by Rafaella Gunz
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock have been going on for months, but are only just starting to get mainstream media attention. Unfortunately, that’s partly because a white woman — not the Native tribes who started the protests — recently became a martyr for the cause.
The weekend before Thanksgiving (a holiday that essentially celebrates the genocide of the Native people), Sophia Wilansky — someone I grew up with — was standing with the Native protesters. The police showed up and started violently attacking the Water Protectors, using water cannons in freezing weather, causing many to get hypothermia. They also used tear gas, shot rubber bullets and even threw concussion grenades. Allegedly, one of the police officers threw a concussion grenade directly at Sophia, causing severe injury to her arm. The police claim they didn’t use concussion grenades and that it was the protesters’ own propane explosives that injured Wilansky. However, her surgeons found shrapnel in her wound they said was more consistent with a grenade.
The police also blocked off a bridge and part of Highway 1806, which meant no vehicles could come or go from the scene. Because of this, Sophia was unable to get medical attention for 6 to 8 hours. Given her injuries, time was imperative. Doctors say her arm may need to be amputated. Even if it isn’t, it will only have limited functionality.
The Camp of the Sacred Stones released a statement saying the bridge blockade “threatens the lives of the water protectors and residents of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, as emergency services have been needed but unable to reach camp quickly. The blockage also unjustly restricts the free movement of local residents and hurts the Tribe economically by cutting off travel to and from the Prairie Knights Casino.”
After this incident, Standing Rock is getting mainstream media attention. Wilansky’s medical fund was trending. But she should not be a martyr for this cause. She is an educated white woman just doing her part to help an historically oppressed group of people. The focus is still, and should always be, on the Native people. Moreover, as someone who knows her personally, I can say that she in no way wants to be seen as a martyr for this cause.
A little history on the Dakota Access Pipeline: the original plan for the 1,200-mile crude oil pipeline was to pass just north of Bismarck, North Dakota. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided against the plan because it felt the pipeline would run too close to to wellhead source water protection areas. Instead, the pipeline was rerouted through land next to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota.
Why is it that white United States leaders get to reject the pipeline, but the Native peoples don’t? Why is this pipeline being forced on them? Additionally, the proposed pipeline will travel through sacred Native burial grounds. The U.S. government didn’t make an effort to communicate the pipeline redesign with the Tribe, a requirement under federal law. And then, of course, there’s the environmental impact the pipeline could have, which affects anyone along its path, anyone receiving energy from its product — and arguably folks across the U.S.
News of Wilansky’s injury has drawn many more privileged white folks to Standing Rock for a “cultural experience;” some have even compared it to Burning Man. These people are taking advantage of and disrespecting the Natives, eating their food and using their supplies without actually helping the cause. Tribal protesters are upset by the development.
“On my way back from the camps. Need to get something off my chest that I witnessed and found very disturbing in my brief time there that I believe many others have started to speak up about as well,” Native American protester Alicia Smith wrote on Facebook, in a post that went viral. “White people are colonizing the camps. I mean that seriously. Plymouth rock seriously. They are coming in, taking food, clothing and occupying space without any desire to participate in camp maintenance and without respect of tribal protocols.”
Other Native protesters also took to social media with this concern, even sharing a list of ground rules for the camp. “You are not on vacation — this is not a camping trip,” the list reads. “If you come, for god’s sake, help out! Carry something, cook something, clean something.”
The focus should remain on the Native folks at Standing Rock. This influx of white people is indicative of white supremacy. The protest is not, and never will be, about white people. If you’re a white person who genuinely wants to help, like Wilansky, that’s one thing. But it’s not okay to use your privilege to take up space and minimize the voices of the Natives, rather than amplifying them. It is not okay to seek praise and attention for lending a helping hand. This is about the people whose land European settlers stole hundreds of years ago. The people who are the only real Americans. And the people who, to this day, are still being harmed at the hands of the United States government.
Rafaella Gunz is a recent graduate of The New School in NYC, where she majored in journalism and minored in gender studies. Her work has previously been published on Ravishly, Slutist, Feministing, Guerrilla Feminism, The Tab, and DeadState. Visit her website: ellagunz.com.