By Richard T. Mangum
Purpose: Using the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) controversy as a case study, I argue that not only do counter narratives need to be told, but a reframing of storytelling toward what I call a community of stories approach is needed in order to amplify marginalized voices, particularly those of Indigenous people.
Methods: Built on the foundational methodologies of case study and Indigenous methodologies, I investigate the documentation surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline case. In an effort to understand how to amplify Indigenous voices in counter narratives, I rely on antenarrative analysis, storytelling, and listening.
Results: My findings suggest that conceptualizing stories as interrelated communities provides a strategy for amplifying Indigenous voices and revising Western approaches to environmental risk. I offer three different approaches to understanding the relationships among stories. The first is the dominant narrative versus counter narrative, the second is the layered narrative, and the third is a community of stories. Each of these three approaches offers an increasingly complex way of thinking about stories and storytelling, the relationships between power, and which stories are amplified and which ones are not.
Conclusion: Decolonized storytelling methodologies and communities of stories can play important roles in helping technical communicators understand the diverse narratives of any case. Because there is not a case in the world that is not flanked by dominant and counter narratives—all cases have a dominant narrative and layers of counter narratives—technical communication and rhetoric (TCR) teachers and practitioners are presented with an important opportunity to do the critical work that communities of stories demand.
KEYWORDS: Stories, dominant narratives, counter narratives, community of stories approach, layered narratives approach
- Working with Indigenous populations requires a different approach and should privilege storytelling.
- Listening for stories as opposed to simply listening to stories has the potential to move technical communication researchers from the role of a passive listener to the role of an active listener.
- The layered narrative approach shows how dominant and counter narratives can co-exist in contiguous rhetorical spaces; however, the ability to co-exist is not enough.
- In a community of stories approach, stories that work together shift the focus away from power and toward honoring the stories important to a given community.
It is no secret that Earth is suffering from humanity’s obsession with automation, industrialization, and homogenization—a term Wildcat (2009) uses to describe human-based inclinations toward globalized one-size-fits-all solutions. In reality, these obsessions put tremendous strain on the planet and its life sustaining systems of air, water, and earth. For example, MacMunn (2019) recently reported that an increasing number of Americans (more than 4 in 10) live with unhealthy air quality that is blamed on ozone and particle pollution. Similar reports are published regularly for declining water quality and land pollution. Despite federal and state agencies tasked with monitoring and reducing pollution, pollution levels are on the rise and continue to have devastating impacts on the planet. Perhaps it is time to reconsider current approaches to curbing pollution of all types and to seriously contemplate new and alternative approaches for reducing and even eliminating pollution.
Consider how environmental decisions are made in the United States and whose narratives inform those decisions. Despite the multivocality of most communities (Dragga & Gong, 2014), current environmental discourse in the United States often favors dominant narratives that privilege one voice over others. This privileging legitimizes certain groups while delegitimizing those groups pushed outside the boundaries of (or marginalized by) the discourse’s dominant narrative. This process of legitimation in the context of a dominant narrative generates univocality in the discourse and ignores other voices that might benefit a given conversation. As evidenced by Dragga and Gong’s (2014) work, the rhetorical power granted to dominant narrators can have catastrophic impacts on entire communities. Indigenous people know this truth all too well as their knowledge about how to care for the environment is routinely ignored or dismissed by state and federal agencies charged with managing environmental resources, which have created too many environmental crises in recent years (e.g., oil spills, wastewater spills, plastic pollution, wildland fires, water insecurity). Continued dependance on dominating dominant narratives tied to environmental governance will not only continue to limit how technical communicators, legislators, policy makers, and others work to solve environmental issues and problems, but it will continue to reinforce the settler colonial idea that certain populations, like Indigenous ones, are expendable.
Some Definitional Work
It is helpful to pause for a moment to define my use of dominant narrative and counter narrative, and to identify their relationship with stories, voices, and storytelling. I draw on Wilson (2008) and Boje (2001) to define dominant narrative. For Wilson, dominant excludes those who fall outside of the “powerful majority” (p. 35). Boje uses the term grand narrative, which he defines as a “regime of truth, a metanarrative that subjugates and marginalizes other discourses” (p. 35). Boje favors the grand narrative term, but he also employs terms like corporate narrative, great-CEO narrative, official narrative, and universalism. Boje defines universalism as a “historical account that privileges one relatively narrow point of view or grand principle that glosses over differences in other stories” (p. 39). Not only do dominant narratives most often represent the official narrative, but they can play an important role in contextualizing the often-overlooked counter narratives—the stories of those outside the arc of power.
Throughout this research project, I use storytelling because stories are important to this work. King (2005) states that “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (p. 2). Stories—oral, written, and visual—compose a tapestry that represents a person’s life. For Indigenous people, “storytelling acts . . . as a central knowledge-making practice . . . that encourage[s] us to look again to peel back each layer and gain deeper understanding” (Legg & Sullivan, 2018, pp. 29–30). Too often, and as I’ll demonstrate later, who gets to tell stories and how stories are told has a lot to do with power—most often telling and reinforcing dominant narratives. Ultimately, I argue that not only do counter narratives need to be told, but that a reframing of storytelling toward a community of stories approach is needed to amplify marginalized voices like those belonging to Indigenous people. As evidenced by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) controversy, Indigenous people who rallied around the battle cry of “Keep it in the ground!” were painted as radical environmentalists by conservative politicians, pundits, and local media outlets that covered the NoDAPL movement. Instead of opting for cooperation, non-Indigenous decision makers pushed dissenting voices to the margins where they could not be heard. In the NoDAPL case, this marginalization of voices had the effect of extinguishing the diversity necessary for solving real problems that threatened the environment in socially just ways.
