Word Warriors: Fight For Your Rights

In the wipe of rights to our ancestral homelands and the realization that a country we call home doesn’t understand our sovereignty, social media has played a huge role in igniting movements that bring awareness and positive change.

by Megan Red Shirt Shaw on July 22nd, 2015

“Everyone’s waiting on codes and i’m over fighting with Indians…smh”

I am sitting in my work cubicle looking at the blaring words across my computer screen as my great-great-great grandfather looks down at me from his photograph pinned on my wall. I realize as I watch the Twitter notifications pop, how much I am regretting tweeting anything to this user. He’s spewing words about alcohol, casinos, how much he hates Indians, tearing down Native American identity. I read his words and know he’s planning on continuing, but do the only thing I feel is appropriate: block him, a complete stranger, and try to move on with my day.

Twitter is a space that I am still trying to navigate. Beyond hashtags and shares, who’s following who, I’ve had to navigate uncontrollable rage and hatred. I’ve watched people tear each other down, profanities slung across wires, users infuriated by other users incompetence. How could they say such a thing? How could they believe such a thing? How are they so racist? How are they so ignorant? It gets to a point sometimes where I have to ask myself: how am I supposed to explain to Native youth or my sister or anyone who I work with or care about, that putting up with negativity online can ultimately be used for good?

Photo of "Change the Name, Change the Mascot" 49ers protest. Protesters march down the street and hold signs and flags.

What America doesn’t understand about Native America is that we are 567 nations strong – with hundreds of different faith backgrounds, languages, homelands, and experiences. In the wipe of rights to our ancestral homelands and the realization that a country we call home doesn’t understand our sovereignty, social media has played a huge role in igniting movements that bring awareness and positive change to our identity as communities. We have watched trends like #NotYourMascot move the needle on Native American mascot imagery, like #DearNativeYouth ignite positive messages across the country for Native children and teens, like #NotYourHollywoodIndian challenge Adam Sandler after Native actors and actresses walked off the set of his latest film. These conversations set storm and lit excitement in the hearts of activists across the country, compiled streams of ideas and pieced together commonality that we could bring forward for America to see.

The best part of these movements has been watching young people get involved and take a stand for their people, pushing their message all the way to the White House to meet Michelle Obama and spend time with other youth activists. Some of them gained notoriety from their reservations and social media, rising to the top as they learned how impactful putting their voice out was. For those of us who are Indigenous and want to come together on similar issues from across the country, we have to continue rising – and if it’s from our laptops in our quiet kitchen on a Sunday night, then we have to keep fighting from our keyboards. For every Native person who faces stereotypes and disconnected understandings across a country that we know spiritually is our own, I believe in our voices and try to articulate it as often as I possibly can. One negative voice in a sea of positive change with leadership means we, ultimately, are doing the right thing.

Photo of the author standing behind a wire fence and looking out over roads, fields and hills in Pine Ridge, SD. Her back is to the camera and her red sweatshirt reads "Oglala Lakota Nation."

I realize I will never be able to change everyone’s minds – but as a Lakota person who loves and wants to honor my people, I have to try to push the envelope to not only better myself as a writer and as a communicator, but as an activist fighting for my rights. We must keep our traditional ways and go back for ceremony, learn our languages, teach our children the values that push us forward… but we are also learning how to be visible and how to have a united front through a computer screen. I see relatives on Pine Ridge without heat in the wintertime. I see youth riding horses to the gas station on the corner. I see rolling golden hills on my drive to the reservation to visit a land and a people I love who America has forgotten. If I have a computer and a thought and a beating heart and I can connect to 1,000 people a day, why wouldn’t I try to push the message? We are Native America and we stay proud. We are word warriors and we are fighting for our rights.