How the Native Americans fell further out of favour after Dakota Access

Tuesday January 24th saw US President Donald Trump sign an executive order which cleared the way for the continuing construction of two oil pipelines, Keystone XL and Dakota Access. Both of these were frozen by the Obama administration weeks previously. Keystone XL is not without controversy but it is the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the subsequent protests and media coverage which has brought institutionalised attitudes towards the Native Americans to the forefront of American life.

Map showing the route of the access pipeline |

The DAPL, when completed, will stretch to nearly 2000 kilometres and will connect oil fields in North Dakota to tanks in Illinois. It’s designed to speed up the transit of American oil across the country. Now in its final phase of construction, it is meeting much resistance. There are two primary factions that oppose the construction, although they are not mutually exclusive. One is tribes of Native American’s who believe the pipeline is endangering land sacred to them, as well as posing a threat to the water supply that their reservation relies upon. Secondly, there are environmentalists who believe the pipelines, and ongoing protests, pose a significant threat to the wider environment, as well as the environment of the Natives.

The tempestuous nature of DAPL stretches back as far as December 2015. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) at this stage first published their draft plans for the access route under the Missouri River. Subsequently over the course of 2016 several Native tribes including factions of Sioux and Cheyenne lobbied against Energy Transfers Partners and their plans to build the pipeline. November 2016 saw the biggest sense of change when the then president Barack Obama suggested the possibility of exploring other avenues which would have avoided building through the contentious areas. Such hope has since been rescinded by Donald Trump and his executive order which totally reverses previous sentiment.

Mainstream media often depicted the protests as skirmishes; chaotic and violent on both sides. There were even reports of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons being used at the ‘baying crowd’. A dystopian scene is certainly a reality with this reporting, an animalistic scene where the feral nature of everyone is rushed to the surface. The question is though how much of that can be taken for granted? Are we being subjected to convention and stereotype by mainstream media and ‘lazy journalism’, even if it is for our own ease and leisure.

Dakota Access Pipeline protests according to CNN |

Many of the experiences of independent journalists/bloggers, as well as user generated content which show footage from ‘on the ground’ often found a scene which was not a chaotic place of violence, but something more akin to peace and serenity. Using footage shot on the scene as a basis to educate ourselves on the protests, what we can actually now see is that these are not violent skirmishes but peaceful ceremonies to cherish the land, and the aggression is not coming from the side which is often suggested. The best example being the use of water cannons which mainstream media stated were used to put out fires started by armed protesters, when in fact they were used on protesters. There are also videos which plainly show law enforcement officers acting aggressively to peaceful protesters.

If this alternative depiction of the DAPL protests is to be believed and it was in fact nothing more than a peaceful protest, then questions then arise about why the news agenda has created this narrative of fear and violence over the issue? Why not promote protesters as peaceful? Surely peace is the aim?

“War sells serious newspapers.”

The cynic, like in the quote above, may argue that peace does not give the media the clicks they need. Perhaps though the reason this specific agenda was set was because issues run much deeper into the American psyche and brings to the fore questions about relations between Native Americans and descendants of European settlers. I would argue that now in an age where divisions are more prominent than ever, it is now impossible for mainstream journalists to remain objective when reporting on these issues, due to partisan political loyalties, as well as loyalty to the flag of the United States.

Aljazeera suggest that American media has two institutional biases, one against reporting on environmental issues and the other is against reporting on Native Americans, both of these issues are extremely prominent in the DAPL saga. Naturally this is the opinion of one non-American source but it does raise points which when studied may have merit. For example the Trump administration took initial steps to remove traces of ‘Climate Change’ from the White House website and that itself is an indication of the contentious nature of the issue within the GOP and American politics itself. The second taboo, the one of Native American’s is one that must be assessed further here as it is the issue which has the strongest association with the DAPL.

This graph above demonstrates how the native population of the United States receive very little attention. In a five-year span since 2012 the interest in ‘Native Americans’ has never exceeded that of ‘Muslims’ or ‘British’. Although the parameters of each term are different, they each roughly relate to an identifiable group of people. It’s arguable then that the fact an entire race of people indigenous to the United States of America do not get as much interest as ‘external’ factions show they are both marginalised and ignored within the country. If this is indeed representative of the people and their interests, then is it possible for the media to give stories relating to the Natives as much airtime. Does this in fact then become a vicious circle where the population are less informed about issues they should be educated in because the media does not believe that is what they want or need to be broadcasting?

This graph again highlights interest in specified issues, on this occasion it charts interest over the two pipelines in question, Dakota Access and Keystone XL. Whilst both have individual peaks which correlate to when issues around each pipeline reached a peak like when the water cannons were used at Dakota or TransCanada filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration. It’s more interesting to note on the graph in the week of January 2017 when Trump signed the executive order to speed the building process of building each pipeline there was significantly more interest in the Keystone pipeline. One assessment of this could be that the strongest controversy in DAPL surrounds the rights of Native American tribes, whereas Keystone XL affects a much more ‘American’ or ‘European-American’ demographic.