A Brief Overview of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the NoDAPL Movement
In June 2014, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) announced plans to construct a 1,172-mile pipeline that would transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil storage terminal in Patoka, IL. In their 2015 Environmental Assessment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that the project posed no significant impacts to the environment. Dakota Access, a subsidiary of ETP, claimed that DAPL does not cross the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, although it does cross under the Missouri River 0.5 miles north of the reservation’s northernmost boundary. The fact that DAPL crossed the Missouri so close to their northern boundary, and that the river represented the only water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a spill at the location where the pipeline crosses under the river would devastate the tribe’s water supply and the fragile river ecosystems that many Standing Rock Sioux regard as their other-than-human relatives. Relational accountability compels many Indigenous people to rise up in opposition to oil pipelines, dams, pollution, and anything else that threatens to poison and devastate the environment. By understanding how many Indigenous people consider the Earth, non-Indigenous people might better appreciate why so many people were willing to stand with Standing Rock during the NoDAPL movement—to protect the land and the water (Goens-Bradley et al., 2016; LaDuke, 2016; Red Warrior Camp, 2017). Long before and since Standing Rock, both the land and the water have been the subjects of passionate debate and argument. Relational accountability not only helps humankind to understand they are accountable to all of their relatives (human and other-than-human), but it can also help explain the dual meanings behind the predominant rallying cry of water protectors at Standing Rock—water is life. Taken literally, water is life means that life cannot exist without water and therefore must be preserved and protected (Goens-Bradley et al., 2016). However, from an Indigenous-relatives perspective, water possesses life and is one of our other-than-human relatives. Viewed through the lens of relational accountability, humankind is accountable to water. This same way of understanding accountability to water can be applied to how people understand and interact with the land, the soil, animals, and any of the other strands that make up the web of life.
By thinking of land, water, animals, and plants as living relatives rather than resources, perhaps non-Indigenous people can begin to understand that all life is sacred. As such, sacred sites take on new meaning. The word sacred is tied to deity, worship, reverence, and respect. When the Standing Rock Sioux argued that sacred sites were threatened and disrupted during the construction of DAPL, they were not only referring to burial grounds of human relatives but were also referring to sacred ground occupied by other-than-human relatives, including sacred stones and vegetation (Ravitz, 2016). The construction of the pipeline, which required the use of heavy equipment such as dozers, graders, excavators, loaders, and backhoes, not only altered the natural features of the land, but in some cases erased them forever. For these reasons, youth activists from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe spoke up in opposition to the pipeline. For the tribe, DAPL represented a risk too great to accept. The NoDAPL movement and the gathering of nations at Standing Rock was the first time that the Sioux Nation had come together in over 140 years. It was also the first time that so many of the world’s citizens gathered (in-person and virtually) in support of an Indigenous led movement. Despite these efforts, the pipeline was completed in June 2017. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues their fight against this reincarnation of the black snake. Concerns over oil spills and leaks drive this fierce opposition against the pipeline. Despite the claim offered by Siguaw and Rowe (2016) that “DAPL designed the pipeline to not leak or have a (spill)” (p. 4), periodic spills and leaks from DAPL illustrate just how difficult it is to construct an oil pipeline that doesn’t leak. Mike Faith Jr. (2019) observed that after just two years of operation, DAPL “experienced 12 spills of over 6,100 gallons of Bakken crude oil.” It is precisely this threat that worries the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other water protectors.
Amplifying Indigenous Voices
Despite best efforts to have Indigenous voices and stories heard, the fact remains that the “public is woefully uninformed about Indian issues” (Morman, 2018, p. 187). This ignorance, deliberate or not, portrays non-Indigenous Americans as unsympathetic and self-interested. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the non-Indigenous public is missing unique opportunities to use Indigenuity or “Earth-based local indigenous deep spatial knowledges” (Wildcat, 2009, p. 48) to reverse the environmental entropy Earth currently faces. Wildcat explains that “instead of expending the energies modern humans devote to changing environments, Indigenous knowledges offer insights into living well on Unci Maka (Mother Earth) because they are fundamentally cooperative and collaborative constructions” (p. 77). Wildcat’s voice is just one of many Indigenous voices worth listening to if our communities are serious about solving some of the environment’s most pressing problems.
Amplifying Indigenous voices who for centuries have suffered the effects of cultural marginalization represents the central focus of my research. For me, finding real solutions—not just bureaucratic ones—for protecting the environment are critical, and lead to the questions at the center of my research project. The questions that I’m asking include:
- What do dominant and counter narratives teach us about protecting the land?
- How might we amplify Indigenous voices to better protect the land?
The word amplify is worth considering here. In traditional contexts, amplify means to make louder. If a quiet voice is made louder, then, technically, it has been amplified. Even if the volume has increased just a little bit, amplification has occurred. On its own and understood in this way, amplification is nondescript and imprecise. When I use the term amplification, I am not equating that term with turning up the volume or using a bigger megaphone to amplify voices and stories. I don’t think the amplification of stories works this way, at least not in the context of determining how to amplify Indigenous voices. If not associated with volume, then what does it mean to amplify stories? Is it about virtue signaling or reposting on social media until a particular message goes viral? Or is it simply an act of telling stories or retelling them (Faber, 2002)? Answering these questions are at the center of what this research project seeks to learn and discover.
