January 19, 2017

Standing Rock - The Front Lines


Words & photos shot on 35mm film by Amanda Leigh Smith
Edited by Kevin Howes

"I pity the country, I pity the state, and the mind of the man who thrives on hate." - Willie Dunn (Mi’kmaq singer-songwriter, filmmaker, and poet)

Water Protectors near a direct action at Turtle Island, Oceti Sakowin. (November 24, 2016)

November 16th, 2016. I headed east from Oregon to Standing Rock, North Dakota with four friends: Cate, Claire, Jeshua and Jesse. We rolled out in Cate’s pick-up truck with a camper in tow, packed to the brim with donations of food from an organic farm, a large canvas winter tent and wood burning stove, and other needed supplies. We also brought with us our own necessary provisions to be as self-sufficient as possible. Our goal was to give more than we took, to listen more than we spoke, and to document and inspire others to get involved. Like many who journeyed to Standing Rock, we were called there to support the Sioux Nation and their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.            

I joined the movement for many reasons. For my friends and family who are Native American and First Nations. For my ancestors who are Shawnee and Yuchi. Because water is life and we cannot survive without it. Because human rights are far more important than corporate greed. Because capitalism, colonialism and racism are destroying our planet, our cultures and our people. However, despite my ideals, I can't pretend that I don't participate in this society, this culture, and these issues. Hell, we drove out there in a diesel truck and stayed warm at night thanks to a propane heater. Not to mention that many of my family members who I love and respect dearly work for oil companies. I'm not going to pretend I don't contribute to the problems, use resources or benefit from these things. I'm not going to pretend my white privilege hasn't benefited me throughout my life. However, I feel strongly that the society in which I live and benefit from is tremendously flawed and needs improvement. If the main thing we strive for is monetary success and arbitrary fame, than that means that everything else becomes secondary. That means human life becomes secondary. The environment becomes secondary. That means nothing is sacred.

November 19th, 2016. When I arrived to Oceti Sakowin I was being physically and emotionally pulled in a million directions at once. I felt naive, ignorant and overwhelmed with emotions. I wanted to get "good content" (whatever that means), do a good job, go beyond my comfort zones, but also respect the rights, space, and traditions of the others and the camp. It was imperative for me to get verbal consent from everyone I photographed where possible (also a camp rule), especially after I attended an arrestee’s meeting and heard firsthand accounts of the terror these folks experienced. Sometimes this meant people told me "no." Sometimes this meant that I couldn't photograph things I felt were significant or stories that I wanted to share. There were many rules for members of the media: a camp approved press pass was required, no photographs were allowed inside any of the dwellings like schools, medical or sweat lodges, and no photographs of prayer, ceremony or sacred objects without consent. This I understood. The safety of camp was most important. However, I still mourn missed opportunities and stories that may never be told, especially by mainstream media. My existence there felt so inadequate or offensive at times, and I yearned to be a lawyer, contractor, or medic so that I could be of service in a more impactful way.

November 20th, 2016. To get my bearings and feel grounded I did what I know best: walk around, explore, say hi to folks whenever I felt confident enough, and take some pictures. It was midday and the sun was beaming. At first I walked around with three cameras: two standard SLR 35mm film cameras with three lenses, and a digital camera. I eventually found this load to be incredibly annoying and cumbersome, especially with all the winter layers to manage. I later reduced down to my usual kit of one film body and one or two lenses. After I returned to our trailer having felt a small sense of accomplishment, I discovered that in my franticness I removed the roll of film from my camera before walking out the door to take photos. In 15+ years of shooting film, I am pretty sure I have only done that once before. That's how full my brain felt upon arriving. Luckily, the light was garbage and anything I would have shot would have been too washed out. It felt like the universe was giving me a sign to slow my roll, literally. Once the sun started setting in, I retraced my steps and tried again. It took a while for me to get out of my head and not shoot how I felt I should be shooting.

