Northeastern State University, Tulsa
Anchell Scholarship for Documentary Photography
The Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors
Over the horizon the night sky was bright with the glow of lights. Cresting the hill we realized these weren’t the lights of a city but the floodlights of police forces. We were twenty minutes from the site but could clearly see the police lights covering the range of hills, shining down on the Water Protectors’ camp. Cars were lined at the checkpoint up ahead. Our destination was the Sacred Stone camp in North Dakota. Four months of work had culminated in this delivery of emergency donations to the Standing Rock Sioux’ campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline company. The effort had been exhausting, consuming my evenings and weekends while still working as a full time student. Over the course of
these few months, I had built and distributed collection boxes to three cities, organized two benefit concerts, spoke at a Native American church about how to get involved in the campaign, published essays on social media, made numerous calls to student groups at universities across three states, mobilized several volunteers and drives, and picked up donations in multiple states. I had invested much of my own money in the effort. By Thanksgiving week I had collected a pickup truck load of winter coats, clothing and emergency supplies. Cash donations totaling over $400 were used to buy two large pipe stoves to heat tipis during the cold winter months. An additional $200 cash was donated directly to the Sacred Stone camp for supplies and legal fees.
My photo journal documents this journey to help the Standing Rock Sioux. The photos I was able to take were limited out of respect for requests not to take pictures inside the Sioux camps. I did not set out to create a photo documentary. My passion is to address important issues like this through independent film and documentary. However, after reading about the Anchell International Documentary Photography Scholarship, I realized this would be an excellent opportunity to highlight the challenges faced by the Standing Rock Sioux. My first efforts were to encourage people to collect and donate potable water tanks. This developed into a campaign to collect winter clothing and medical supplies.
The Standing Rock Sioux are standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline Company which is constructing a pipeline to carry oil from the Bakken Shale Fields of North Dakota to Illinois. The tribe and their supporters have raised multiple issues of concern. Some of their most prominent being contamination of their water supply, violation of treaties and their national sovereignty, and desecration and disrespect of ancient burial grounds. The Standing Rock resistors call themselves ‘Water Protectors’ and their slogan is ‘Mni Wiconi’ which means ‘water is life.’ Their camps are located along the Cannon Ball and Missouri rivers on the Southern edge of North Dakota.
Activities for the Dakota Pipeline began in 2014 and have continued to this day. The planned pathway crosses through treaty lands that were part of the Sioux reservation until the 1940’s, when the lands were taken away because of an Army Corps of Engineers project that dammed the Missouri river and flooded parts of the reservation. The Dakota Sioux have requested the pipeline be rerouted to avoid these lands, the associated stretch of river, and their ancient historical site. The original resistance to DAPL was started by tribal youth. In April of 2016, the Sacred Stone camp was erected to stand against the pipeline in prayer. At this point, the Corps of Engineers has chosen not to provide the easement for the pipeline to cross the Missouri river at the planned location until a full environmental impact assessment has been conducted.
The mainstream media had virtually ignored the voice of the Standing Rock Sioux in their cry against the pipeline. Coverage is limited and one-sided, mainly arising when Hollywood celebrities show up onsite or are arrested. The exception was in early December when an estimated 2000 veterans from all over the country converged in North Dakota to stand with the Water Protectors. At the time, the Corps of
Engineers had set a December 5th deadline for eviction of the Oceti Sakowin camp. However, the media coverage associated with the veterans support resulted in the evacuation notice being dropped.
Regardless of how you feel about the political and environmental issues, it’s hard to ignore the human element of this movement: the resilience of those camping outdoors during the harsh Dakota winters and the suffering of the unarmed, peaceful Water Protectors who have been arrested, attacked, shot with so called ‘less-than-lethal’ rounds at point blank (which can become lethal at less than 30 feet), sprayed with high pressure water cannons in below freezing temperatures, and faced with unconstitutional legal challenges.
Prior to making our delivery to Standing Rock, my father contacted a legal professional and others who were involved in tribal affairs and who had visited the Standing Rock camps. We were told that there would be spies in camp and to assume that as we entered the camps our cell phones would be tapped, our identities determined and put on record and, possibly, a background check ran. We were advised to have legal counsel available on-call. Out of concern for my safety, my mother asked my father to travel with me. For the trip we downloaded an encrypted messaging app to provide some degree of security.
After driving for two days under dark, overcast skies and camping under the stars, my father and I finally approached the campsite. It had been recommended that my father drive as we approached the camp area because I am often mistaken to be a member of the local tribes in my home state. There was concern that this would put me at a high risk for targeting. Our directions were sketchy, compiled from simple descriptions and hand-drawn maps from those at the camp. Our nerves were on edge as we saw a Federal Law Enforcement vehicle fly past us into the darkness. We had been warned to avoid the highway on the Northern side of the camps and the police checkpoints located in that area. Misinterpreting our directions, we missed the turn towards our camp and appeared to be headed for one of those checkpoints. Fortunately, this location was monitored by the tribes to control entry into the larger camps. The guards directed us back up the road and to the Sacred Stone camp.
