What I saw at Standing Rock

By Stephen Richert

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota is the site of an ongoing conflict between Energy Transfer Partners Corporation and a group of people who call themselves Water Protectors. The Morton County Sherriff’s office calls them protesters. The primary issue being contended is the construction of the Dakota Access oil Pipeline or DAPL which will cross the Missouri River at a site just upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation endangering tribal drinking water and archeological sites. During 2016 this conflict erupted into civil disobedience by the Water Protectors attempting to block the advance of the DAPL–which was met with militarized police response; violent clashes and arrests have thrust civil rights into the public narrative about this topic. It’s useful to have that background on the issue–but my exploration of it is not focused on the public narrative as much as the private experience of the movement I was allowed to glimpse.


Surprisingly little mainstream media coverage was devoted to the Standing Rock conflict prior to the election in fall 2016 despite months of incendiary reports of violent clashes from individuals on the ground. In early November, accompanied by my friend Chris Mahoney–my plan was to travel to Standing Rock together and document the unfolding conflict in hopes of capturing the human element. Curiosity drove the mission to document Standing Rock; it felt too significant to be ignored–and too complex to be painted in broad strokes. We set out to let experience speak for itself.

It’s important to clarify that what you will read here is not a tribal perspective on this conflict. It’s also not a comprehensive historical account. It’s an experience told from the view of the outsider who simply wants to see an unfiltered perspective and find some semblance of truth. I don’t see this as a benefit or detriment. Most of the world is an outsider to this conflict but it is not taking place in a vacuum. Even after the fact I’m still an outsider to this conflict in many ways–but it’s grown from being a marginal issue impacting only those local to Standing Rock–to an issue that touches every American. Outside perspectives matter.

Civil rights, use of excessive police force, respect for private property, respect for tribal sovereignty, the right to protest and the responsibility to abide by the laws of the land–are just a few of the issues swirling around Standing Rock. The appearance of militarized police forces serving corporate interests over those of the citizenry–is a discussion that reaches into every community in America despite the fact that many choose to look away. That luxury, I believe, will not always be afforded to us.

I flew into the Salt Lake City Airport, arriving at midnight and met Chris, who picked me up in his old Chevy van. It gets pretty bad gas mileage. It squeaks and rattles. The doors don’t always shut properly–a fact which would only become fully apparent once you’d gotten up to speed on the highway. We crossed Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota in two restless days of driving. We passed miles of what many would call “nothingness” outside the windows with speculative conversation about what we might encounter once we reached Standing Rock. After all, who would want a couple of outsiders there? What could we offer besides our ability to expand the visibility of this conflict? What if we did that the wrong way and caused more harm than good?

I felt predictably inadequate compared with the task at hand; what if my audience wouldn’t support my desire to look closely at something so controversial? What if I got arrested and had no access to the medications I rely on to live as a Type 1 Diabetic? What if the cameras and lenses (which I’m still paying off currently) get confiscated by law enforcement? What if all of that happens and I don’t manage to accomplish anything worthy of the effort?

These are the risks of telling a story. No story has but one side. Those which attempt to couch the conversation in that manner are fluff. In order to achieve greatly you have to be willing to fail greatly. I tried to remind myself that this entire endeavor was an exercise in risking failure. If I could make one friend, connect with or help one person through my work–and get back to my family in one piece then I would have created something worthwhile. Process, not perfection. That’s where I set the bar for this project.

By the time we reached North Dakota and entered the Standing Rock Sioux reservation we began to see evidence of the conflict nearby. We encountered some people who had just left the protest at one gas station about a half hour away from our destination–the Oceti Sakowin camp. They gave us encouraging news that put my mind at ease about being an outsider. They reported receptivity and welcoming attitudes towards outsiders or “non-native relatives” as we would come to be graciously called. I started to loosen my grip on my self consciousness and fear of saying the wrong thing.

As we arrived in camp it became obvious that I’d do well to embrace my inability to blend in–because trying to hide it would be a moot point and no one there seemed to be hung up on it. I expected a disconnect–but I was met with acceptance. I wouldn’t call it warmth as such–but it was as though the native community realized that this was part of laboring towards a larger goal; accepting outsiders and patiently educating us. They seemed willing to accept my awkwardness and niavete’ so long as I made no pretense about who I was. Fair enough. Pragmatism is something I can work with.

