On October 10, actress Shailene Woodley was arrested for criminal trespassing while protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The DAPL has been publicly condemned by many, particularly by Indigenous activists who oppose the construction of the pipeline on or around their land. Woodley was later released from jail on bail and ordered to appear in court on October 24.
Much of the general public has applauded Woodley for protesting the pipeline, and it is true that her arrest brought a large amount of attention to the issue. Indian Country Today Media Network reported that 4.4 million people watched Woodley’s livestream of her protest and arrest on Facebook, and that many celebrities spoke out in support of Woodley and against the pipeline.
Certainly, the case can be made that celebrities like Woodley can draw a great deal of attention to important issues. Protests against the DAPL have been ongoing for some time, and it would be absurd to call Indigenous sovereignty a newly hot topic considering North American history.
Yet, unfortunately, plenty of people might have only heard about the DAPL after Woodley’s arrest. Even beyond drawing attention to the issue, Woodley’s presence on the ground for the summer surely was of some help to the cause.
One possible reason to criticize Woodley for her efforts may be that she drew plenty of attention toward herself. One might wonder why Woodley chose to livestream herself instead of the other protestors — namely the Indigenous activists who are defending their sovereignty. She may not have intended to draw attention solely to herself, but surely she may also have anticipated that she would receive attention for these actions.
Woodley also made some questionable comments during her livestream. She said, “We’ve got to recognize that regardless of our background, regardless of our ancestry, we’re all indigenous to this earth… It’s our responsibility to honour our mother, that which has given us the oxygen, the sunlight, the moonlight — the fuel that feeds us every single day. We have to honour that, and we have to make sure that we treasure it and also protect it.”
By making those statements, Woodley failed to recognize that the problem with the DAPL is not merely its harmful environmental effects. As stated by the Standing Rock Sioux in their lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers, the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.”
Woodley’s incomplete understanding of the cost of the pipeline would be less problematic if she did not speak to a large audience and assert herself as spokesperson of the cause. By framing the pipeline as solely an environmental issue — rather than one central to Indigenous rights — Woodley effectively erased the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux. She positioned herself not as an ally to the cause, but as a person who is just as affected by the cause as the Indigenous activists on the ground.
Additionally, the risks Woodley carries by being arrested are far less than the risks carried by other activists. Woodley is a white, wealthy, and well-known celebrity. She does not have to worry about the same level of police brutality that would be levelled against Indigenous or Black protesters, or the same treatment from the pipeline’s private security, who attacked activists with tear gas and dogs.
Her position also means that Woodley can hire attorneys to work on her case — although, considering the barriers to being released from custody that many low-income people face, it’s also important to note that Woodley posted bail not only for herself but also for other protestors who were arrested.
Perhaps most importantly, Woodley is now being applauded for her courage and drive. Indigenous activists have certainly not received the same level of public attention, let alone had the same praise placed on them.
It is not that celebrities should refrain from getting involved in social causes, or even that Woodley should be condemned for her actions — what she did was commendable. However, anyone who falls under such a large public spotlight ought to understand how to most effectively and appropriately wield that power.
If she wants to draw attention to the issues at hand, Woodley ought to delve deeper into the causes she supports. This will mean deflecting the cameras away from herself and focusing on the activists fighting for their sovereignty, environment, and lives.
Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English.