Native American Artists Shift Narrative of Standing Rock Pipeline Protest

  • Photo courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

    Photo courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has caused controversy since its inception. If completed, it will transport nearly 570,000 barrels of crude oil from oil wells in North Dakota to consumer markets throughout the U.S. every day. At 1,172 miles long, it would cut through four states and 49 counties. Part of that stretch sees the pipeline running alongside the Missouri River, next to a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Native American groups charge that the route desecrates sacred burial sites and would make their drinking supply vulnerable to oil leaks.

Demonstrations are ongoing as hundreds from across the country have joined Sioux protesters to support their cause and to highlight centuries of injustice against native peoples. On Monday, more than a million people “checked in” to the Sioux reservation, Standing Rock, on Facebook—an act originally intended to bamboozle police spying via social media but ultimately becoming a sign of support for the protestors and their cries of “no DAPL.” Thanks to relatively sparse media coverage of the protest, this act of digital solidarity marked the first time some in the wider world learned about Standing Rock. But demonstrations against the pipeline date back to at least April, when a small group prayed in a camp on the reservation, following years of general opposition to the plans.

If linked to a long history of indigenous people’s resistance to the machinations of industry and the United States government, the acts of protectors—the preferred term for protestors, now reportedly numbering between the hundreds and thousands—date back much further. It is perhaps not immediately clear to those of us who are watching from a distance that what is happening at Standing Rock is not only police firing pepper spray and rubber bullets at peaceful protectors, as seen in online videos.

  • Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

    Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

Away from social media and the presence of heavily armed police, a different side of the camp is being captured by Jaida Grey Eagle, an Oglala Lakota woman, who is currently a photographer studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Sante Fe. Along with some 25 other arts students—videographers, writers, painters, photographers—Grey Eagle made the 14-hour drive north to Standing Rock in mid-September, spending roughly four days at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

“We were going up and we were scared because of the images that were coming out [of the protest],” Grey Eagle told me by phone. “But it’s so different being there as opposed to watching.” The experience has pushed her towards taking more socially engaged photography. “I’ve honestly never felt so safe in my life,” she said. “Walking around alone as a woman is always a thing that gives me a bit of anxiety. But there, I don’t know what it was, if it was the energy of the camp, but I just felt so brave and so strong.” She described being invited to sit at fires and have discussions with people about why they were there. “I was given hand warmers, wool socks, a lady even gave me a pair of hiking boots,” she said. “I’ve never been hugged so much in my life.”

  • Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

    Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

“What people are missing is how peaceful the camp really is, and [that] there are people risking their jobs and risking their lives at home to support this cause,” Chad BrownEagle, of the Shoshone Bannock and Spokane Tribe, told me by email. A junior at IAIA, where he studies cinematic arts and serves as the president of student government, BrownEagle traveled to the reservation with his fellow students. One of his friends, he told me, described the camp as “like a time before we were colonized.”

The students raised money to support their journey independently of the school, which is federally funded and cannot officially participate in the protests. But they all felt a strong desire to make it to the camp. “For a lot of us that’s our family up there, that’s our friends, our tribal members,” said Grey Eagle. “Just watching from afar, that’s really hard.”

The students also collected donations to buy canvases, paint, and brushes in order to hold workshops with the children living in the camp. “When we arrived, we went to the school they had there, and when we mentioned the workshop, they were so excited because they needed their youth to focus on something fun other than the Dakota Access Pipeline,” BrownEagle said. Grey Eagle described one of her favorite pieces, a work created by a small kid who wrote “this is bad” over black and blue paint. “You could see how much they were absorbing around them,” she said.

  • Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

    Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

The works were brought back to IAIA and sold in a benefit for the protest. There are plans for students to make more trips to the camp in the coming months, and they are currently holding a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for supplies to keep them going through winter, as the protests show no sign of abating.

