It’s now October, nearly November, and winter is fast approaching. These days the camps wake up to frost on car windows and sighs that make little clouds in the air.
Much of the daily work is focused on preparing for the coming months, which locals talk about ominously. “Have you ever experienced -40 degree weather?” I’ve heard several people ask. “Well get ready.”
Preparing for seasonal change is an integral part of living in harmony with nature. At one point or another, all of our ancestors had the skills to do so, but now so many of us lack even basic knowledge about living in cold climates without indoor heating, plumbing, and electricity. We’ve insulated ourselves from the natural world and as a consequence, have misconstrued our relationship with it.
I say “we” in an overly general way, but I don’t mean everyone. Such knowledge is still alive in the people (mostly First Nations people, but others as well) who are orchestrating the preservation of food and building of natural shelters, as well as sharing their knowledge with others. They’re keeping alive generational memories of thousands of years spent living with the land, while demonstrating how it’s possible to do so today.
I personally know very little about surviving outside in subzero conditions. To be honest, I’m nervous and not entirely sure I’m up to the challenge. The only reason I feel confident enough to try is that time and time again, I’ve experienced and born witness to incredible support from the camp community. However harsh this winter will be, we’re all going to get through it together, seasoned winter campers and cold-averse newbies alike. I imagine that almost as much as practical knowledge, it’s this sense of collective responsibility that helped our ancestors survive the winter too.
The New York Times Lens Blog published 19 of my photos from Standing Rock, along with parts of an interview about my experience taking pictures there over the past several
I’d like to include an excerpt from that interview that didn’t make the final piece, but I see as important in explaining my approach and contextualizing the images:
Evelyn: The camps are swarming with photographers these days. How do you think your take captures something another photographer doesn’t?
Me: Back when I started making images professionally, a photographer I admire gave me some great advice. She told me you can’t communicate to others what you don’t experience firsthand. Knowing that, she said, you should focus more on being fully present than on capturing a particular image. “Photography is a side effect to the entire experience,” she told me. “No images that I’ve made have really done justice to the kind of experiences I have.”
Unlike a lot of the photographers I’ve seen at Standing Rock recently, I spend most of my day not shooting. I talk to people. I help sort supplies. I’m another person in the community that’s formed at these camps, not just a passing observer.
These photos are a side effect of being at the encampments day in and day out. Many of them show quiet, intimate, painful, joyous, and mundane moments between blockades and other events that the media tends to focus on. I draw inspiration from Allan Sekula’s Waiting for Tear Gas, a series of images of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. In a preface to the images, he writes, “The working idea was to move with the flow of protest, from dawn to 3 a.m. if need be, taking in the lulls, the waiting and the margins of events. The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.”
These photos are what happened when I moved with the flow of the encampment, taking in the lulls, the waiting and the margins of events. My hope is that along with the everyday experiences of the camps, the images convey some of what I consider the most important part of my experience: the love and respect I’ve formed for the people and the land they depict.
My most recent trip to Standing Rock was unfortunately brief. Two days and three nights is hardly enough time to do or learn much, especially since it rained for most of the second day.
I’m trying to balance the demands of my life outside the camp with my strong desire to continue supporting the movement within it. This time that meant taking a whirlwind “hi, nice to see you, bye” trip, but starting next week will mean living at Sacred Stone for 2-3 weeks every month. I’ll use that time to deepen my involvement as a volunteer for the Sacred Stone media team and to continue the long-term project of documenting the struggle.
Hence, this post is just a few images and very little writing. Enjoy!
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” -Heraclitus
This was the Camp of the Sacred Stones I left on August 1st. Over half of the core crew isn’t pictured because they weren’t there at the time, but for the most part this was us. This resilient, sweaty-from-working crew of intrepid warriors. The camp always had more supporters working outside it than inside, but for months the population of the camp itself rarely exceeded 30.
I never in my wildest dreams predicted what I’d be returning to when I came back three weeks later. None of us did.
Standing Rock Reservation is now host to three collaborative resistance camps with well over a thousand people between them. If you passed over them in an airplane at night, the light from all the campfires would look like a small city.
I had tears in my eyes when I first arrived and saw the sea of tents and tipis. I remembered wondering during my three previous trips when the rest of the country would join the fight. Back then, Sacred Stone barely had enough people to do security, cook, clean, plan events, chop wood, haul water, and do all the other work of keeping the camp running.