In my imagination I had half-expected to find a Burning-Man-meets-Occupy-Wall-Street scenario unfolding on the flood plains of Lake Oahe; instead it was a hive of cooperative activity. Families worked on constructing semi-permanent shelters and cutting firewood. Little children zipped down the only hill in camp on skateboards–affectionately known as “Facebook Hill” because it was the only point where reliable cell service could be acquired within a 20 minute drive. Young families and elders were living and laboring alongside young adults. It wasn’t anything like what I had imagined–but it wasn’t idyllic either. Police and DAPL aircraft circled the camp 24 hours a day. The incessant droning faded into the soundscape of the area–but the eery feeling of being overtly surveyed did not. Despite this dissonance, everyone took what skill or resources they had to offer and lent it to their neighbor after securing their own necessities. Hard work was the underpinning of life at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Below is the first image I took in camp after securing a press pass.

Permission first. Then work. Interviews and photography fell into the margins of whatever time was left over.

Doctors and medics helped at the medical tent. Lawyers had a legal tent for consulting people who were facing arrest–or photographers like me who needed to know details like “don’t wear your press pass outside your jacket outside the safety of camp. Media are being targeted with rubber bullets and tear gas.” People who didn’t have a professional skill to offer would pick up trash around camp, cook meals at the mess hall or help split firewood. It felt less like a protest and more like a working family reunion or a frontier barn-raising. What boggled my mind was the way in which this all came together with seemingly no central organization–no authority figures mandating a set of rules or behaviors. Chris remarked to me several times how surprised he was at the complete absence of trash on the ground. We’d spent many days in the past running around national park land together of which the same could not be said.

There were, of course, some cringeworthy moments of cultural disconnect; the guy who stood up at the sacred campfire and sang an Australian World War I ballad during a break in a ceremony–or the girl who decided to start doing impromptu out yoga poses during another ceremonial gathering. These types of situations are to be expected when bringing together people whose cultural norms are so far apart–but they were handled with grace and patience. I probably felt more uncomfortable on behalf of my cohorts than anyone else seemed to.

The closest thing to organization apparent to me was the security team. It was a group of mostly young, mostly native people who would interchangeably monitor the exits and entrances to camp. They’d greet newcomers, answer questions and act as PR. They’d also reel in people who were too rambunctious or were inadvertently doing something that could reflect poorly on the camp. They were tasked with ensuring that media capture was taking place appropriately. For example, tribal leaders were very clear in their requests for no cameras at religious ceremonies–and that families and children in particular were not to be photographed without permission. In addition to hands-on media oversight, security had the obvious duty to get involved if someone was in possession of a weapon or behaving violently and remove that person immediately.

Despite their numerous responsibilities the security team were the easiest people to talk to–they were young and usually very outgoing. When I’d ask to take photographs of certain members of the team, I’d get mixed responses. One young man, Tony, said he had no objection in principle, he just didn’t like being photographed because he was self conscious. He gave me permission to shoot him as long as he didn’t know I was doing it. I wasn’t sure if he was just being polite, but this type of scenario was very commonplace and when any hesitation was present I’d wind up putting the cap on my lens and just chatting. I didn’t  feel like making any images unless I had full buy-in.

Some conversations would get off to a rolling start and I’d have literally a minute or two to shoot before something more pressing would interrupt and I’d invariably miss the chance to write down names, dates and details of the backstory. Still, the opportunities I had for conversation and photography were welcomed, however briefly they manifested. I asked Andrew, a 24 year old  on the security team from South Dakota how he felt about the influx of outsiders–if it was changing the movement or making it harder to steer.

He started by thanking me for being there and for taking pictures. “I’m 24 years old” he said. “This is the first time I’m speaking my language and having it spoken to me. I’ve never had that living on the reservation before. This is about much more than a pipeline–and it’s also a lot bigger than just the tribal presence here. It’s for everyone–and that’s why I’m glad you’re here, you know?” I felt like giving him a hug. Feeling accepted just for being there was powerful.

Hunter, who had paused from checking vehicles entering the camp just long enough to wolf down a quick meal with a cigarette added, “It’s like a family gathering. You’re not always going to be as close with every person as the next but ultimately we are here because of the same things. Even if there are differences, you have to respect that. It’s about family.”

Hunter had been there with Andrew for over 3 months. His appearance was intimidating but his manner was precocious and without guile. He immediately put those around him at ease once he started speaking; it was as though he was thinking of some big joke and waiting for you to discover the punch line in his words.