METHODOLOGIES AND METHODS
One way of understanding environmental risk is to analyze the ways narratives flow in and out of environmental cases. This study uses Indigenous methodologies, including decolonized storytelling methodologies, to analyze a particular case of pipeline rhetorics, or the discursive practices germane to discussions of pipelines. Case study helped me examine one case within the larger tapestry of the environmental injustices exacted on Indigenous people. In addition to case study, I sought out Indigenous methodologies that would honor the work I was doing to learn how to amplify Indigenous voices. I turned to Hill and Coleman (2018) and Wilson (2008) who advocate for Indigenous methodologies in research. They stress the importance of relationships, equity, diversity, and sharing knowledge through stories.
The NoDAPL movement was ideal for my study because it was a relatively recent event in circulation in the public sphere. In analyzing the case, I gathered two separate corpora of documents and stories that focused on both the dominant DAPL narrative and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s counter narrative. My overarching research methodology is case study, which Yin (2018) defines as “an empirical method that investigates a contemporary phenomenon (the ‘case’) in depth and within its real-world context” (p. 15). According to Yin, a case study “relies on multiple sources of evidence, with data needing to converge in a triangulating fashion” (p. 15). Sullivan and Porter (1997) caution that “methodology that is portrayed as a set of immutable principles, rather than as heuristic guidelines, masks the impact of the situation—of the practice—on the study in ways that could unconsciously reinscribe theory’s dominance over practice” (p. 66). Anxious to avoid any type of dominance in a research project that rejects anything that dominates, I wholeheartedly subscribe to Sullivan and Porter’s perspective.
Within this context, I used case study as a heuristic guideline that might not match the design features of traditional case studies. However, given this research and the complexity of listening to both the dominant and counter narratives of the NoDAPL case, case study was the best methodology. In the NoDAPL case, I relied on 28 different documents from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors. These documents (both internal and external) included reports, newspaper articles, correspondence, Indigenous narratives, and other sources, which made it complex because I looked at multiple variables. In answering my research questions, I was deliberate in my efforts to avoid isolating any piece of these narratives. Instead, I worked to see the entire case in all its complexity, especially its cultural complexity, which characterized the need for a case study. Given the sheer enormity of the case, including its political, rhetorical, and cultural implications, to look at it as something smaller than a case would have sacrificed the legitimacy of this research. Some might argue that this research aligns more closely with document or discourse analysis; however, I was not trying to understand what was in the documents; rather, I tried to understand the case through the documents.
Decolonized Storytelling Methodologies
In addition to case study, I relied on the Indigenous methodologies articulated by Wilson (2008) and Hill and Coleman (2018), which place relationships and listening at the center of conducting research. Central to Indigenous methodologies is the idea that “relationships are dialogical” (Hill & Coleman, 2018, p. 2). By this, Hill and Coleman explain that “the Two Row tradition depicts a relationship that is explicitly dialogical rather than monological” (p. 7). Dialogical suggests a conversation between two or more parties and favors multivocality over univocality (Dragga & Gong, 2014). Moore (2017) emphasizes the importance of both speaking and listening during dialogic practices. Morman (2018) suggests that dialogue, or what he terms robust consultation, requires parties that are interested in overcoming ignorance and finding common ground. And Grossman’s (2005) work shows the validity of this approach. In his research, he observes that conflict declines when rural whites and Native Americans initiate dialogue toward collaboration to protect community livelihoods and natural resources. Getting groups to talk together in positive ways is critical and requires the willingness to overlook past grudges and misunderstandings from both parties.
My research project engages a storytelling methodology. Smith (2012) acknowledges that storytelling has “become an integral part of all indigenous research” (p. 145). Other researchers have studied storytelling and recognize its value in rhetoric and Indigenous research, as well (Baake & Montgomery, 2017; Corntassel, 2009; Legg & Sullivan, 2018; Powell, 2014; Small, 2017). At its basic level, storytelling is dialogic and requires a storyteller as well as a story listener (Behar, 1996). For Behar, the storyteller is the person who tells stories, and the researcher is the story listener, the person who gathers the stories. For Wilson (2008), however, the researcher/author takes the role of storyteller and the audience takes the role of listener. Armstrong offers another perspective. She states:
Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stories, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns. (cited in King, 2005, p. 2)
Similarly, Wilson (2008) classifies Indigenous stories into three categories: sacred stories, Indigenous legends, and personal experiences. According to Wilson, sacred stories are always told the same way and can only be told by those who have permission to do so. Indigenous legends are stories with morals or lessons learned and are often shaped according to the individual experiences of the storyteller. Personal experiences, Wilson says, are just that, they relate “personal experiences or the experiences of other people” (p. 98) and represent the types of stories I looked for as I conducted my research.
