Watershed: Oceti Sacowin Camp of Prayer and Ceremony
History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. No, we are not Indians but we are men of their world. The blood means nothing; the spirit, the ghost of the land moves in blood, moves the blood.”
—William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
These photographs were taken in the Oceti Sacowin Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation in December of 2016. My friend B. and I had arrived there for the first time after nightfall, and one thing that struck me immediately was the array of klieg lights across the horizon. B. had been following the standoff between the Morton County Sherrif's Department and the people of Standing Rock from the start and had an almost encyclopedic grasp of the situation. My knowledge at that point was more visceral. I had seen the horrific videos of a militarized public police force punching, beating, macing, tackling people who were devoted to peaceful action. I had seen the footage of the attack dogs sicked on a crowd of men, women, and children. I saw the photograph of their handler, a woman from Ohio, laughing as people were mauled. I saw the drone footage of the deputies deliberately dousing people with water canons in sub zero temperatures--a potentially lethal act. And then there were the interviews with women who had been arrested for praying during a peaceful, legal assembly. They had had their hands zip-tied, numbers scrawled in marker on their arms. They were strip searched, forced to squat and cough. Some were shoved in dog cages and left in the cold for hours before being shipped off to jails across the region. People waited days, sometimes weeks for a phone call. Chronically ill people were denied life saving medications that had been confiscated when they were arrested for having done nothing more than pray for clean water on land they had every legal right to occupy--if you believe that the government should honor the treaties it made with Native Americans, like the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that granted this portion of the watershed to Standing Rock. It's really not complicated legally speaking, but the government of North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers ignore the treaty. When the residents of Bismarck objected to having the DAPL pipeline cross the Missouri upriver from them, the Corps rerouted the pipeline straight through Sioux land--in violation of the treaty and without proper consultation with the tribe.
The klieg lights had been erected by the Army Corps of Engineers, B. said, to harass the people living in the camp, to disrupt their ability to sleep, which stuck me as a little ironic as Oceti Sacowin is specifically devoted to prayer and ceremony. The human rights abuses by the police were mounting and intensifying as winter was closing in. Amnesty International had people on the ground investigating as did the United Nations and other international human rights watch groups. The lights were just one in a series of psychological operations in the works that may or may not have been recommended by the security consultant brought in by the pipeline company Texas Energy Transfer Partners to assist in forcing the pipeline forward to maximize profits. I am a landscape photographer I kept saying to myself. How did I end up in a war zone? There was prayer on one side of the barricades, the tax payer funded machinery of war on the other. Clean Water was the cause of the Standing Rock Water Protectors. Profits for pipeline investors was the modus operandi for the government of North Dakota.
My first view of the bizarre cascade of blue light spilling over the camp was truly disorienting because even though we had arrived after dark the lights illuminated everything for me in this improvisational city of tipis and house trailers and winnebagos and tents and yurts and tiny homes complete with solar arrays. There were men on horses and women driving brand new SUVs. I couldn't shake the unsettling feeling that I had fallen into a kind of time warp in which the present had merged with the past and the future simultaneously. Within minutes, my lurking suspicions about the state of my nation--let alone the state of this Rogue state of North Dakota--became confirmed. This struggle on the part of the Standing Rock Sioux to defend both their land and the Missouri watershed is indeed a watershed moment for us all. I met a man who had grown up in a CIA station chief's house in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and then served later in special forces and had come to Standing Rock to do what he could to right the horrible wrong that was unfolding. "This may be the first time in my life I have ever done a good thing as a soldier," he said. I ran into him one night when I was photographing and as we stood there looking out over that sci-fi landscape he said the most chilling words I heard during my time in Oceti: If we don't win this fight now, here, this will be the future of the whole country. Needless to say, after Trump rose to power trailing clouds of traitorous suspicions, the camp was destroyed.