After I walked a second loop around camp, Cate, Claire and I made our way up Flag Road to HWY 1806 to go check out the roadblock that Morton County Sheriff Department installed on August 17th, 2016, which restricts public access to areas south of Mandan, ND including Standing Rock Reservation, Cannon Ball and Fort Yates. We walked past a semi-truck who shortly after reversed full speed towards the barricade of massive cement barriers and razor wire. I climbed up the hill overlooking it all to get a better perspective. Camp Security and Water Protectors chained a previously burned vehicle from October 28th, 2016 action to the semi and worked to drag it out of the way. The Water Protectors wanted HWY 1806 opened up so that emergency vehicles could get into camp much quicker because its presence puts peoples’ lives at risk and serves DAPL corporate interests by keeping Water Protectors far from the drill site. Without warning, law enforcement launched tear gas grenades into the small, unarmed crowd. It took me a minute to process what I was looking at as I heard loud explosions, screams, and Water Protectors running down the highway yelling for medics. Not only was I struggling emotionally to process, but also to photograph it. I only had my fully manual film camera with 400 ISO film and one 28mm lens and my digital camera, which has a fixed 35mm lens. This is not typical photojournalist gear. I eyed my peer’s equipment with their massive telephoto lenses and tripods in a moment of envy, until I realized how quickly I could maneuver and get up close to people with such a small kit. Loading and unloading film, obsessively keeping track of which pocket I stashed it in, while on the front lines during this madness was a first for me. As the light was quickly fading, I struggled to operate my digital camera thanks to overwhelming fear as rubber bullets and water cannons began to flow into the growing crowd of Water Protectors. My cell phone wouldn’t even work to take photos. I felt a tremendous sense of failure of missing some of the action. I ran back to camp to put away my cameras and returned, now in the dark, but better dressed for conflict with eye and ear protection, and medical supplies, to stand in solidarity and to help with medical transport. I went back and forth a few times putting my camera away, then getting it out again, in a continuous debate with myself thinking that taking photos was exploitive and not helpful. It was a very surreal and terrifying experience.

As reported by the Oceti Sakowin medic and legal collective: "A peaceful gathering of Water Protectors were subjected to excessive police force from Morton County Sheriff personnel, supporting jurisdictions and national guard units from approximately 6:00pm Sunday, November 20th, 2016 until 6:00am the following morning. Over 300 unarmed people suffered injuries, most included hypothermia and chemical exposure to pepper spray and tear gas. They were attacked with projectiles including rubber bullets, sand bags, percussion grenades, and tear gas canisters—and hosed down with a water canon pumping a mix of water and pepper spray onto people in subfreezing temperatures. These and other “non-lethal” weapons were used on the Water Protectors continuously from the beginning of this incident until after 3:30am. Victims and witnesses report that the armed forces were aiming at “faces” and “the genital” area of the unarmed crowd. Medics on scene were subject to the same targeted assault. The use of the water cannon persisted for 7-9 hours, while the temperature fell to 23 degrees. As reported by the Water Protector Legal Collective (names removed): X suffered a direct hit from a percussion grenade, permanently damaging her left arm, which may require amputation. X of the Navajo Nation was hit in the eye with a tear gas canister. X had two grenades blow up near her head, knocking her down, burning her face and sending shrapnel into it, and causing her to be hospitalized. X was shot with a water cannon, tear gassed and shot with a munition. X was filming police when, without warning, they shot him with a water cannon and then in the hand with a munition. He was hospitalized with broken bones and was told he would need reconstructive surgery. X saw a Water Protector knocked to the ground by a water cannon. As police sprayed her on the ground, he tried to move her away. He was shot in the chest, stomach and leg by impact munitions. X was peacefully protesting when police sprayed her with water cannons. She was then hit in the genitals with a grenade, and was hospitalized. X tried to help two people who had been shot with water cannons and rubber bullets and was shot in the back of his head by an impact munition. He lost consciousness, was hospitalized, and needed 17 staples for a head wound. X, while praying, was shot by the water hoses. Once on the ground, he was shot in the head by an impact munition.”

November 20th, 2016 continued. I witnessed a woman thrown across a field from a direct hit from water cannons and another standing firm covered in icicles yelling to law enforcement, “Don’t worry, I’m wearing a raincoat!” In spite of the violence that took place on that freezing night, the Water Protectors stood their ground, in peace and at times with humor. Volunteer medics, despite being targeted by police, ran into the madness to help those in need. Everyone, medic or not, did their part in helping anyone who needed anything, from bringing in blankets and water, to picking up trash, to using their personal vehicles to transport the injured out of what felt like a war-zone into safety.