My methodologies inform my methods, which are antenarrative analysis and listening. I include two of Boje’s (2001) five dimensions of antenarrative analysis—plurivocal interpretations and collective memories still in flux. Boje explains:
Storytelling organizations are antenarrative, existing to tell their collective stories, to live out their collective stories, to be in constant struggle over getting the stories of insiders and outsiders straight. It is a sensemaking that is coming into being, but not finished or concluded, in narrative retrospection. (p. 4)
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is one example of a storytelling organization that exists, in part, to tell their collective stories. Dominant narratives are an essential part of antenarrative analysis as they offer a contextualizing backdrop for the juxtaposition of resistance done by counter narratives in a case (Boje, 2001). Using ATLAS.ti in tandem with an inclusion criterion, I determined which of the 63 documents I started with fit within the scope of my study. Those that did were divided into one of two groups, dominant narrative documents or counter narrative documents. I used the “project” function in ATLAS.ti to house and organize these narrative document groups. Using an inclusion criterion, I selected documents that composed the DAPL dominant narrative. My inclusion criterion looked for documents that met at least one or more of the following criteria:
- Public facing documents that tell a version of the story intended for public audiences
- Correspondence from principal pro-pipeline actors and U.S. Government officials in the DAPL drama
- Official documentation that summarizes decisions made regarding the design, construction, and operation of DAPL
- Documentation establishing a timeline, from start to finish, of the project
With these criteria in mind, I selected ten documents that fit this inclusion criterion and were representative of the overall DAPL dominant narrative (see Table 1).
In total, 10 documents of the original 63 made up the DAPL dominant narrative corpus. I used ATLAS.ti to conduct two cycles of coding; the first had nearly four dozen codes; the second narrowed it to six, which included Colonialism, Compliance, Disem-/Empowers Indigenous, Justice, Rhetoric, and Risk. Of these six groups, two emerged as the most dominant in the corpus—colonialism and risk. The colonial stories in the dominant narrative corpus include accounts tied to ownership and colonial interpretations of sacred sites. The risk stories largely focus on acceptable risk to the environment and using linguistic strategies to minimize risk.
Much like I did with the dominant narrative, I used an inclusion criterion to help me select documents and stories that would constitute my counter NoDAPL narrative corpus. The criteria that I used to create this corpus included:
- Document helps frame the main topic, including oil, environmental issues, and colonialism.
- Document was written during the Dakota Access Pipeline timeline.
- Document was written by Indigenous authors.
- Document was written about DAPL at the request of Indigenous people or groups.
- Document describes the three main Standing Rock Sioux Tribe prayer camps.
In total, 18 documents of the original 63 constituted the counter narrative corpus (see Table 2).
The documents selected for inclusion in the NoDAPL counter narrative corpus met at least one criterion with the majority meeting two or three. While my treatment of the dominant narrative followed a more Western approach to research (in that I started with a corpora of documents, subjected them to a coding process, and then analyzed the codes looking for trends), my treatment of the counter narrative followed an Indigenous approach that relied on the Indigenous methodologies of storytelling, building relationships, and listening (King, 2005; Legg & Sullivan, 2018; Lewis, 2018; Smith, 2012; Wilson, 2008) to understand the counter narrative corpus. Using storytelling as a methodology required me to listen for stories rather than listen to stories. From a methods perspective, listening to a corpus of documents meant that I read and re-read the documents trying to understand their points of view and perspectives, but also looking for places where knowledge making was happening. In doing this work and going through this listening process, I observed a spirit of cooperation and resilience in the corpus. My use of listening as a research method is most often associated with ethnographic fieldwork and research involving participant interviews (Ratnam, 2019; Tracy, 2013), but I used it here to listen to the stories of Indigenous water protectors found in documents related to the NoDAPL case. While I did not interview participants in this research project, I applied some of Kvale’s interviewer criteria while engaging with the documents I studied. Kvale suggests that good interviewers are open-minded, probing (i.e., they don’t take “everything at face value, but rather ask critical questions about inconsistencies”), and attentive, meaning they supportively listen (cited in Tracy, 2013, p. 161). I treated the documents I studied as I would participants had I done interviews. Additionally, Cruikshank’s (2005) distinction between listening for stories as opposed to simply listening to stories was groundbreaking for my research. This important distinction moved me, as a technical communication researcher, from the role of a passive listener to an active listener determined to honor the relationships important to counter stories. By actively listening for stories rather than passively listening to them, I discovered three approaches to understanding relationships among stories. These three approaches are discussed in the next section.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
When I started this research project, I hoped to discover ways to amplify Indigenous voices to better care for the environment. I hoped to draw tidy conclusions that answered my research questions. I found the opposite to be true: research that works to amplify Indigenous voices does not surrender answers to complex questions so easily. Instead, I am left with a problem that highlights the messiness of stories and storytelling, a problem that is consistent with antenarrative that describes stories as fragmented, chaotic, and always in flux (Boje, 2001; Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016). Many people see stories and storytelling as straightforward constructs that at their most rudimentary level include a beginning, a middle, and an ending that brings a satisfying close to the story (Schoen, 2000). When stories are approached from a relational way, however, complexity replaces simplicity, and the volume of counter narratives is turned up to what amounts to a greater amplification of their voices.
I offer three different approaches to understanding the relationships among stories. In discussing these approaches, I rely on graphics to illustrate them as visuals have the power to communicate certain concepts more efficiently than text alone. Additionally, my graphics (Table 3 and Figures 1-3) offer visual heuristics for researchers and practitioners looking for ways to apply this research. The first of the three approaches is the dominant narrative versus counter narrative, the second is the layered narrative, and the third is a community of stories (see Table 3).
