On April 1, 2016, a caravan of 40 horses and about 200 water protectors rode 30 miles from Fort Yates, North Dakota, to a newly formed prayer camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The camp, dubbed Sacred Stone, was already home to a few dozen activists, there to protest the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) that they consider a threat to their water supply.
Though the camp and its ensuing conflict with authorities became major news months later, at the time the caravan was covered by just two media outlets, the local Bismarck Tribune and a volunteer collective out of Minneapolis called Unicorn Riot. For almost a year, as water protectors held prayer ceremonies, established a school, and occasionally clashed with police, Unicorn Riot was on the ground, documenting it all.
In October and November, when Standing Rock activists faced mass arrests and harsh police tactics, the mainstream media had little to no presence there, but outlets such as MSNBC, Reuters, VICE, Mother Jones, and RT featured footage from Unicorn Riot, as well as from personal livestreamers and drone pilots, who documented law enforcement macing activists and spraying them with water canons in subfreezing temperatures.
Unicorn Riot remained in the camps when thousands of veterans showed up one chaotic week in December, when the Army Corps of Engineers denied the company behind the DAPL the easement it needed to finish construction, when the Standing Rock Sioux tribe asked the water protectors to leave, when the decision on the easement was reversed under the Trump administration, and finally, when the camps were cleared in February. By then, national interest in Standing Rock had waned, and three Unicorn Riot reporters had already been arrested covering the protests.
On February 22, the official eviction date, large outlets like CNN, BuzzFeed, and ABC News were around to collect dramatic footage of Oceti, the main camp, burning, as activists destroyed structures before authorities could. However, police didn't enter Oceti that day. They primarily arrested journalists and legal observers standing on a state highway rather than the activists remaining in camp.
The true clearing didn't begin until the following day. Bismarck's Fox affiliate, embedded with law enforcement, was able to film in areas where other journalists faced arrest. But the bulk of the February 23 footage came from citizen journalists with cellphones and the ever-present Unicorn Riot. During a four-hour livestream that's been viewed 2.5 million times, Unicorn Riot filmed 200 officers with automatic weapons flanking Oceti, so that activists were forced to crowd dangerously onto a frozen river or risk arrest.
Unicorn Riot footage from the eviction:
Unicorn Riot is part of an emerging movement of leftist, largely self-trained media outlets and voices. The collective's members value firsthand reporting—often in the form of unedited videos—and while they strive to remain factual, they're unapologetic about ignoring old-school standards of objectivity. Their goal, per their mission statement, is to "expose the root causes of social conflict," often through documenting wrongdoing by American corporate and governmental interests. And as Standing Rock illustrates, there are times when groups like Unicorn Riot can be more effective than the larger, less nimble, Establishment outlets whose narrative they compete against.
Other people who covered Standing Rock are indigenous themselves, like Myron Dewey, a 44-year-old member of the Paiute and Shoshone nations. As Digital Smoke Signals, he's posted hundreds of videos about the protest, including sky footage of the drill pads ("I caught DAPL working in the 20 miles that Obama told them not to," he said) and rambling livestreams in which he strolls through camps or conducts live Q&A sessions. He's been charged with stalking for tracking DAPL security by drone; he's also mentored another group of water protectors who, in December, formed Women's Indigenous Media.
Dewey has raised at least $58,000 through crowdfunding, and some of his clips have received a couple million views. His footage has been used by the Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, and Al Jazeera, but he doesn't consider himself a journalist in the "Western view."
"We grew up defending our land from birth. What does that make me?" he said. "I'm not an activist… I'm protecting the earth from climate change, destruction, and a way of life being lost from corporate profit."
Mark Trahant, a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota, believes that as resources for traditional newsrooms dwindle, Americans may have to rely on more passion-driven coverage.
"I don't think Unicorn Riot is propaganda or fake news. I think they're very valuable," he said. "That's something Americans haven't figured out, compared to other places in the world. You look at a country that has five right-wing newspapers and five left-wing, and you tend to read between the lines."
Trahant remembers 1973, when the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. "Reporters were camped there. They set up small newsrooms. Resources have changed dramatically," he said. Big papers no longer have the staff to thoroughly cover every important protest, and local outlets have their own budgetary woes. That means the people covering these movements are often those who are sympathetic to them.
But although Unicorn Riot is comprised of former activists, the collective rejects the idea that they're "activist journalists."
"We're not saying these cops are so terrible, everybody go fight them," said 26-year-old producer Chris Schiano. "We're saying, here's what the police are doing… If the police are doing something that's objectively terrible, people make their own decisions about how to feel."
Members of the collective don't organize or participate in demonstrations, even if they did in the past, said producer Niko Georgiades, who has made a conscious effort to separate himself from demonstrators. "In the beginning, I used to say, 'We are doing this. We are taking the streets,'" he said. "Then I was like, 'Dude, shut up. They are. You are documenting.'"
A Unicorn Riot clip from Standing Rock:
Unicorn Riot formed in early 2015. It was a dozen friends and friends of friends based in Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, and New York, who had documented Occupy, Ferguson, and other movements for other outlets and were frustrated at their lack of autonomy. "We didn't have control of editing or posting, and we were maybe contracting with other mainstream entities," Georgiades said.