The civil rights violations that night were deliberate and punitive. Law enforcement not only violated the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters, but their actions highlighted the long history of abuse against Indigenous peoples and people of color. This abuse of power and authority, as well as use of taxpayer dollars, should not be tolerated in a democracy. The crimes committed by Morton County Sheriff department should be brought to justice, and thankfully the Water Protector Legal Collective is working diligently to build a case to protect our much-valued constitutional freedoms.

November 21st, 2016. I don’t remember what time I went to sleep, people were still on the front lines, but I woke up before sunrise to a woman running through camp yelling, “Wake up Water Protectors! They’re moving the blockade! Get to the bridge!” Claire and I jumped out of bed. She ran to the bridge to see what was happening, our assumption being that police were getting ready to raid the camp. I prepared for that possibility, and gathered food, water and direct action supplies. Claire returned reporting that a prayer was taking place on the bridge, so I gathered my cameras and we headed out to shoot. The rest of the day, still adrenaline-filled, was spent doing detective work with some veteran AIM leaders, tracking down intel from ex-military contacts trying to figure out the sheriff department’s next move. I remember looking at satellite images laughing to myself and wondering, “How the hell did I get here?” We also spent time decompressing at the casino in Cannon Ball, who thankfully allowed Water Protectors to take over their space, and getting in touch with concerned friends and family members since phone and internet service was blocked at camp. An angel was walking around the crowds of loitering Water Protectors in the casino hotel lobby, offering respite services to those in need. After many attempts where I insisted that I didn’t need any help, their kindness and unwillingness to give up on me brought me to tears and I graciously accepted a much-needed shower in a hotel-turned-hospice room they had set up. With thousands of people at camp, I was happily surprised when our paths unexpectedly crossed again, and I was able to return the favor and offer them a space for healing when they needed it most.

November 22nd, 2016. I checked in with the legal tent, giving them my emergency contacts in case of arrest and got the full run down on my legal rights, and reported incidents of symptoms of possible phone hacking. I then attended a direct action training where I was warned that press, medics and women were being targeted by law enforcement. In response to reports from arrestees, they said to be prepared to be illegally strip searched and violated by the Morton County Sheriff’s department, to be prepared to be held in dog cages filled with urine and feces, and to have my personal belongings stolen such as IDs, cell phone, and sacred objects. They also said I could be faced with bogus federal charges. I wished that I had the opportunity to do this training prior to the action on the 20th so that I had been more prepared. During the training we were instructed on how to make strategic formations with our bodies as a group to protect the prayer and ceremony. The woman leading the training asked us, “Look within yourself and think about where you belong in the formation. Are you holding the sacred object performing the ceremony? Are you holding the banner or flags leading the charge? Are you on the outside facing law enforcement? This is an Indigenous-led movement. If you are a white ally, then you are on the outside as a body protecting the Indigenous center. If you don’t feel comfortable assuming the risks of being on the front line - and there is no shame in that - then where do you see yourself best serving the cause at camp? Are you working construction weatherizing the homes of those that are here for the long haul? Are you in the kitchen serving food or at the medics helping those who need to heal? There is no wrong place to be, but think about where you are best serving others. The warrior in the kitchen preparing food is just as vital to the movement as the warrior on the front line. Everything you do at camp is for the greater good."

November 23rd, 2016. Camp was high with energy during the days leading up to Thanksgiving as thousands of more people arrived, changing the dynamic. I now felt much more prepared and grounded after attending trainings, daily meetings, and getting to know my fellow Water Protectors at camp. I never really brought out my digital camera again and went back to my usual kit: one film body and two lenses. I did my best to photograph what I felt was important: the resilience, the peace, and the diversity. However, there is still much more to be learned and shared from the movement than I was able to document during my 10 days there.

November 24th, 2016. The day would be filled with many attempts from infiltrators employed by DAPL who pretend to be Water Protectors, but who were really there to start rumors, incite fear, and create drama. In the morning, I was told on several different occasions that there was a confirmed police raid and that all women and children needed to cross the Cannonball River into the safety of Rosebud Camp located on the reservation. The rumor spread like wildfire and most did their best to react calmly. Later, after a large exodus to Rosebud it came to be known that the rumor was false. No raid had occurred. In these moments it was often a challenge to know what were lies and what was truth. The massive floodlights, and low-flying planes and helicopters 24/7 were also fear tactics, annoying and despite attempts to ignore them, created a sense of heavy anxiety. You felt as though you were under constant surveillance, and whether or not you were doing anything wrong, that feeling was terribly troublesome. We were situated in a no-fly zone, so their actions were also illegal. Furthermore, there were claims from Water Protectors that they were spraying chemical agents over camp. I did see crop duster-style planes through binoculars, but never witnessed anything firsthand when I had the time to watch them. I did experience unusual physical symptoms that the medics explained could be symptoms of chemical exposure, but I could not say for certain what caused it. Later that afternoon, a man shouted to a crowd of people I was in that the police were using live ammunition on Water Protectors as we walked towards the front lines at Turtle Island. This was a terrifying thought, but it didn't deter anyone from moving forward in prayer. 