My interactions with security weren’t all quite this enjoyable however. On our third night in camp Chris and I walked out of camp, up the road to get some night photographs of the blockade and the surrounding area. We got a short way out of camp before another member of the security team caught up with us. He asked us to come back to camp with him–which I agreed to do having already taken several photographs that I was happy with. Another compelling reason to comply was his stature. At close to 7 feet tall he was called “Sequoia”. He hailed from the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina–and it’s not often that I feel small standing next to another man. He explained calmly and quietly that they didn’t want anyone alone outside of camp for fear of provoking the ire of law enforcement. We apologized and headed back to camp. One of the luxuries of being so physically imposing is the ability to speak softly and know that people will still listen.

The security team had what appeared to be the hardest job in camp; the most on the line, the most stress and the most unrelenting duties. Their position, loosely supervising over 5 thousand people, was far from enviable but they wore multiple hats and managed to diffuse “situations” without becoming adversarial.

Akesha, a 24 year old from nearby in North Dakota (who declined to be photographed) summed it up by saying “you just have to listen to people and be respectful. I’ve worked in a lot of bars as a bouncer and 95% of angry drunks I’ve dealt with didn’t take a swing at me. I just tried to treat them like people. Most of the time it works pretty well.”

I can’t over emphasize the importance of companionship during this project. My production manager and longtime friend Chris was a welcome resource; his ability to approach people and start conversations greatly eclipsed my own. His understanding of the socially lubricating properties of tobacco also came in very handy. Tobacco is sacred in many tribal religious ceremonies and a shared cigarette became customary in most social interactions. He connected almost immediately with veteran community who had a significant presence in camp. Native Americans have served in the military in greater numbers (per capita) than any other ethnic group since the Revolutionary War, a fact I learned in short order. So many of the water protectors were veterans and were–I don’t know how else to say this, but older people than I expected. Not millennials like me. Not angry art school drop outs. Not Prius-driving protesters with “Coexist” bumperstickers. Not who you’d expect to be there, in other words. The presence of  adults who had lived their lives serving this country but who couldn’t stand by and watch this conflict unfold without stepping in to protect their brothers and sisters added an additional layer of community–and depth to the camp experience. Many generations of people from many diverse extractions were there–all for the same reason.

Mike, a Native Veteran put it bluntly as we watched the sun set across from the police blockade: “I took the oath to protect my country from enemies foreign and domestic. That’s why I’m here.”

I kept running into the idea of community, culture and connection in my conversations with people in the water protectors camp. This was not the protest I had envisioned. It was something different; something deeper and better. Something that felt much closer to family.

Steve Tamayo was one person I met and had the opportunity to shadow–for a brief time. He is an advisor to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, a university professor in Nebraska; an educator and artist. He was accompanying a group of young people from the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota where he grew up–and instructing these youth in tipi construction. More importantly he was explaining the significance; why it needs to be oriented in relationship to the four cardinal directions and what something so seemingly utilitarian like a shelter can represent culturally and spiritually.

Steve was gracious enough to allow me to shoot their lesson, which captured the majority of his attention–but he took the time to share his perspective on the “protest” with me. He echoed what I had heard from most of the native peoples–and none of that was really about a protest. It was about a cultural revival and connecting the youth with who they are and bringing their collective tribal memory into a current way of life. The struggle with the DAPL was just a piece of the puzzle–part of their story that would be written by the next generation.

Doreen, Sherifa and Elenor, from the Rosebud Reservation made the drive together in order to be part of the movement at Standing Rock. The committment required for high school students to come to a protest like this–rather than sitting at home on Snapchat did not escape me. When I complimented their resolve to be part of this gathering, they told me about their view of the conflict.

“We definitely paused our lives to come out here. As teens, this is our first time really having this connection. In the outside world it feels kind of like we don’t belong–but here it’s like being home.”

I shared that I have a little girl at home–how much I missed her and that I was hoping she grows up to stand on her convictions like they were doing. I asked them for advice about cultivating these principles.

“Just give time to your kids. As much as we want “things”–all we really need is your time.”

“It’s been foretold for a long time that the 7th generation will save our people. We are the 7th generation.” Pretty significant aspirations for someone who is barely in possession of their learner’s permit.

