have enabled a certain amount of armchair activism—the idea of publicly supporting something without having to physically leave your space to advocate and get involved. “Power exists through engagement, and more often than not that engagement is due to the smartphone,” says Scott Goodson, a movement marketing expert and author of Uprising: How to Build a Brand—and Change the World—by Sparking Cultural Movements. “What the thumb wants, the thumb gets.”

Goodson recalls the Facebook check-in phenomenon from early November 2016. More than 1 million people “checked in” on Facebook to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation page, a move largely sparked by a rumor that suggested local police were using Facebook check-ins to track activists protesting the pipeline. There was never any proof of this, with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department posting to Facebook that it did not follow check-ins.

Whether these check-ins actually thwarted any police actions really isn’t the point, Goodson says. It was about a show of support.

“The idea of standing for righting a wrong was more important in creating and spreading the movement than the details of what the protesters were fighting for,” Goodson says. “That’s not to say that what the protesters fought for was insignificant. On the contrary, movements spread faster and wider when they are grounded in something important but are simplified into something that people can stand for or stand against.”

Think of it this way: Facebook likes on a brand page or video are not as valuable as actual purchases. But they absolutely add some form of brand value.

To understand just how powerful these online conversations, photos and videos on social media are, consider a warrant filed by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department in Washington. The department is seeking information from the Facebook page of a Bellingham, Washington, group fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The warrant would cover not only protestors’ information, but that of those who interacted with the page as well. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a motion to throw this warrant out.

Measuring success

To determine how successful this movement has been depends on what you choose to measure. It could be ruled a failure because the pipeline has not been halted, and the water protectors have left Standing Rock. On the other hand, it may be deemed a success because awareness of not only the pipeline increased, but also of Native Americans’ continued fight for indigenous rights.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released in February found 51% of respondents oppose the restarting of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, compared with 38% in favor of restarting. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll from February found 48% of respondents oppose building the Dakota Access Pipeline, versus 43% in favor. The Quinnipiac poll broke its findings down by age as well, with 66% of those ages 18 to 34 and 54% of those 35 to 49 in opposition to the pipelines.

These figures suggest the movement’s massive social media presence may have missed a large chunk of the American audience—specifically older populations, considering there was far more web coverage of the issue than traditional media coverage. Another Pew study from 2016 found 50% of those ages 18 to 34 and 49% of those ages 35 to 49 often get their news online; compared with 29% of those ages 50 to 64 and 20% of those 65 and older.

The movement’s open web presence also ran the risk of negative social media posts that were tagged #NoDAPL or #DAPL. Those leading the movement, however, have done their best to correct what goes out when they can. For example, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe posted a statement in February referencing false reports, saying, “We cannot let media and social media divide us. We have always been transparent in our messages and actions; it is unfortunate when certain media take messages out of context. We must remain focused on our goals. The movement is bigger than just the tribe. It is bigger than the Chairman, or any individual. We should all be working together to protect the tenets of the movement.”

With so many different organizations and individuals now involved, there has been some confusion over who exactly to listen to or follow. Those trying to donate money to the effort may also face some chaotic responses online. For instance, a search for “NoDAPL” on the crowdsourcing website GoFundMe produces 710 results. It’s unclear if there’s a way to determine which pages are legitimate.

Despite all of the noise, many contend that the movement has become much larger than protesting the pipeline: It has brought the Native American voice toward the front of the national conversation, at least online.

Arguably one of the most successful strategies of the movement was incorporating an environmental discourse. Many Americans may not know or understand treaties or sacred burial grounds, but most have heard about climate change and pollution. In fact, a Pew Research poll found 59% of U.S. adults believe stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, compared with 34% who say such regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. For the NoDAPL movement, tapping into the potential environmental effects of the pipeline meant tapping into Americans’ existing concerns and anxieties. As Begay explains, using the term water protector, versus protester, also tapped into a more environmental message.

“We were protecting water and protecting ecosystems, not just for our communities but for the 7 million people downstream and the global community,” Begay says.

Goodson says this environmental angle may have been what helped give the movement momentum. Native issues, he says, can come to the front and center when the movement taps into what people already care about, issues that are relevant to others’ lives.

“Blame it on global economic pressures, general restlessness, populism or the hyper-connectivity that enables people to instantly organize around causes and hot topics,” Goodson says. “It’s probably some combination of all of these factors, but the net result is that we are now dealing with a populace that is more socially engaged, more aware of what’s going on in the world and hungrier to get involved and be heard on various issues.

“If I was consulting for native leaders, I would say listen to what people are crying out for. ... Find out what they’re passionate about, what they’re talking to each other about. If you listen closely, you may detect the rumble of an idea on the rise—and it might be one you can build a movement around.”

Branding the movement

Native women at the Women's March in Washington, D.C., wearing the turqouis scarf designed by Bethany Yellowtail | Getty Images 

The media focused its attention on the pink “pussy hats” worn by the attendees of the Women’s March, but there was another piece of clothing that stood out: a turquoise scarf. On it was an illustration of native women performing the “Shoshone Warbonnet Dance.”

The scarf was worn by the Indigenous Women Rise group that attended the march, and they urged other Native American women to wear the scarf as a sign of solidarity. The scarf was created by Los Angeles-based designer Bethany Yellowtail, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

“That image and the scarf, that clothing item, became a symbol for us to know where our allies are, to know who’s raising their voice,” Yellowtail says. “It’s been really incredible to see that clothing can be a way to get people out and get people active. It’s a very obvious issue to know who’s standing with you.”

This wasn’t the first time Yellowtail used her fashion design skills for a movement. She created T-shirt imagery for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in early 2016 and for the Standing Rock water protectors. Proceeds from the “Protector” line went to the Standing Rock Sioux’s legal fund.

At the end of February, Yellowtail partnered with Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), to launch a social impact clothing brand called SACREDx. The brand features shirts that include words such as “Resistance” and “Strong Hearts to the Front.” The goal, according to a press release, is “to dress the resistance, and bring indigenous voices back to the forefront.” Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to NAP.

Yellowtail says non-native companies try to capitalize on native movements, including the Standing Rock movement, and there’s no way to know where proceeds from these products go.

“This (SACREDx) is a native-owned brand, it’s owned by myself and Sarah Eagle Heart. We come from reservation communities and we understand our people,” Yellowtail says. “By streamlining a brand and streamlining messaging, we know it’s been taken care of in a way it should be. Many times, when you have these big movements happening, people try to take our perspective from us.”

Yellowtail says she hopes the clothing line will be worn as people shop, bank and go about their daily lives.

“We know that the front lines are everywhere now,” she says. “That’s the beauty of it, right? These scarves or the T-shirts or the imagery that is coming from SACREDx is helping to keep the momentum of the movement going beyond just the gatherings. It’s constantly advocating for people. It’s a great visual to see out there and know indigenous people are everywhere.”

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Author Bio:

Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.
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