When you’re really trying, but kind of annoying— how to not be appropriative in movement spaces

By Logan Nakyanzi Pollard

(with post-event update)

LJ Amsterdam is standing by the window looking out over the city, surveying the space she’ll be in with her friend and colleague, Dallas Goldtooth, on Thursday, and then she says in the matter-of-fact way people have these days:

—it’s dark times.”

In an email interview, Goldtooth previews what he’d like to say about our cultural moment:

I look forward to talking about this moment of turbulent waters in our society, to discuss how we can rise to the occasion, further the demands for justice and to continue the struggle for intersectional equity.”

That’s good news to Amsterdam: “I’m hoping that this will give Dallas a chance to speak to things he doesn’t ordinarily get a chance to.”

Something you may have missed

Standing Rock made headlines in 2016, as a broad coalition of activists were drawn to the camp created by Sioux elders, in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.  The massive pipeline would impact the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and run from North Dakota to southern Illinois. Despite protests, the project moved forward and was up and running by 2017.

In the chain of events that brings us to this moment, the executive order to allow the Pipeline to proceed made it all the more easy to bulldoze the camp.

I’d always assumed that was the battle being waged at Standing Rock. But what if there was something else at its center— born of ignorance, or arrogance? Or loss?

LJ Amsterdam, courtesy thoughtworks.com

As Director of Development + Special Projects at The Ruckus Society, a nonprofit that counsels activists and organizers on resistance and healing, Amsterdam was invited in 2016 to lead “come correct” trainings at Oceti Sakowin and co-created Standing Rock Solidarity Network with other organizers.

On February 15, at 6:30 pm, Amsterdam moderated a discussion about spirituality and our relationship with the land, with Goldtooth, a comedian and Indigenous activist, from the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine people, who gained international attention for his leadership around the Standing Rock controversy, or as Amsterdam describes it: “protecting the water in Standing Rock.”

We were planning for a camp,” says Dallas, just not for 10,000 people! 

One of Amsterdam’s primary interests is the question of how allies can be supportive—but not appropriative—in movement spaces and the importance of spirituality in movement spaces:

One of the things you’ll hear in the conversations is how much spiritual practice played a role in Standing Rock.  Many people were drawn to Standing Rock because that spiritual connection was something that people were hungry for. The ways that played out were problematic–people appropriating spiritual practice that was not of their culture.” 

At issue, she says, is a deep desire to really talk about what Indigenous leadership looks like in social movements. Dallas is more direct about what happened:

“And there came a point, where we became outnumbered.”


Implicit in Amsterdam’s statement, is a gentle nudge for those interested in engaging this conversation to move towards not just “knowledge,” but a deeper kind of understanding that Goldtooth frames in the following way:

We are challenged to build an intersectional movement built on principled faith and respect for the sacred femininity of the land.”

Challenged; intersectional; principled; faith; respect; femininity; land– these terms are at the heart of why people of different backgrounds struggle with each other. How do we strive with one another? Where do our alliances meet and connect? What is principle? What is faith? What is respect? What part of us is this feminine and the earth?

Is there anything funny here?

Maybe therein lies the humor: We all have to learn to laugh at ourselves. I venture, the Father in Heaven I know, certainly does.

And by humor, I don’t mean flippancy. I mean the kind of humor that sees everything and loves anyway.

As if to illustrate the substance of the matter– like a glacier beneath an iceberg’s waterline– Goldtooth, writes a very serious response to a question about humor. In fact– his response isn’t funny at all:

As our society steps up to hold men accountable for their toxic ways, we must also step up and speak to the violent transgressions against Mother Earth. We must not only look to building a healthier human society, but sustainable, healthier ecosystems across the planet as well.”

Amen to that.

Enjoy the entire talk here: 


Logan Nakyanzi Pollard is Auburn Seminary’s Associate Dean

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