I left shortly after meeting these girls. I felt the absence of my family in their authenticity. It reminded me that I owed it to those who enable my adventures not to tarry along the way. Meeting these inspired young people was a touchpoint for the depth of the entire movement that I saw at Standing Rock. People without talking points, without axes to grind and with much to lose–following the call of a cultural and spiritual reawakening–showing up and participating. In a time when social media “slacktivism” and ranting in the comments of YouTube videos are the closest most of us get to any kind of activism, it was awe-inspiring to see a simple belief in ideals lead to direct action.

I feel like I should not evade the protest component of Standing Rock. It wasn’t the ultimate focus of my time there and it revealed less of a story to me. That doesn’t mean that it was less significant or that it was not full of it’s own narrative power. I departed without seeing the tear gas fly at the police blockade. I didn’t directly experience the conflict that made the twitter feeds blow up. I did however talk to many people who had–and I had no doubt about their sincerity or experience. I certainly can’t evaluate the hearts and minds of so many individuals who have been involved in this conflict–on both sides of the issue–but I do feel compelled to share what I saw in terms of actions and attitudes.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp was comprised of numerous factions. Many were Native American and many were allies or other groups who simply felt connection to the struggle taking place. There was also a large presence of independent news organizations, bloggers, vloggers and internet personalities looking to make their mark. I realize that I’m treading very close to the line of hypocrisy–but I will say that seeing the “hit and run” nature that news reporting demands in many cases, it made me really uncomfortable. It made me question my own motivations for being there. Hearing non-native news reporters lamenting peaceful protests because there were no sensational outbreaks of violence for them to capture was disheartening–but far from representative of the community.

I certainly have had plenty of people after the fact question my motivations for being there–as well as the integrity of the people within the camp as a whole. I found that the tribal communities were operating on a different level than the protesters or allies–and that the two groups were distinctly separate despite sharing several key goals. The tribal council led the actions and were clearly focused on a bigger picture and it was reflected in their messaging. Non violence. Respect. Love. Tolerance. Compassion–even for the DAPL workers and the law enforcement personnel who were meeting them with physical violence which is well documented in a myriad other sources. I did not see or overhear any sign that violence or even anger was a driving force behind the water protectors. Sadness–I saw and heard a lot of that–but with sadness I always heard a tired refusal to abandon hope and kindness.

My experience of law enforcement was predominately that they were unresponsive, evasive and on occasion derisive. I can’t speak to their motivations other than the obvious fact that they were “just doing their job” but there was a clear message of intimidation and a constant threat of violence. I am not a trained law enforcement personnel but I felt that the weaponry on display hindered any possibility of peaceful communication. It set a tone of unilateral force with no respect for the rights of the tribal communities. Perception of law enforcement matters. Despite this tension, there were moments where individuals within law enforcement crossed the line to join water protectors in ceremonial rites performed during some of the protests. It was hopeful and sad at the same time; hopeful that following orders had not eradicated all empathy but sad to think that so few would be willing to step across the line and treat the water protectors like people.

I tried speaking to law enforcement with no real success–and so my goal of seeing both sides didn’t really come to fruition. What I left with was a glimpse of the underlying significance and frankly, an overwhelming distress at the knowledge that the vast majority of the outside world would never see this granular detail. Returning back home and editing and uploading videos to YouTube I got a huge response–most of which missed the significance that I was privileged to witness. “The cops are bad” or “The protesters are making trouble and deserve what they are getting” were the two camps that most commenters fell into with very little awareness of nuance.

I don’t know if it’s my place to speak to this underlying significance because after all this, I am still an outsider. It is my hope that this outside view can at least illuminate the fact that there is much we don’t understand about Standing Rock and it’s not simple case of good guys versus bad guys. It’s a story that is still being written and it’s our responsibility not to look away from what we don’t understand or what makes us uncomfortable.

"Water is Life"

The conflict surrounding the DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) is highlighted by contrasting views of how to protect natural resources; specifically water. This short film is an exploration of the natural beauty of the land and water at stake. It also includes footage from the water protectors camp and several interactions with law enforcement.The goal of this film is to convey both the beauty of the disputed area and the serious nature of the response from law enforcement opposing the protest. In short that was the feeling that overshadowed the entire area; a sobering beauty. Haunted and sad--but strong.

Filmed, edited and written by Stephen Richert

All images copyright Stephen Richert - LivingVertical.org 2016. Contact for licensing info and prints.