So they held internet meetings, crafted bylaws, and filed for tax-deductible status as an educational nonprofit because, according to Georgiades, "We're not into collecting money from people's misery."
Unicorn Riot posts breaking news as soon as it can—a publish-first mentality that is widespread these days. More structured work, such as document-based articles and video packages, must be approved by two members before it goes online. Decisions are based on consensus and discussion, and the collective's 2017 budget of $80,000—garnered from grants and donations—will primarily pay travel and equipment expenses. Members volunteer their time and cover what they want, from community gardening to criminal justice.
Unicorn Riot gained a local audience reporting the 18-day occupation of a Minneapolis police precinct following the killing of unarmed black man Jamar Clark. But it wasn't until Standing Rock that they "got over 100,000 likes on Facebook" and a huge boost in donations, according to Schiano. Their DAPL-related posts regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views.
"We report outside assumptions that people just take for granted," said Schiano. "I think a lot of media that people consider unbiased, it's still reproducing bias. It's just the bias that's central to how society operates, and a lot of people don't examine it. Even the idea that an outfit like the Morton County Sheriff's Department should have legitimacy is up for debate. They're on land that treaties show is stolen. Most media assumes that these entities are legitimate, and I would say that's a bias."
Robert Fraizer, an Iowa-based veteran who visited the camps during the Veteran's Stand in December, follows Unicorn Riot for what he calls "reliable news."
"They're more professional than a lot of people publishing news about Standing Rock, but I saw those guys arrested and harassed by DAPL security. I saw them personally in action. That gave them credence for me," Frazier said.
Watch the VICELAND documentary on Standing Rock:
Reporting alongside activists—and in many cases, living and marching with them—has its risks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least ten content creators—either working independently or for established outlets—have been arrested while documenting Standing Rock. (Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now! was arrested and accused of "not acting as a journalist" by a prosecutor; a judge later threw the case out.)
Others have suffered physical injuries. A rubber bullet was shot through Unicorn Riot producer Pat Boyle's press pass*. Eric Poemz sustained a broken pelvic bone when he was tackled by officers while livestreaming the Oceti eviction. John Ziegler, who's been tweeting and livestreaming from the camps since November under the moniker Rebelutionary Z, said he's $20,000 in debt following two surgeries, after his finger was nearly severed by a rubber bullet. He believes police tried to shoot his camera out of his hand.
Video Ziegler filmed while being shot in the hand:
Other media outlets with a prominent place at Standing Rock included Indigenous Rising, created under the umbrella of the more established Indigenous Environmental Network, and the informal Renegade Media Collective, which operated out of a tent in Sacred Stone and posted a combination of straightforward documentaries and heavily edited (slow motion, emotional music) pieces that proselytized as much as they informed.
Unlike Unicorn Riot, many livestreamers do consider themselves activists. "I was a water protector before I was media," said Brooke Wauku with Women's Indigenous Media. But several of these independent outlets have filmed clips that mainstream media has broadcast repeatedly (and sometimes without credit or permission).
According to Nikki Usher, a professor of journalism at George Washington University, even with more citizen journalists in the mix, "big newsrooms and big influencers" will continue to "call the shots."
"The first two days of the Arab Spring, a lot of people watched the footage of citizen journalists, but by day three, Al Jazeera was on the ground, and people were watching Al Jazeera-selected citizen journalism," she said.
When news breaks unexpectedly, often it's the independent livestreamers who are there to capture it. On November 20, the night cops used water cannons on Standing Rock protesters, both Renegade Media and Unicorn Riot came out with raw videos of the clashes between water protectors and the authorities.
The police initially claimed that they only used the water canons to put out fires, but according to Schiano, "We were able to put that video out right away, and they changed their story just like that."
Trahant admits that he was glued to livestreams that night. "Standing Rock has been a social media story," the journalism professor said. "Social media has carried it in a way that is unprecedented in this country."
A documentary from Renegade Media:
Unicorn Riot plans to continue telling stories on social media, but it also has more ambitious goals. The collective is cutting together a documentary about Standing Rock, and producers are tackling investigative pieces, such as a 15,000 word series on the trial of Allen Scarsella, the white supremacist who shot five people during the Jamar Clark demonstration.
"We expect to be at a $250,000 operating budget in a few years," said Georgiades. This means members will be paid, but they don't plan to change their horizontal structure or make more editorial decisions in a more traditional way.
The founders of Women's Indigenous Media hope it will mature into an educational nonprofit, teaching women to fly drones and become content creators. Core members of Renegade Media just moved into a shared living space and are focusing on making a documentary about government infringement on constitutional rights. They are also recruiting Renegade contributors in different cities.
Other livestreamers, particularly those who cut their teeth on Occupy and later covered demonstrations against police brutality, will go home and work day jobs and wait for the next mass movement.
For all of them, the goal is to create a truly independent media, with or without financial backers.
"We need our own platform," said Unicorn Riot's Schiano. "We don't want someone who isn't us controlling what comes out."
*UPDATE: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Unicorn Riot producer whose press pass was shot.
Cheree Franco is a writer and photographer, mostly working in Arkansas, Mississippi, New York, and Pakistan.