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German Media Perspectives on the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict

I’ve followed news about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project since early summer this year. Apart from social media, my major source of information was Indian Country Today. In these months, I’ve wondered about the increasing complaints among activists and independent media that most media remained silent on the issue. While major media outlets in the US recently seem to have taken note (often in a detour via celebrities who became engaged), I believe the project and the protests against it have been well-publicized in Germany, in the context of the usual news cycle on foreign affairs and US news beyond the election.

It would be too bold to state that German media were ahead of their US counterparts in covering the protests, but there has been a regular influx of information in both print and TV news since last summer. This radio feature was one among many who covered the election in lengthy overland trips, but it also discusses protests against DAPL among Iowa farmers and at Standing Rock, detailing conflicts over private farmland. It portrays current issues in US society but does not stop with the celebrity factor of Trump. The two major public TV stations, ARD and ZDF, have covered the protests repeatedly since September, and have recently given them prominent position in their prime-time evening news shows (see here for a report on the Corps of Engineers’ decision of 3 Dec). Major German newspapers, such as Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, have become involved as well. This is especially noteworthy because Süddeutsche took up the published list of banks financing the project, along with recent activist efforts to target these banks through divestment campaigns, and has begun to ask questions about DAPL investments by Bavaria’s Bayern LB.

While the degree of coverage does not seem out of the ordinary from a German news perspective, it certainly seems as if German news media are more interested in the issue than US media have been until recently. Part of this interest might have a historical context. News out of the US are not only big news because German media cover the US as a world power; there has been a tradition of reporting on social and political struggles in the US that is part of the love-hate relationship and the mix of fascination and contempt that has determined German perspectives of the US throughout history. News out of Indian country have been part of that mix since the late 19th century.

Newspapers in communist East Germany covered the Red Power movement and AIM during the 1970s, gleefully giving the US a black eye over imperialism and colonialism. To get a glimpse how prominently Indigenous issues were placed to highlight social and racial injustice in the US, see this list of articles published in the leading party mouthpiece, Neues Deutschland on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation. It is no surprise that newspapers in this socialist tradition still are intent on reporting on social conflicts in the US today, including the DAPL protests. Similarly, a few articles can be found in German-speaking left-wing online forums, revealing interconnections of issues and networks of social activism in a globalizing world.

Farther back in history, the Nazis had their own reasons to discuss race relations in the US, as I have described in my academic work and in earlier posts. Talking about race riots, miscegenation laws, mismanagement and poverty on Indian reservations, and about repressive and paternalistic US-Indian policy helped the Nazis turn the table and point an accusing finger at the US when the Roosevelt administration and US media criticized Nazi Germany for its persecution of minorities. As the Chicago Tribune titled in October 1938 (a few weeks before the infamous “Kristallnacht” pogroms): “Remember Fate of Indians, Nazis tell Roosevelt.”

In 1890 already, Rocky Bear, a Lakota performer with Buffalo Bill’s show, gave a speech at the Munich Anthropological Society, led by Prof. Johannes Ranke. His protestations against US-Indian policy were received with great interest and sympathy by his audience and the press covering the event (see Ames, Eric. “Seeing the Imaginary. On the Popular Reception of Wild West Shows in Germany, 1885-1910.” In I Like America 223-24).

Given the history of how US society and its social, political, and racial conflicts have been perceived and interpreted in the German public, it is no surprise that the DAPL protests are met with keen interest in Germany. They are not only an expression of people’s awareness of global problems (such as climate change, environmental issues, and energy development), but also embedded in a tradition of reveling in another country’s problems (presumably to be able to forget about one’s own for a while).

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