Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has managed to land himself right in the center of a few huge indigenous peoples’ land rights controversies, which begs the question: What the hell is actually going on here? Native country needs to know.
First, several weeks ago, Zuckerberg initiated a firestorm of outrage when he undertook the “quiet title” process and sued several hundred Native Hawaiians for rights to their ancestral land so that he could build himself a private estate. The estate is still under construction, but after a massive outcry and social media campaign against his efforts, he addressed the controversy and decided to drop the suit, stating:
“To find a better path forward, we are dropping our quiet title actions and will work together with the community on a new approach. We understand that for native Hawaiians, kuleana are sacred and the quiet title process can be difficult. We want to make this right, talk with the community, and find a better approach.”
It remains unclear whether his suggested “better path forward” will actually work in favor of indigenous Hawaiians, or whether he was simply trying to save face.
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Fastforward to last week: The Zuck visited the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota—the very root of the Dakota Access Pipeline—and seemed to express a little too much empathy for the non-Native oil workers and residents who have supported and even celebrated one of the most famous assaults on Native lands and livelihood in history.
In Zuckerberg’s Facebook post in which he reflected on his visit, he wrote:
“A number of people told me they had felt their livelihood was blocked by the government, but when Trump approved the pipeline they felt a sense of hope again. That word ‘hope’ came up many times around this. One person told me the night the pipeline was approved, people lit fireworks and rode trucks with American flags down Main Street to celebrate.
Many people I talked to here acknowledged this, but also feel a sense of pride that their work contributes to serving real needs we all have every day—keeping our homes warm, getting to work, feeding us, and more. They believe competition from new sources of energy is good, but from their perspective, until renewables can provide most of our energy at scale, they are providing an important service we all rely on, and they wish they’d stop being demonized for it.”
Additionally, Zuckerberg wrote that most women he spoke to “felt safe,” (a point which many Native women would likely disagree with), though he also acknowledged the increase of crime and drug activity in the now wildly male-dominated population.
Shortly after Zuckerberg wrote about his visit, the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Dallas Goldtooth—one of the best known activists who worked diligently to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline—posed a question to which Zuckerberg actually responded. The exchange reads:
Goldtooth: Mark Zuckerberg, I appreciate your effort to learn more about the issue of fracking—and going to the point of extraction is something that many people don’t get to do. I was wondering if it was in your interest to also visit some of the Native american people who actually reside in the heart of the Bakken and have been dealing with the effects of the Oil Boom for years now? There are some amazing leaders there who can show you around.
Zuckerberg: Yes, I’m already planning to visit Native American people and lands in the region on one of my next trips. Thanks for the offer.
So, in short, it all seems a bit flip-floppy. He sued Native Hawaiians for an incredibly greedy purpose, then took it back. He wrote a glowing statement of support and understanding for supporters of DAPL, then expressed a commitment to sustainable energy, and stated his plans to visit Northern Plains tribes to learn more about the indigenous side of the story.
In coming weeks, the answer will become more clear: Will Zuckerberg learn from his ignorant mistakes and become a potentially powerful ally to Native communities and indigenous people, or could he be the face of neocolonialism? We’ll see.
Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Twitter @CPLuger. Ideas for articles? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.