Each of these three approaches offers an increasingly complex way of thinking about stories and storytelling, the relationships between power, and which stories are amplified and which ones are not. In the dominant versus counter narrative approach, the one-dimensional dominant narrative is confrontational, has all the power, and amplifies its own narrative while subjugating and muting counter narratives. A layered narrative approach builds on work done by Boje (2001) who advocates for positioning local stories “side by side with corporate and great-CEO narratives” (p. 55). His work stresses the importance of multiple narratives using microstoria or a layered narrative approach. In the layered approach, power is distributed across a multi-dimensional metanarrative that attempts to equalize power and story amplification among dominant and counter narratives. A community of stories approach takes the layered approach a step further. It isn’t just that there are multiple layers or a collection of poly-phonic voices in the narrative, but that the stories work together to form a community of stories that shift the focus away from power and toward honoring the stories important to a given community. When stories are approached relationally, technical communication scholars and practitioners not only think about stories in different, more complex ways, but they position stories to better understand any given case or situation. By realizing that stories belong to communities and are more than just linguistic tools, technical communicators are better positioned to enter into cooperative relationships that allow them to honor Other voices, including those belonging to humanity’s human and other-than-human relatives (e.g., plants, animals, wind, water, and earth). It is then that we can begin to solve problems where communities of stories live. Looking forward, the remainder of this section discusses these three approaches to story relationships in greater detail.
Dominant Narratives, Layered Narratives, and Communities of Stories
The DAPL dominant narrative subjugated and marginalized the counter narratives belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe by presenting one-sided viewpoints characterized by biased perspectives of “facts” and “truth.” Conversely, the counter narratives told the stories of “those who fell outside of the powerful majority” (Wilson, 2008, p. 35), they focused on local stories and local ways of knowing (Boje, 2001), and because they were told by multiple storytellers they were multi-dimensional or poly-phonic (Jones et al., 2016). This section reviews three approaches for understanding the relationships among stories in the NoDAPL movement—dominant versus counter narratives, layered narratives, and community of stories. Additionally, I identify how these approaches work to amplify Indigenous voices in the counter narratives.
Dominant Narrative Versus Counter Narrative Approach
Settler colonialism, at its core, seeks to displace Indigenous people from the land. According to Wolfe (1999), the colonizers’ invasion “is a structure not an event” (p. 2) that is marked by the acts of eliminating and replacing Indigenous people from the land. This work of displacement and replacement has happened and continues to happen on multiple levels, including the physical separation of Indigenous people from the land (e.g., Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, reservation systems, the Termination Policy of 1953, and utility easements); from their culture (e.g., Indian boarding schools); and from their lives (e.g., missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW)). I also saw evidence of displacement and replacement in the dominant narrative that looked to discredit Indigenous counter narratives tied to the DAPL case and replace them with the dominant narrative’s version of the facts. The DAPL dominant narrative imposed an ‘us versus them’ binary that forced the public to take sides in the oil transportation debate rather than cooperatively generate solutions of how to transport oil more safely. Instead, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) pushed a colonial narrative that ignored claims by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that DAPL jeopardized sacred sites and threatened water supplies. Furthermore, ETP attempted to define acceptable risk for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and minimized the risk of oil pipelines by expertly employing linguistic moves and rhetorical strategies to craft what was intended to be a convincing argument that pipelines don’t leak and that pipelines represent an environmentally responsible method for transporting oil. For ETP, a single narrative was key in garnering much needed support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to secure the Lake Oahe utility easement. Left unchecked by those who hold power, dominant narratives have the ability to delegitimize, erase, and replace counter narratives, much like what happened during the NoDAPL movement (see Figure 1).
In this approach, counter narratives are hidden behind a wall of power and/or authority that works to delegitimize, erase, and replace them with dominate narratives. In the DAPL narrative, dominant-driven approaches worked to reinforce a one-dimensional regime of truth that accepted the dominant version of the narrative and rejected counter narratives. One of the purposes of the dominant narrative is to convince the public not to worry about a particular project. With the Dakota Access Pipeline, the problems and concerns voiced by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were repeatedly delegitimized, erased, and replaced with contradictory narratives that simply ignored and distracted the public from real problems. These acts of concealing problems are no different than infrastructures, like pipelines, that are camouflaged or made to appear invisible (Boje, 2001; Peters, 2015). In this case, however, instead of hiding a nearly 1200-mile crude oil pipeline by burying it in the ground, the arguments against the pipeline were delegitimized by labeling them as false, irrational, unlikely, and wrong. As a result, the “us versus them” binary further marginalized voices not aligned with the dominant narrative. In the DAPL dominant narrative, this dominant-influenced binary was strategically employed to discredit and disprove the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s counter narrative. The result, at least in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline narrative, was a skewed description that amplified the dominant narrative and muted the counter stories that aligned with the viewpoints of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Understanding Metanarratives with a Layered Narrative Approach
The dominant DAPL narrative offers a contextual backdrop for the NoDAPL counter narrative. I considered the dominant and counter narratives together in this research project to avoid misrepresenting the metanarrative, or overarching narrative. Rather than viewing the dominant/counter narrative construct as an either-or binary that ignores the different ideological frames and epistemological assumptions of the Other, it is helpful to consider the metanarrative (dominant and counter narratives together) using a layered approach. Whereas the one-dimensional dominant narrative quiets dissimilar voices, a layered narrative attempts to equalize the amplification of voices of both dominant and counter narratives to avoid distorting and even trivializing the metanarrative (Boje, 2001). A layered approach to story-based research socially constructs a corpus of stories where each story forms a layer in the metanarrative. I refer to Nakanishi’s (n.d.) Layer Drawings to help explain what this layered story approach might look like (see Figure 2).
To compose his Layer Drawings, Nakanishi prints different photographic images on transparent acrylic panels that when viewed from a stacked orientation reveal a multi-dimensional visual composition rich with details unachievable with one-dimensional art. Although none of the images on the individual acrylic panels are the same, the images work together to achieve a stunning composition that captures layers of time spread out across a longer, historically complex narrative.