There were people of all ages, all identities, and from all over the world on the front lines. There were so many women leaders throughout camp, and I view them as the backbone and life force of the movement, as well as the Native Youth. They were powerful, peaceful, and deeply inspiring. However, no support was in vain. Everyone's contribution and participation played and continues to play an essential role in this movement. It was a great reminder of how meaningful grass roots movements, direct action, and protest are to a healthy democracy.

MNI WICONI. Water is Life.

“One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless. Deconstruct that disempowerment. Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.”
-       Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe, environmentalist, economist, and writer)

More photos and stories to follow…

The semi-truck that removed the previously burnt vehicle on the Backwater Bridge at the police barricade. Police responded, without warning, with tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and water cannons in temperatures below freezing. (November 20, 2016)

Police launching tear gas at unarmed Water Protectors on the Backwater Bridge. (November 20, 2016)

Sunrise on the Backwater Bridge police barricade. (November 21, 2016)

Water Protectors on the front line on the Backwater Bridge wearing eye protection and masks. Police yelled at them to remove their masks claiming wearing them was an act of violence, even though the night before police threw tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of unarmed people. (November 21, 2016)

Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin marching to Turtle Island. (November 24, 2016)

Peaceful direct action and prayer led by camp leaders and elders near Turtle Island to protest the police presence on a Standing Rock sacred burial ground. (November 24, 2016)

Water Protectors work together to bring in firewood for a medic fire to help keep elders and children warm during the direct action. (November 24, 2016)

Water Protects kneeling in prayer as police stand top of a sacred burial ground. (November 24, 2016)

Many medics were always on-hand during direct action. (November 24, 2016)

Women writing the Water Protector Legal Collective's phone number on their arms incase of arrest during the direct action. (November 24, 2016)

One of many amazing and powerful Native women leading the charge in direct action and in peaceful prayer. (November 24, 2016)

Water Protectors, including many lawyers and medics, in a peaceful march, direct action and prayer on HWY 1806 walking towards the Backwater Bridge. (November 24, 2016)

A member of Camp Security on the hill overlooking HWY 1806, the Backwater Bridge, and the police barricade. (November 24, 2016)

A prayer ceremony held by Native elders and camp leaders on HWY 1806 near the Backwater Bridge and Cannonball River. (November 24, 2016)

Planes and helicopters illegally fly over Oceti Sakowin camp 24/7 even though it is a no-fly zone. (November 24, 2016)

The morning following the direct action on November 24th, police pulled the Oceti Sakowin medic canoes to shore, smashed them, and lined the banks with razor wire, and remained on their post on top of the sacred burial ground. (November 25, 2016)

Early morning march through Oceti Sakowin in the snow to the banks of the Cannonball River for a Water Ceremony and prayer held by Native elders. (November 26, 2016)

A medicine man and elder who traveled from Mexico to stand with Standing Rock in solidarity. He preformed a prayer and sacred water ceremony on the banks of the Cannonball River. (November 26, 2016)

Standing Rock November 20th from Rise Up Presents on Vimeo.

Backwater Bridge, Standing Rock. November 21, 2016. from Amanda Leigh Smith on Vimeo.

1 comment:

  1. Really good work, Amanda! As a former film photographer, I greatly appreciate the sense of order required, on many levels, to work so spontaneously!! I've been intimately connected with the unfolding events at SR. Was even guided to open a group page on FB ~ "Standing Rock Prayer Parade", offering a space for heartfelt prayers to be given, and received when needing a pick-me-up. Chii Mii Gwetch to you, and to ALL Warriors at Ground Zero. I am truly humbled by the hardships everyone endured, in order to give US ALL the template of BEing still in our <3 ONE HEART <3 in the face of such dire assaults. Sharing Many Blessings to ALL.


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