There are multiple camps along both sides of the river. Each is populated with shelters of various kinds – large tipis, geodesic domes, tents of all shapes and sizes, and numerous make shift shelters. We chose to stay at the Sacred Stone Spirit camp because it was a center for prayer. We arrived at the camp around eight in the evening. Most of the camp was quiet. Because it was late, we made a brief tour of the camp, unloaded the truck and set up our shelter for the night. We climb into bed shortly after eleven. Flyovers had been going non-stop for about an hour, despite this being an FAA no-fly zone. Off-and-on throughout the night, police aircraft and helicopters circled over the Sioux camps with lights off, dropping low over the campers. The floodlights positioned across the river lit some areas of the camp grounds bright as day.
After a brief breakfast in the morning, we delivered our donations to the collections tents. The workers expressed heartfelt thanks for the donations and were especially grateful that we had organized the contents by type and clearly labeled the separate boxes. They were particularly excited about the pipe stoves which would provide warmth through the brutal Dakota winter. It was a rewarding feeling to see and hear their responses to the donations.
Messengers rode through the campsite announcing a gathering at the sacred fire. These sacred fires were kept burning 24 hours a day at each camp. They were the center point for prayer, meetings and announcements. We arrived at our camp’s sacred fire in time for the morning announcements. There was a peaceful direct action planned for that day. Instructions were given, including the recommendation for anyone going to the frontline to sign-in at the legal tent and write a contact
number on their arms in case they were arrested. There were reports that the police would be moving in to evacuate the main camp, Oceti Sakowin. Rumors circulated that the police would burn anything left behind. We were told that women and children were being evacuated from the main camp to the tribe’s community center for the day. The Water Protectors headed to the river’s edge wearing bike helmets and various types of clothing intended to protect from water cannons, tear gas and mace. Many carried homemade shields with paintings and prayers on them.
My father was concerned for my safety and would not let us go into the Oceti Sakowin camp or to the frontlines. So, we hiked to the edge of the camp to view the Water Protectors’ march to Turtle Island. As we stood on the bridge at the edge of the camp, it was difficult to get a full view of the over 10,000 campers who were there to support the movement. We could, however, clearly see the police line armed with rifles positioned across the top of the opposing hill and the multiple law enforcement vehicles with mounted long range acoustic devices (LRAD’s) parked at the foot of the hill, just across the river.
We returned to Sacred Stone camp and volunteered our help where we could. We departed later that day to make room for the Water Protectors and their families who would flood this location should the Oceti Sakowin camp be evacuated. Before parting, we presented a gift of Jamaica leaves (for making Hibiscus tea) to the camp elders. It was difficult for me to leave so soon seeing how much work needed to be done and how small our contribution was in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to do more to help. That night, exhausted, we ate our Thanksgiving dinner cooked in the back of my truck. My mind churned with ideas on how I could further help the cause.
My father and I made the trip to Standing Rock over Thanksgiving weekend. We slept in tents and in a shelter that I built over the bed of my truck. We prepared our own food so as not to burden the tribes. During my short time at Sacred Stone camp, several things stood out. First, the camp was peaceful and embracing. The elders at Sacred Stone emphasized respectful behavior and the peaceful nature of their resistance to the Bakken pipeline and the treaty violations. They held regular prayers. We heard several individuals praying in their tipis at various times during our stay. Each meal and meeting began with a prayer offering. There was a real effort to bring healing to the Water Protectors in all camps – relieving the stress and anger that could arise during the campaign. What was most impressive was the concern the elders expressed and the prayers they offered for the police officers and their families who were sent to the frontlines. Most of these officers are from the local Morton County Sheriff’s Department.
The campers and Water Protectors came from a wide range of backgrounds. Many were Native Americans dedicated to the cause. Others were there to bring donations and offer support however they could. Some were there for other reasons. The saddest sight occurred the first night at camp after quiet hours. The fire was crowded by hipsters and wannabe protestors talking about direct action movements across the nation, yet they were violating almost every rule of the camp and disrespecting the sanctity of the sacred fire. All this while one warrior tended the fire, making offerings.
I returned home motivated to continue my efforts to help the plight of the Standing Rock Sioux. My current projects is a fund raiser called Tortillas for Standing Rock. After I graduate with my degree in Film and Media, my goal is to pursue a career in independent film and documentary so I can create content that truly impacts our society for good.
I’d like to thank all those who contributed to this effort, in particular my parents and grandparents who provided a great deal of support and donations.