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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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“Sorry Business”: Bronwyn Carlson Presents in Flagstaff on Social Media Use and Mourning in Australian Aboriginal Communities

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While researching Native American veterans’ issues at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation by Dr. Bronwyn Carlson (University of Wollongong, Australia) on 14 October. Dr. Carlson, who visited NAU to discuss collaborations between her institution and the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at NAU, specializes in the study of social media use among Australian Aboriginal communities.

I am fascinated by Carlson’s work because it brings together a number of aspects I have been grappling with for my milblog project. I read the use of social media by primarily non-Indigenous populations (i.e., US soldiers and civilian representatives of the home front) as a cultural practice that conducts cultural work by ceremonially negotiating war experience and, thus, constituting community. My work draws from a discussion of how Indigenous communities in the US reintegrate returning veterans and of the role community support plays in this integration process.

Media-studies approaches to social and new media in the early 2000s tended to be very defensive in stating that virtual communities, such as blog audiences or Facebook groups, could constitute community through relationship-maintaining interaction that was not bound to embodiment and place. Much of these debates seemed to defend against allegations that online communities could not be communities, exactly because they were not spatial and embodied, and often did not enable synchronous conversation (such as the sequence of blog post and readers’ comments).

While my own work draws from observations about Native American war-related ceremonies to argue that non-Native milblogs, indeed, constitute community because they perform ceremonial acts of narrating war experience and social support through audience response (an indirect link between Indigenous communalism and social media), Bronwyn Carlson’s research focuses on how Australian Aboriginals directly operationalize social media for community-related cultural practices.

One aspect of this would be the question of forging identity – I have been asked repeatedly in how far online space as a playground for assuming another identity might be a problem for my work on milblogs, in how far some blogs might be fakes assuming a “hero” identity In the case of veterans and soldiers, I am sure that any wannabe milbloggers would be called out very quickly because the milblogosphere so so well-connected and because the topics are so specific that faking expertise would be too difficult to succeed. However, the fact that some popular (general) blogs turned out to be based on fictitious identities, and the widespread utilization of anonymity in social media raised the question of authenticity among many colleagues to whom I presented my work. ‘Playing with identity’ seems to be primarily a problem of the “Western” world, though, if we consider Dr. Carlson’s work. Australian Aboriginals tend to be more interested in representing, emphasizing, and strengthening their cultural identity through their representation of “self” in social media, rather than engage in ethnic, social, or gender drag.

Carlson’s presentation and articles illustrate that Australian Aboriginals not only use social media at higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians, but that their use of the media opportunities goes beyond typical non-Indigenous uses, as well. It incorporates culturally-specific elements that serve to (re-)instate cultural identity: Because many communities have been torn apart due to forced adoptions, residential schools, or employment requirements, many Australian Aboriginal communities face challenges in continuing particular practices, and social media offer opportunities to remedy this predicament.

This is especially important regarding matters of death and mourning, which are called “Sorry Business” among Aboriginal communities. Sorry Business entails social obligations, based on reciprocity and social support, participating in ceremonies, and representing one’s extended family. Social media allows people to inform distant relatives about the death of particular community members through online obituaries, to organize transport to remote funeral ceremonies, to extend gestures of support and condolences online if attendance at a funeral is impossible, and to dedicate online sites as memorials to deceased persons, to which users can contribute by posting stories, images, or messages. I have seen similar practices and functions of bridging the spatial divide in milblog-representations of mourning, and am fascinated by the similar utilization of technology to continue cultural communal traditions between them and the expressions of Aboriginal Sorry Business.

I found especially remarkable that Dr. Carlson presented this cultural phenomenon from various angles, discussing culturally-specific problems such as the impact of staggering numbers of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth on Sorry Business in the social media, and internal debates on cultural taboos (such as visual representations and mentioning the names of deceased persons online). These perspectives complicate our understanding of the matter, yet they illustrate intriguingly how a culture is not only confronted and challenged by technological and social change, but also, how community members take up the challenge and seek to incorporate these new technologies into its cultural and social fabric. Representations of internal debates and conflicts over cultural taboos versus opportunities to conduct ceremonies and commemorate lost community members, after all, indicate that this culture is alive and kicking.