And now, this. An epic gathering of people from all four directions, including nearly 200 indigenous nations, coming together to protect millions of Americans’ drinking water and defend Native sovereignty.
The historical magnitude of what’s happening at Standing Rock cannot be understated. Never before have this many First Nations peoples come together, and more are joining each day. Even members of tribes long embroiled in bitter feuds have set aside differences to live, organize, and pray together.
LaDonna Allard, the organizational head of Sacred Stone, told me, “Whatever happens here is going to change the world. I can really feel it.” It’s hard to disagree.
Her sentiment is echoed throughout the camps, which radiate an infectious feeling of hope as people envision–and to an extent, actually model–a world beyond corporate and state rule. Though money is still necessary to run the camps, almost none changes hands within them. If you’re there, you’re part of the community and will be taken care of as such.
Tribes and other communities have also stepped up to provide services that the government usually administers. Oceti Sakowin camp now has a school for the camp’s children, and no one calls the cops when problems arise at the camps because they police themselves. When the state took away resources like clean drinking water, donations of it poured in by the truckload.
The camps stand as testament to the tremendous power of First Nations peoples and accomplices to organize and fight back on a massive scale. Regardless of who wins the court battles to halt pipeline construction, the movement that started here will not be contained. It’s about so much more than DAPL now.
The pipeline was the catalyst and remains the focus of this struggle, but the most important work is at its roots. First Nations people are standing up to protect the sovereignty and land that has been rightfully theirs since time immemorial, which US government has since its inception tried to conquer with every tool at its disposal. They’re calling the government’s complicity in the poisoning of their water, the seizure of their lands, and the destruction of their sacred sites for what it is: genocide. And they’re speaking with the collective voice of nearly 200 indigenous nations, backed by powerful allies like presidential candidate Jill Stein, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Susan Sarandon.
The movement is also a clear reminder that unchecked corporate interests trade off with the public interest, and that we (everyone!) needs to fight for the latter like our lives depend on it, because they do. As water defender Wiyaka Eagleman said, “Watch how far these billionaires will go to protect their money. Whether you know it or not, this fight is for you too.” Corporations like Enbridge have only one value and one motivation: profit. It matters more to them than whether millions of Americans will be able to drink water and grow crops that aren’t poisoned, matters more than the law or morality or human survival or any other metric actual people use to make decisions.
This fight is showing people not only that that corporate rule is a direct threat to everything we hold dear, but that it’s possible for ordinary people to fight back.
I’ve been away for a week and a half now. With all that’s happened since I left (see Unicorn Riot and Democracy Now for the latest), it’s felt much longer than that. Every day I hear more news of water defenders courageously standing up for the earth and future generations, and corporations fearfully clinging to power the world is realizing they ought not have.
I want to be there and not to leave until the fight is over, however long that may take. Speaking only for myself, being anywhere else right now feels wrong. September 13th, the date I go back, can’t come fast enough.
As with all four previous trips, the camp I’ll be arriving at will be different from the one I left. It’s a reflection of the broader environmental justice movement, which along with the camp is rooted in long histories of indigenous tradition and struggle, yet is constantly evolving in response to changing circumstances. A reflection, too, of the ever-flowing Missouri.
A quote from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha stands out to me. “But out of all secrets of the river, he today only saw one, this one touched his soul. He saw: this water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same and yet new in every moment!”
Just like this movement. Just like us. If I find hope in anything, it’s that.
Towards the end of my most recent two week-long trip to Sacred Stone, someone posed a question to our group: why are you here? As in, why do you care about stopping this pipeline? Why choose this issue above all the others on the long list of of social and environmental struggles you could be working on right now?
Some people talked about how pipelines inevitably break, and no amount of clean-up (which is rare and inadequate to begin with) can un-poison the water and the lives that rely on it, ourselves included.
Some spoke about how the pipeline continues a long history of violating native land rights and killing off indigenous peoples. Dakota Access, the subsidiary responsible for the pipeline, called Standing Rock Reservation “expendable” on record.
Some expressed love and commitment to their ancestors who fought for their rights and this land, and to future generations who will inherit the earth in whatever state we leave it.
Each person’s answer conveyed part of the growing list of reasons I’ve been at Sacred Stone for three of the past four weeks. I went because this fight has huge consequences for ecosystems, native and non-native people, future pipelines, the global climate, all of it.