From Boje (2001), I borrow the term poly-phonic stories, which correlates with Morman’s (2018) use of the term plurinational society. Taken literally, poly-phonic stories represent narratives from many voices or positions of power, including dominant and counter narratives. The term plurinational society is defined as the existence of more than one national group within an organized community. Put another way, the fifty states making up the United States of America represent just one national group in the greater American community. An additional 574 federally recognized Indigenous nations in the United States contribute to the plurinational society in which every citizen of the United States resides, which means there are many different governments, cultures, languages, ways of knowing, and ways of believing inside the United States of America (Morman, 2018). When poly-phonic stories are layered over the top of a plurinational society, a chorus of voices emerges that can help technical communication scholars and practitioners prioritize, learn from, value, and amplify counter stories tied to specific narratives like the ones belonging to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The layered narrative and my use of Nakanishi’s Layered Drawings are not without their flaws or shortcomings. First, as with anything that is layered, whether it be a composite material, graffiti palimpsests (Myllylä, 2018), or sound, there are facing or exterior layers (the first layer of a thing that the audience sees, hears, or experiences) and middle layers (the layers between the facing layers). The facing layers of a story (most often the dominant narrative) have the potential and power to disproportionately influence the metanarrative while the middle layers (most often the counter narratives) might be more easily lost behind the facing layers. Second, all of the layers (facing and middle) risk homogenization. Wildcat (2009) warns that “the situation we currently face has been brought about in large part by the globalization of a homogenizing one-size-fits-all culture” (p. 39). Although Nakanishi’s layer drawings utilize panels of the same size, shape, and color scheme, I refer to his work simply as a visual example of the mechanics and utility of the layered narrative. I do not advocate for homogenization in storytelling; rather, I see story layers as a series of living, breathing stories that have lessons to share, perspectives to see, and knowledges to make. When treated this way, layered narratives have the power to amplify marginalized and muted voices. Third, the layered narrative could be misunderstood as a static model that permanently fixes stories as either facing or middle layers. Unlike layer drawings, layered narratives are always in flux. In other words, stories are not locked into a facing or middle layer position, but shift depending on a narrative’s strength at different points in time. Different points of view and/or perspectives allow layered narratives to shift as well. Similarly, Jones (2016) observed the dynamic nature of stories and shifting points of view in her genre narrative work. She acknowledges that when researchers focus exclusively on just one thing or one story, other perspectives and stories are lost. Instead, Jones advocates for a more balanced approach to “better understand the impact of stories on participants’ work and lives” (p. 316).
I observed evidence of the layered narrative in the “I Stand with Standing Rock” narrative. When Energy Transfer Partners first announced the pipeline, they controlled the narrative, and their story became the facing layer. As the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe joined the narrative with their NoDAPL movement, their voices and stories became middle layers that added to the narrative’s composition. For months, their stories remained in those middle layers. However, on September 3, 2016, violence erupted while water protectors blocked construction efforts of the pipeline. In response, Tiger Swan (Energy Transfer Partner’s hired security firm) used pepper spray and attack dogs to push the water protectors back. As a result of the attack, almost three dozen water protectors sustained mace-related and dog bite injuries (Gilio-Whitaker, 2019). After video, photos, and storied accounts of the attack went viral on social media, those with access to digital technologies could no longer ignore the events at Standing Rock, nor the injustices exacted on the movement’s water protectors who had reportedly been engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. After the September 3 confrontation, Standing Rock received increased media attention from both mainstream and alternative news outlets. The public flooded social media with Standing Rock stories and temporary profile pictures that proclaimed, “I Stand with Standing Rock.” During this time of increased attention to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against DAPL, the “I Stand with Standing Rock” narrative shifted from the middle layers of the narrative to the facing layers. The NoDAPL narrative remained in that position through the end of the year, gathering increased momentum from social media and from Jo-Ellen Darcy’s December 4, 2016 memorandum that directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the pipeline’s proposed Missouri River crossing. The facing layer shifted again with President Trump’s January 24, 2017 Executive Order that expedited environmental reviews for high priority infrastructure projects. That executive order was followed with a memorandum from President Trump to the Secretary of the Army that instructed the Secretary to rescind the EIS and issue the easement required to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the layered narrative approach, I observed that amplification allows for the re-layering of stories, which has the effect of momentarily amplifying certain stories over others. While a story’s position in the layered narrative does play a role in the tenor of the overall narrative, the power of an individual story depends largely on who is listening and less on the dominant players’ ability to censor counter narratives.
A Community of Stories
The layered narrative approach shows how dominant and counter narratives can co-exist in contiguous rhetorical spaces; however, the ability to co-exist is not enough. When counter narratives exist side-by-side with more powerful dominant narratives, the amplification of voices doesn’t generally happen simply because counter narratives don’t have the weight of political power to amplify their voices loud enough to change the ending of the story (Jones et al., 2016). In the DAPL metanarrative, the dominant narrative was too loud, it had too much political and economic power behind it, creating a pair of mismatched contenders that all but ensured ETP’s victory. Collins (2019) explains:
In a David and Goliath world regulated by dominant Western epistemologies . . . intersectionality cannot simply assume that it is playing by the same set of rules as everyone else. Critical theoretical projects resist and criticize not just the intellectual and political arrangements that accompany specific forms of domination, but also how dominant epistemologies make these structures of knowledge notoriously difficult to upend. (p. 152)
Though Collins’s work focuses on intersectionality, the same is true for decolonizing methodologies that seek to amplify counter narratives. On their own, however, the layered narrative approach cannot get this work done alone. Still, the work of layering narratives is important because it removes the wall of power that looks to hide counter narratives.