Though he didn’t travel with the students to Standing Rock, artist and IAIA alum Charles Rencountre, of the Lower Brule Sioux, began working on a sculpture overlooking the original Sacred Stones Camp around the time the students arrived at Oceti Sakowin. Though the Sacred Stones camp opened in April, other camps that share the goal of stopping the DAPL, such as Oceti Sakowin, emerged more recently as protest numbers swelled. Like other camps, Sacred Stones prohibits guns, alcohol, and drugs. For Rencountre, an artist for over 30 years, “my sole purpose was to go there and make a sculpture. It took me the entire month, from sun up to sundown,” he said of his work Not Afraid to Look.

The large concrete statue gazes out over the camp, near the point at which the Cannonball River meets the Missouri River, and where demonstrators forced pipeline excavators to cease their work. “It’s meant to be a monument to the efforts of all the Nations and people from all over the world who came to that location to fight for no DAPL,” he said. Welded to a concrete foundation, the work will outlast the efforts at Standing Rock, regardless of their outcome. “Even long after this event has come and gone, this piece will sit there and commemorate that time,” Rencountre said.

  • Photos courtesy of Friends of Not Afraid to Look.

    Photos courtesy of Friends of Not Afraid to Look.

The work draws its name and inspiration from “Not Afraid to Look the White Man in the Face,” a smoking pipe originally carved during a period of heavy fighting between indigenous people and the U.S. government in the Northern plains. The pipe, which wound up in the collection of President Andrew Jackson, has a small indigenous figure carved into the shank and facing the attached bowl, which depicts a white man. “I wanted to make these little effigies, which were maybe an inch to three inches tall, into monumental pieces so that people could understand our sculptural history,” said Rencountre, who is also a pipe carver.

He’d previously made the first Not Afraid to Look before the protests began, and when he saw what was happening at Standing Rock he knew the work had a place there. “That piece and I come from that area. My great-great-great grandfather was a signatory of the 1851 treaty—he put his name on that treaty,” Rencountre said, referring to an agreement between the U.S. government and the Sioux that protesters have cited as legally granting them the land that the pipeline would run through. “The piece resonates clear back into the history of our people and so it’s extremely appropriate that work is sitting there at that camp,” Rencountre said.

Police reaction to the protests has been severe, with pepper spray, sound canons, rubber bullets, and even dogs deployed against the peaceful demonstrations. For their part, police insist local residents are terrified by the influx of outsiders and that protests are a disruption occurring on public and private land. Writing in the New Yorker, Sierra Crane-Murdoch wonders if the threat authorities perceive is really “the fear not of violence but of a people who have survived, who remember things the rest of us often choose to forget, and who have found each other, again, through this memory.”

  • Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

    Photos courtesy of Jaida Grey Eagle.

For many, this newfound solidarity has been an inspiration. “We’ve never had the Nations of this country come together for any reason I can think of,” Rencountre said. “What you need to go there to appreciate is the coming together of all walks of life, from all over the United States and all over the globe. To come and to witness and to feel a community working together toward a cause is something that is pretty rare these days.”

BrownEagle echoes the sentiments. A photograph of him captured by Grey Eagle shows him standing above the camp, fist raised. “I remember feeling this power, the power of the camp,” he wrote to me. “If you have nothing going for a weekend, or for the week, GO! Experience this unity, the peace, have the courage and join in solidarity, for your children! We are the movement that will change lives and the world!”

Reflecting on her time, Grey Eagle spoke about being approached by a man at the very end of her trip there, as she and other IAIA students were about to leave. The man “said our ancient ones all spoke the same language, much like we do now,” she said. “And that we’re coming back together again like we used to be.” The man shared a gesture from that ancient language. “You take your hand and your pointer finger and your two fingers after it, and you drag it across your cheek. It means never ever give up,” Grey Eagle said. “He told us to take that with us and share it with everyone. So every time we see each other in the hallway we all do that to each other—never ever give up.”


—Isaac Kaplan