Figure 1: Jacket Art, AWAKE: A Dream from Standing Rock (2017), featuring Floris White Bull and used with permission from Bullfrog Films.
AWAKE follows the dramatic rise of the historic #NODAPL Native-led peaceful resistance at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota, which captured the world’s attention.
Thousands of activists converged from around the country to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors (activists) protesting the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is intended to carry fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields through sovereign land and under the Missouri River, the water source for the Standing Rock reservation and 17 million people downstream. Pipeline leaks are commonplace. Since 2010, over 3,300 oil spills and leaks have been reported.
The film is a collaboration between Indigenous filmmakers, Director Myron Dewey and Executive Producer Doog Good Feather, and Oscar-nominated environmental filmmakers Josh Fox and James Spione. Each of the three sections of the film tells the story of the Standing Rock protests in the unique perspective and style of the filmmaker who created it.
The Water Protectors at Standing Rock have awakened the nation and forever the way we fight for clean water, the environment and the future of our planet.
Synopsis of AWAKE: A Dream from Standing Rock, courtesy of Bullfrog Films
Floris White Bull (Floris Ptesáŋ Huŋká) is a member of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation, an activist and a writer and advisor for the film, AWAKE: A Dream from Standing Rock. Despite being led as a peaceful protest, White Bull and many others at the 2017 protests at Standing Rock witnessed local police and private security forces accosting Water Protectors and journalists with militarized tactics, dogs, rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, and water cannons. People were illegally detained and forcibly removed from sovereign Native American land. In fact, during the protest White Bull was held in a cage with the number 151 marked on her forearm in permanent marker. While the protest was marred with acts of violence by police and security, it also was – and continues to be – a site of hope, where many lessons have been learned from the Standing Rock activist community.
We were initially contacted by the distributors of AWAKE to provide a film review. However, we felt it was necessary for the voice of the filmmakers and the people involved in the protest – especially those Indigenous voices – to continue to be heard. As such, for this feature article in M/C Journal we invited Floris White Bull to answer a few questions on protest and the film. Due to the word constraints for M/C Journal, we limited ourselves to four questions. What follows is a very poignant and personal statement not only on the importance of events at Standing Rock, but also on protest in general. In light of this, the content of this exchange has not been edited from its original format. (Ben Hightower and Scott East)
What is the role of the documentary in relation to protest? (BH & SE)
The opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline was and continues to be about human rights, water rights, and the rights of nature. It is about the right for our children to drink clean water. This film, as well as any other films or reporting that have come out of Standing Rock, serves as documentation. It acts as a way to preserve the moment in time, but also to uphold and promote the freedom of the press and the integrity of journalism. It allows us to tell our own story – to create our own narrative. So often, the role media has played throughout history has been to justify human rights violations through vilification of entire races/nations/peoples. This had taken place at Standing Rock by local media Bismarck Tribune and KFYR. They would publish stories perpetuating stereotypes and old fear mongering tactics accusing our people of killing livestock in the area, shooting arrows at the airplane that circled the camp continually at low altitudes. As a tribal member of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation, my people and I have somewhat coexisted with the residents of Bismarck/Mandan and the small towns outlying. There was always racial tension that existed but it came to a head when the Indigenous voices opposing the pipeline – a pipeline that was also opposed by the residents upstream from us – was quickly met with unabashed public oppressive colonial shaming.
Take for example an article that ran in the Bismarck Tribune the day that access to the main road between Standing Rock and Mandan was blocked off.
Kirchmeier said the protest has become unlawful as a result of criminal activity. He said his officers have been threatened and heard gunshots. The agency has gotten reports of pipe bombs, assaults on private security personnel, fireworks and vandalism.
In the interest of public safety, North Dakota Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol has established a traffic control point on Highway 1806 south of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery. Only emergency vehicles and local traffic will be allowed through. Other vehicles will be detoured to Highway 6. (Grueskin)
There were no pipebombs, gunshots or threats to the lives of officers. If there were, wouldn’t you think there would have been more than enough cause to come in and clear the camps at that point? We were not a danger to the public. In fact, the gathering of support also brought a great deal of money into the economy locally.
Everyone that came to our camps did so because they felt the need to come. They brought with them their gifts and talents. Some people came and were great cooks, some were strong and helped chop wood, some were builders. Journalists and photographers brought their cameras and documented the human rights violations and helped to share our story with the world.
Our film is about honoring those people and the way we all came together. It’s about telling our truth. (FWB)
What are some of the lessons learned from Standing Rock? (BH & SE)
Standing Rock became a blueprint for the world to show what we are able to accomplish unified. It is a testament to the ingenuity and capability of the human race to collectively change the path that we are headed down … a path led by fossil fuels and corporations with only their bottom-line in mind.
There were many lessons learned. We learned to avoid the game of “who is the leader” – instead, it is important to have clear objectives focused on the collective so that if one leader has to step away, the movement continues. We learned to have foresight … to look past the goals we’ve set and move forward in optimism. We learned what self-government and self-determination looks like. Historically our people governed themselves but we have not been able to practice this in over a hundred years. This aspect, like every other aspect of our way of life had been oppressed. We know that this way of life is possible, the wheels are just rusty. Our movement needs to be self-sustaining and to evolve so that we can model this return to traditional ways for the world. It is the evolution of our understanding for this to be about what we are trying to build and model for the world.
We continue to learn from this fight. A great deal of people are hurting now, processing through PTSD and other traumas. The importance of self-care is a journey for us all. (FWB)
What is the continued legacy of the Standing Rock protest? (BH & SE)
A beautiful community of our hopes and dreams that we were always told wasn’t possible. A place where over 300 Indigenous nations came together, where traditional enemies stood side by side to begin fighting a common enemy. Unification of all races and faiths. Freedom.
Those of us who lived there breathed freedom. Our time was not dictated by clocks or calendars. The power of the people is the continued legacy. This is the beauty of the human spirit and our ability to put our differences aside to build something better for future generations. Taking responsibility for the world we leave. The amazing diversity of Indigenous nations – our songs, languages, stories and dances that define us. Our love for the lands and stories and histories that tie us to the land we are indigenous to. Everything that Indigenous people have come through, doing it with dignity, continuing to hold on to the things that define us is what is going to heal the world. The Indigenous people of this land mass have endured attempted genocide and oppression for hundreds of years. The diversity of our languages and stories make us distinct, but the respect in which we view and treat the earth is our commonality. It is the respect we treat ourselves and one another with that welcomed weary souls back to the circle. Compassion and generosity are a few of the keystone values that ground our people yet, are lacking in the world. Our legacy is love. Love for our future generations, our Mother Earth, one another, and our willingness to sacrifice out of love. (FWB)
Looking back on one year of Trump's office and the signing of Dakota Access (and Keystone XL) executive orders, what developments have arisen and what is the path forward in terms of resistance? (BH & SE)
Racism and colonial governmental decisions are nothing new to the Indigenous nations. The path forward is the same as it has always been – holding on to our goals, values and dignity with resilience. Our people came through states putting bounties on our scalps, armies hunting us down, having our children kidnapped by law, abuses suffered at the hands of the schools those children were taken to in attempt to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, starvation periods, forced sterilization. We are not strangers to colonial government oppression. New laws passed in attempt to oppress unity are nothing compared to the love we have for the future generations. (FWB)
Grueskin, Caroline. “Construction Stops, Traffic Restricted Due to Dakota Access Pipeline Protest.” Bismarck Tribune, 17 Aug. 2016. <https://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/construction-stops-traffic-restricted-due-to-dakota-access-pipeline-protest/article_80b8ef24-7bf3-507c-95f9-6292795a7ed4.html>.