Building off the work done by layered narratives, communities of stories (CoS) demonstrate how stories can move away from attempts to equalize stories and to instead focus on amplifying their collective voices. The community of stories approach offers a methodological basis for TCR professionals to more fully engage with a given narrative by considering the ideological frames and epistemological assumptions of the different voices represented by the metanarrative (e.g., how nature is defined, how knowledge gets made, how land exists, and whether or not land can be owned). In the DAPL case, these frames and assumptions were ignored by the dominant versus counter narrative approach, which became problematic when the focus shifted to solving problems.
Because so much of the NoDAPL counter narrative was delegitimized, erased, and replaced by the dominant narrative, the problems voiced by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe remained unsolved. The community of stories that I focused on in this research project invited me, a technical communication researcher, to consider the long history Indigenous people have with the land, the water, and settler colonial frameworks. Whereas the dominant narrative ignored and hid the problems introduced by DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s community of stories worked to solve problems and positioned stories as problem solving strategies. For example, during the time of increased media attention following the September 3 incident (discussed in the previous section), social media became the primary outlet for getting information distributed to the general public—a move that temporarily amplified Indigenous voices determined to have their messages and grievances heard. Grinnell explains that “we know how to get information out there, and we are spreading it through social media” (cited in Estes & Dhillon, 2019, p. 22). Rather than rely on news outlets to shine a light on the Standing Rock story, social media and the subsequent momentum gathered through viral posts gave the power to tell stories to those outside the dominant narrative. The September 3 incident is an apt example that illustrates the power of social media in drawing attention to a particular movement or cause. But the excitement surrounding viral posts can fade if the momentum from hyped media attention is not leveraged. For many Indigenous people, the “I Stand with Standing Rock” movement was the catalytic megaphone that inspired other Indigenous organizers (e.g., PANDOS, SLC Air Protectors, Stop Line 3, Native Organizers Alliance, Indigenous Cultures, and Utah Diné Bikéyah) to amplify other environmental stories sacred to Indigenous people. These stories continue to be told because of what happened at Standing Rock. Le Blanc (2021) explains that “Standing Rock was the beginning, not the end. Standing Rock is everywhere. And our people aren’t going to back down from protecting and shaping the future of the land, air, and water for all people, Native and non-Native.”
In addition to social media strategies, Indigenous water protectors have long used litigation as another strategy for amplifying their voices. During the construction of DAPL, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe repeatedly turned to the courts hoping that the legal system would halt construction of the pipeline in order to stop the desecration of their lands, waterways, and sacred places. Some of these efforts had the effect of temporarily pausing the project, but invariably the pipeline project continued to advance toward completion. A decision from a United States District judge agreed that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fears and concerns have merit. On March 25, 2020, Judge Boasberg ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline. In his decision, he cited a number of factors that the Corps overlooked, including the effectiveness of DAPL’s leak detection system; an insufficient and incomplete discussion of ETP’s and Sunoco’s pipeline operator safety records (described as poor in the industry); failure to consider the impact of harsh North Dakota winter conditions in the event of a spill; and overly optimistic and deficient data for worst-case discharge including leak-detection time, shutdown time, and adverse conditions (Boasberg, 2020).
Social media and litigation represent just two ways the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s community of stories worked to solve problems and positioned stories as problem solving strategies. To help visualize what a community of stories looks like, I offer a CoS graphic inspired by Indigenous hoop dancers (see Figure 3).
In Indigenous hoop dances, the hoop has different symbolic meanings for different tribes and different dancers who practice this form of ceremonial dance. At a basic level, the hoop symbolizes the never-ending circle of life that reminds dancers and audiences that humans and other-than-human relatives are all connected. Joe Luna explains that the hoop “represents the circle of life with no beginning and no ending. The dancer begins with one hoop and keeps adding and weaving the hoops into formations that represent the journey through life. Each added hoop represents another thread in the web of life” (cited in Hines, 2015). The practice of hoop dancing transforms the dancer into a storyteller who, through dance, tells an evolution of stories. In hoop dancing, the story changes as hoops are added and arranged into different formations. Each hoop is distinct and tells a different part of the story. There are three ways that hoop dancing and Indigenous communities of stories parallel each other, thus reinforcing the hoop dancing metaphor. First, their purpose and function are similar. Second, they are fundamentally fluid. And third, they are relational.
First, just as the dancer adds and rearranges hoops to tell different stories, a community of stories approach uses different voices and stories that overlap (are layered), intersect, move, and evolve (especially over time) to amplify counter narratives. The circles represent different stories in the narrative and allow stories to be added, removed, and rearranged into different formations. Not only does the material act of adding hoops correlate with the community of stories approach, but the origins of hoop dancing reinforce the appropriateness of the metaphor. Arcand (2014) explains that hoop dancing was originally done as a ceremony, a prayer to help restore harmony and balance in the world. It is precisely this idea of restoring balance and harmony in the world that NoDAPL water protectors were after. The diverse formations that CoS narratives form can help technical communicators better understand both the complexity of counter narratives and a path forward toward problem resolution.