To further embellish this idea, the map above demonstrates interest in both areas by showing which one was more popular in each individual state. We can see that DAPL is only more viewed in the the two Dakota states (which it primarily affects). If forty-eight out of fifty states seemingly take more of an interest in Keystone, then it highlights once again a possible innate apathy to the concerns of the Native Americans. Although there will naturally be other factors which impact public awareness and interest, it cannot be ruled out that apathy to the ‘first Americans’ play a role.

Is it then possible to question whether such apathy from the US population could then be reflected in the output of the journalists of the mainstream media? It may be the assumption that journalists are the agenda setters but given that the United States is arguably at its most divided in living memory, perhaps now mainstream media will be dictated to, in terms of agenda, by the strongly partisan views of their readership. Given then how it is viewed that one of the founding principles of journalism is to hold power to account with impartiality and objectivity, if journalists are being forced to tailor their agenda to the whims of the readers, are they jumping in and reflecting a sort of nationalism that is usually exclusively saved for times of war?. As such, when reporting on a USA internal story which brings the Native Americans into dispute with the de-facto rulers of ‘America’, the descendants of European settlers (and also the core readership), there may be a tendency to frame the news and present with a bias in through a form of othering that presents a divide between the two racial factions.

It would though be utterly unfair to focus on the events surrounding DAPL and merely pin them on racial and historical tensions between two different communities. When looking at journalists’ coverage of this incident and the mainstream media depict a huge difference to bloggers and independents working on the ground, then arguably in this crisis and marginalisation of the Natives, is there a conflict of interest which is also driving the mainstream media?

Could, for example… the mainstream media in the US have interests within the oil industry? If so this would certainly impact on the ability of journalists working within the company to objectively report. This blog proposes the ideas that such a conflict does exist and it spans up and down the industry, from as far as advertisements to individuals allegedly being on the payrolls of both the oil companies and the news agencies.

This graph estimates the total population of Native American from its zenith in the 15th century and right through to the end of the 20th century. Whilst there is an eventual resurgence in population from the early to late 20th century its worth noting that even then the population does not exceed two million and never reaches anywhere near its peak centuries earlier. In a country with a rough population of over 300 million that would roughly equate to 0.5% of the population of today’s USA.

This makes for stark reading when juxtaposed with the graph above which charts the increase of the non-indigenous population in the same period. It’s clear here that by 1980 the population had already exceeded 200 million. That has only grown further in the 37 years since, highlighting the vulnerable position the Native population find themselves in just in terms of raw numbers before reportage has even begun.

As previously alluded to, the graphs show the gross disproportion between Native and ‘immigrant’ Americans and shows the former are a huge minority within their own native-land. If we apply the concept that American war correspondents follow soldiers to war draped in the flag themselves and apply that to an internal struggle or a war within and it becomes plausible that media reports may contain an institutional, innate bias. Such bias is ever present and the struggles of the natives are rarely called out by mainstream media, one such example is below:

If the bias is not immediate in the sense that the media intentionally reports falsely and unfairly against protesters then it may certainly be prevalent within the subconscious and how well the protests were covered in comparison to similar protests in recent US history that contain different core groups.

If the bias is not immediate in the sense that the media intentionally reports falsely and unfairly against protesters then it may certainly be prevalent within the subconscious and how well the protests were covered in comparison to similar protests in recent US history that contain different core groups.

The graphs above show that generally speaking the Dakota access pipeline protests generally received less hits, coverage and interest when compared to the others. Also at their respective peaks, the interest in Native Americans is far lower than the other sub-groups.

A recent blog talks about America being at its most divisive ever, this may indeed relate to the presidential elections which are still at the forefront of memory but there is a chance these abrasive attitudes have permeated society and reflected now in the treatment of the Native plight.

More importantly however is the idea that the DAPL story and the ideas of peaceful protests do not fit the agenda of the ‘divisive America’. It is summed up perfectly in the quote: “right wing militias pointlessly occupying wildlife refuge is the biggest story of the century but natives stopping construction of pipeline isn’t worth a single headline on CNN”.

There are concerns for the state of journalism not just in whether or not there is any innate bias or agenda from higher powers regarding a stance against the Native American causes but, and possibly more worrying, the protests here may represent an example of censorship of the press, which is against not only the first amendment, but the principles of modern democracy. There are specific, and worrying examples, of journalists, or certainly independent journalists, having equipment seized, rounded up or even most extremely facing jail time for simply performing their duties and observing and reporting the news of these protests. It is a worrying thought for the state of journalism that even when there is an avenue where both sides of this story were given the opportunity to speak on a bigger stage, federal and private intervention has intervened and censored the story as the mainstream media have not gone to lengths to cover it in the same way.

There are still legs in this story but already it represents an opportunity for important lessons to be learned for journalists and the practice of journalism. The Native American plight shows what can happen when mainstream media get swept up in nationalistic rigour and pandering to their readership, rather than striving for objectivity and impartiality. As this is being written President Trump is trying to pass a travel ban which once again creates divisions between the dominant demographic of the United States and a minority, victimising legitimate citizens in the process. If journalism is to endure it must remain true to holding power to account, withstand the scrutiny when addressed as ‘fake news’ and not bend to the whims of pluralism.

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