Just hours after PepsiCo Inc. aired their activism-inspired commercial for Pepsi soda, the ad was pulled, prompted by instantaneous and widespread social media backlash.
The commercial featured an activism story line, where Kendall Jenner, a rich, white, fashion model, is inspired to join a very generic demonstration, ultimately gliding straight to the frontline of police and offering one officer a can of Pepsi. The officer takes a drink, and the crowd cheers. Kendall Jenner safely retreats back into the crowd, smiling. Apparently, she just saved the day.
Many critics immediately asserted that the commercial trivialized the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Op-eds and articles were published specifically speaking to the correlation with BLM. Television shows, such as The View and The Late Show discussed the flop, and Saturday Night Live weighed in with a spoof. But missing from this greater conversation of real-life parallels is the largest movement to take America in the past 12 months: The indigenous struggle in Standing Rock and the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where numerous times, a drink of water was offered to police, and yet, refused.
To be sure, Pepsi’s flop is a teachable moment that we cannot pass up; a prime opportunity to dig into intersecting topics of race, privilege, commercialism, co-opting the struggles of marginalized communities, and the outright erasure of indigenous issues.
Unlike the white-washed and glamorized Pepsi commercial, in Standing Rock, resistance was no fairytale, but rather a bitter reality for the thousands of water protectors who came and left wounded, both physically and spiritually.
“After months in Standing Rock, praying with offerings of water in front of militarized riot police, watching my people be brutalized, I cannot imagine that anyone who approved this commercial to have ever known the traumas we carry,” water protector and organizer, Eryn Wise (Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo), told Indian Country Media Network. “(Pepsi and Jenner) look like they want to be us. They just don’t actually see us.”
This very palpable indigenous-led resistance in Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline was riddled with aggressive police in riot gear, armed snipers, helicopters, arrests, criminal charges, attack dogs, mace, tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and freezing water hoses in the dark of night.
In Standing Rock, resistance involved real bodies, and real danger.
On October 27, 2016, Dan Nanamkin (Nez Perce, Umatilla, Colville), prayed over an offering of water while standing before police, and moments later, he was arrested. “I stood there with tears in my eyes, and I was praying with all of my heart,” he said. “After they beat us in the back with their batons, they forced us out of their way. It wasn’t anything like the Pepsi commercial portrays.”
In Standing Rock, no officer ever took a drink. There were no cheers, and definitely no celebratory smiles.
Yet there was one bitter-sweet moment of “almost.”
In early November, a 10-year-old Lakota girl, accompanied by members of the youth council, walked in prayer with a glass of water to a razor wire barricade where they were met by armed police. The young girl, too, offered the water to officers as a gesture of peace and solidarity. All of the officers present refused the gesture — all except one. This individual officer did not take a drink, but instead acknowledged the offering by touching his finger tips to the water, and then patting the water onto his body.
This moment was an exception to the rule.
“The scene from the Pepsi commercial hit home directly for us because my daughter and I have actually lived that scene and the reality was far from what was portrayed,” said water protector Holy Elk Lafferty (Lakota), mother to 10-year-old protector, Shayla Tilsen. Lafferty was present at the camps for months, staying until the final day of eviction.
“My child put her hand through concertina razor wire to offer sacred water to heal the minds and hearts of the militarized police officers and they refused to drink it. That is our reality and truth. To see it mocked and trivialized hurts and belittles our story.”
Make no mistake, the outrageous flop-of-an-inspirational Pepsi commercial didn’t just trivialize and co-opt the most poignant imagery of social justice movements overall, but a very specific and recent movement, where many times, a drink was offered to a very detached and unflinching line of police officers.
Nevertheless, as Indian humor would have it, Indigenous social media users joined in on the fun with the pointed mockeries. Pepsi cans and bottles were photoshopped into the hands of water protectors. Profile pictures were changed.
All of this, highlighting the realities of indigenous existence and resistance: We diffuse frustration with humor, we stand our ground, we keep moving, we keep resisting, and we survive.
So, let this be a cautionary tale. You cannot glamorize or commercialize real struggle and expect to bring true justice. You cannot inspire the masses with fake peace. And you certainly cannot profit off of someone else’s pain, off of true Indigenous experiences, and then not expect a backlash of powerful and determined indigenous resistors. This is our life, and our resistance is not for sale.