Second, hoop dancing and communities of stories are fundamentally fluid. Arcand (2014) explains that during a performance, hoop dancing “continuously flows and continuously grows.” Similarly, in a community of stories approach, stories continuously flow and grow as the priority is on listening for stories rather than simply listening to them. Listening for stories allows stories within counter narratives to evolve and join together, which can amplify and lend strength to stories that would be weaker on their own.
Third, like hoop dancing, the CoS approach is relational, which allows stories to coalesce into a community of stories that lends their combined voices strength, relevance, and amplification. When organized as communities, stories not only have the ability to rupture dominating dominant narratives and to soften their power, but also have the strength to solve problems in cooperative ways. For communities of stories to be effective, however, audiences must listen to their collective voices. Without listening, the power to amplify stories is lost and can only be recovered when audiences are again ready to pay attention and listen. When technical communicators and others listen for stories in counter narratives, a series of relational stories emerge that allow for the amplification of voices.
CONCLUSIONS AND TAKEAWAYS
Despite the decades long relationship technical communicators have had with environmental documentation and risk communication, only recently has the field committed itself to engaging in socially just practices from a decolonial and/or Indigenous framework (Agboka, 2013; Haas, 2012; Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019). It is from this area of social justice and Indigenous frameworks that a rich tapestry of voices can emerge that will not only positively impact environmental policy affecting Indigenous peoples but might potentially effect environmental change for all peoples.
In this research project, listening to the NoDAPL movement’s collective voices as a community of stories was instrumental in helping me to first, understand the counter narrative and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline; and second, to see a potential path forward for solving the problems introduced by the pipeline. Had I only relied on the dominant narrative’s version of DAPL events, my understanding of the metanarrative would have been grossly incomplete. The same holds true, really, for any narrative and any story that positions, and subsequently amplifies, certain voices over others. Furthermore, I would have never encountered the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s community of stories that taught me how to listen and how to amplify counter narratives.
Decolonized storytelling methodologies and communities of stories can play important roles in helping technical communicators to understand the contributing narratives of any case. As technical communication scholars and practitioners, there is not a case in the world that is not flanked by dominant and counter narratives—all cases have a dominant narrative and layers of counter narratives. This presents an important opportunity for TCR teachers and practitioners to do the critical work that communities of stories demand. In other words, there is never just a single story that represents a given case, which opens up opportunities for technical communication scholars and practitioners to look for, excavate, and amplify subordinated counter narratives. Additionally, in learning to do this work, TCR scholars owe it to their students to teach them how to not only do this work of listening and discovery, but to prioritize it in their future careers. In failing to do this work, technical communicators may end up reinforcing and validating harmful dominating dominant narratives that exacerbate and hide problems rather than working to understand and solve them.
In conducting this research, there are at least four takeaways that are important for both researchers and practitioners. First, working with Indigenous populations requires a different approach and should privilege storytelling. Second, listening for stories as opposed to simply listening to stories has the potential to move technical communication researchers from the role of a passive listener to the role of an active listener. Third, the layered narrative approach shows how dominant and counter narratives can co-exist in contiguous rhetorical spaces; however, the ability to co-exist is not enough. And fourth, in a community of stories approach, stories work together to shift the focus away from power and toward honoring the stories important to a given community.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
In reflecting on the limitations of this project, I focus on bias and the corpus of documents I analyzed for both the dominant and counter narratives. First, the personal baggage I collected over my lifetime has inevitably colored how I analyzed and interpreted this data. By default, bias is a limitation of any qualitative research project. However, these same experiences and points of view can also be considered strengths in the research process as they can offer a greater breadth of understanding in certain situations. Being aware of my biases (especially as a non-Indigenous researcher researching an Indigenous topic), however, has helped me to be a more careful and thoughtful researcher.
Second, my study is limited by my selection of the documents I chose to include in the dominant and counter narrative corpora. To date, there are thousands of documents that describe the DAPL case. The Standing Rock Syllabus, alone, is 2,403 pages. Additionally, there are countless articles, news reports, artwork, legal documents, memos, letters, and reports dedicated to the Dakota Access Pipeline case. The dominant narrative corpus that I studied included just 10 of these documents while the counter narrative corpus included 18. Though I worked hard to eliminate my own bias in selecting these corpora for study, it is likely I did not eliminate all of it.
Given the enormity of the DAPL case and the increased acceptance of story-based research in the field of technical communication, there is a lot more work to be done with the NoDAPL narrative and other Indigenous environmental narratives that actively push against the colonial patriarchy of dominating dominant voices. Some of these Indigenous led counter narratives include the fight against Minnesota’s Line 3, the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill, uranium mining and their impacts on Diné communities, and the threat of zombie pipelines (the old pipelines left behind by pipeline companies) across North America. Additionally, this work has implications and applications in similar areas of activism and scholarship, including Black Lives Matter, discussions surrounding MMIW (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women), and the MeToo movement. Essentially, wherever patriarchal norms are allowed to dominate public narratives and silence counter narratives, there are opportunities to apply this work with communities of stories in order to amplify counter narratives as a way to solve problems.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeffrey M. Gerding, Kyle P. Vealey, Kristen R. Moore, and the three peer reviewers who gave me thoughtful critiques on this article. Thank you for your patience, professionalism, and invaluable feedback.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard T. Mangum is an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, where he teaches courses in technical communication to engineering students. Of particular interest to Dr. Mangum’s research is determining better ways to amplify marginalized voices—especially Indigenous voices—to solve environmental problems. His research interests also include storytelling, social justice, and risk rhetoric. He is a recent graduate of Texas Tech University’s Technical Communication and Rhetoric PhD program (2020).