At the top of that list, though, is the reason I specifically was there, and not just why the issue is important: environmental destruction scares the shit out of me. Until recently, that fear was paralyzing.
We’re drowning in headlines about the latest species driven to extinction, skeletal polar bears on our Facebook news feeds, unfathomable statistics about how much of the Amazon, the Great Barrier Reef, the ice caps are already gone. Facing environmental destruction means staring into the abyss that is the end of the world as we know it, and having it stare also into us. It’s overwhelming and shame-inducing and I don’t judge anyone who doesn’t feel emotionally capable of living with that weight on their shoulders. I certainly don’t.
Subconsciously I felt that if I tried to stand up against some of it, I’d be consumed by feelings of inadequacy unless (and probably even if) I devoted my life to stopping all of it. Beyond composting, bicycling, and consuming as ethically and minimally as possible, I avoided thinking about whatever enormous sacrifices the scale of the problem actually warrants.
Being at camp has started to shift my thinking from ending all destruction to preventing the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing the Missouri River. That alone is a huge uphill battle but it doesn’t make me want to curl up in the fetal position until the rainforests grow back.
What people say about tackling big projects is also true about environmentalism: break it down into manageable steps. I can’t singlehandedly end the fossil fuel industry, but I can support the camp, spread awareness that might get more people to stand up against this pipeline, and work with people using a variety of strategies to grind this project to a halt.
Is that “doing enough”? Not really. I’m not sure any one person can ever “do enough,” but that’s another conversation.
Another reason I hadn’t gotten seriously involved in environmental activism before now is that it felt too abstract. Lost habitats I’d never visited, species I’d never cuddled – tragic losses that didn’t tangibly affect me or people I knew. It didn’t help that whenever the topic came up, it was discussed in academic or scientific terms rather than emotional ones.
It’s uncomfortable to admit that, but I think a lot of people feel that way whether they realize it or not. Environmental catastrophe can seem like a ghost when you don’t have to deal with the consequences in your daily life. It poses a scary threat but it vaporizes when you try to grab it.
Since living at camp, the Dakota Access Pipeline is no longer a ghost to me. I’ve looked through binoculars and seen actual, material people ripping apart the earth to bury it.
The river, too, is real to me now. I’ve sat on its banks with my toes in the water, watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, speechless with awe at the landscape. Every day I woke up and fell asleep to to wind rustling tree branches above my tent, sometimes accompanied by the patter of river rain feeding their roots.
Living with the land can feel as intimate as living with another person. You’ll eventually come to know it so well that you can find your way through its darkness without a flashlight. At night, if you listen closely you can hear the soft pattern of its breathing.
Camping with the other people at Sacred Stone has also helped me see the issue as “real” in ways I didn’t before. We’ve shared meals, fears, hopes, chores, music, jokes, and the same cramped kitchen tent when the rain got torrential. We’ve laughed and we’ve bickered and we’ve been forced to deal with each other as the full, messy humans we all are, which is as frustrating as it is beautiful.
All this is an attempt to more thoroughly answer that question, “Why are you here?”
I’m here because Dakota Access is threatening to destroy a river I’ve come to love, and because people I care about have sacrificed too much for me to back out now. I now understand in my heart, not just my head, that this pipeline will hurt my family and my home in the broadest sense of those words.
On some level it’s embarrassing that it takes being physically present for me to care this much. Shouldn’t I just get it? I could have this same experience with 1,000 resistance movements (“oh wow, Chiapas is beautiful and I’m now friends with Zapatistas”), so again, why work on this one in particular beyond the somewhat arbitrary fact that I happened to come close to it? Is proximity to an issue the determining factor in how hard I’m willing to fight for it?
My theory is that it’s more about emotional proximity than physical. I need to connect to an issue in my heart before I’m willing to make the necessary sacrifices to truly stand up for it. Fear about the end of the world wasn’t doing it for me. Neither were environmentalist guilt trips about my carbon footprint, nor statistics about ecosystem loss. Those helped create the context that eventually got me to stand up, but they weren’t the catalyst.
If you’re interested in joining the fight, I strongly encourage you to visit the camp for your own enrichment and to support the beautiful people who have put their lives on hold to keep it running, who need other people there now more than ever.
I’m helping to coordinate carpools so contact me if you’re interested in going.
If visiting isn’t possible for you, you can help keep the camp running by donating here.