The lights were intended to disrupt, but in fact they were tremendously useful. The architects of this injustice were exposing themselves quite literally, providing me with a million dollar lighting system that made that stretch of the Missouri watershed suddenly look like a Burbank Sound Stage. The camp could have been the set of a futuristic remake of yet another racist film about "cowboys" and "indians," except for the tragic fact that this was truly unfolding, and it doesn't take much research or time on the ground to determine who real villains are. The Sheriff's Department of Morton Country along with its hired mercenaries had become notorious for their militarization of the conflict, and worse yet for orchestrating bald faced lies in press conferences about their actions. The Sioux of Standing Rock were vilified repeatedly by lies and innuendo both and with leaders of the movement harassed with false arrests on trumped-up charges. The constant gas-lighting, the dissembling, the attempt to obfuscate might have worked with people too busy or lazy to investigate the truth for themselves, but on-site it there was an injustice unfolding that was grotesque in its scale and its barbarity. While the rest of the world is finally moving on from fossil fuels, it seems we are going to further destroy our indigenous cultures and our natural resources. The DAPL pipeline crosses all the major watersheds in the midwest--the Missouri, the Iowa, the Mississippi. And behind this machinery of greed an even worse process is at work: a burgeoning industry of disaster relief such as companies that are preparing to make a profit from the destruction of drinkable water in the US right now. They are buying up the water rights wherever they can and laying the groundwork for decontaminating whatever water is left so they can resell it to the public at what will be undoubtedly a very high cost. Why do they want to poison the earth under our feet? Because environmental destruction itself will be profitable.
As I set my camera up to photograph Turtle Island, a sacred burial site that is now wrapped in concertina wire and lit by klieg lights, I noticed a small encampment at the base of the bluff. My neighbor in camp told me she had watched as a group of US military veterans who had come to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock charged their way to the base of the burial ground a few days earlier. The militarized police rushed down the hill toward the veterans in full flak jackets and helmets and masks. They were so geared up she said that they didn't realize they were attacking veterans, but when they realized their mistake the police turned around and struggled to scramble back up the hill as fast as they could climb. If you read the history of the colonization of North America you will realize quickly that the real Hollywood westerns haven't been made yet, the ones that would tell about the massacres like what had happened just up the road from Oceti Sacowin: the Whitestone massacre of 1863 when the U.S. Army murdered between three and four hundred members of the Standing Rock Sioux including women and children who had gathered for the winter Buffalo hunt. The killing continued for days afterward, and the Army destroyed the cache of food that the tribe had put away for winter.
The American media coverage of Standing Rock has been thin at best in the mainstream outlets and tends to focus on the worst kind of pandering, the kinds of stories that make viewers feel good about themselves like the mustering of the veterans--there was virtually no discourse on how bizarre it was that at least five thousand military veterans of every political stripe were spontaneously forming a militia to defend the American people from their own government. Of this horrific fact and its implications upon the state of American Democracy there was next to no discussion. The violence against the young white college student whose arm was badly mutilated after police struck her with a concussion grenade evoked a more of a response than almost anything else that has happened thus far, and though it was an awful thing, it was also galling that this is what it took to break the media blackout: a pretty white girl from New York with articulate parents willing to do the interview on morning tv, the worst porn America has to offer: the suffering of others told in an excruciatingly simplistic manner, preferably with tears. Sophia Wiliansky's sacrifice really did make a difference despite the questionable motives of those who covered her story: what was done to her served to motivate a lot of people to travel to Standing Rock to see for themselves just what was happening and the story on the ground was so different from the oblique and distorted versions on the airwaves it comes as quite a shock to newcomers like me. The public officials who told bald faced lies were almost never confronted on air with the evidence of their lies even though there is ample evidence of gross abuses of power--video, photographs, live feed, eye witness testimony, hospital reports. There was no discussion of credibility, of the immorality of offering equal time to confirmed liars.
A man who writes for a major news paper in Europe stood next to me one afternoon as we watched a procession of military veterans marching with Lakota and Dakota dignitaries toward the police barricades. What is going on in your country? he asked. What is happening? Why is there next to no coverage of this? Where is Obama? I shook my head. He knew perfectly well the answer to his own question, which wasn't a question really, so much as a reprimand. I received the same kind of instant judgement again one night when I was confronted by a man and a woman who demanded to know what I was photographing at night. They both had Scandinavian accents--I'd just returned from six weeks in Norway and Svalbard and so I asked them where in particular they were from. North, the woman barked. North, where? I persisted. North of here, she spat. That's all you need to know. When I tried to explain that it felt important to document the use of the lights as a psychological weapon I was met with scorn topped with more scorn. There's nothing new here, the man said. Really? I said. Nothing, he said. This just looks like every other genocide we've seen. The contempt in his voice served as both judge and jury: I was the American and therefore by default in his eyes the oppressor. As far as those two shadowy figures from North were concerned it didn't matter that we were there or the veterans were there or that Native Americans from 300 tribes had come together in solidarity with the Sioux. It was all too little, too late and to tell the truth I have had a rough time these past few weeks defending myself or my country effectively against those charges.