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Why Standing Rock Is Only the Beginning

We spoke to Sarain Carson-Fox, host of the new VICELAND series RISE, about telling stories of indigenous-led resistance from the inside.

Standing Rock is no longer just about Standing Rock. It's become shorthand for the struggle for Indigenous Peoples rights the world over. While the occupation protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, was snuffed out in late February—the last remaining protesters evicted from their camp in a military-style operation—the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are continuing their battle in the courts. This Friday, their supporters will take to the streets in Rise with Standing Rock: Native Nations March on Washington.


Sarain Carson-Fox is the host of RISE, a new series on VICELAND that travels to North America, Hawai'i and Brazil documenting indigenous life today and giving a rare view of indigenous-led resistance from the inside. In May last year, Carson-Fox and the RISE crew were some of the very first media at Standing Rock. They arrived when the occupation numbered only a handful of protesters. It would swell to 10,000 by the end of the year.

The two episodes of RISE they filmed at Standing Rock are an intimate and technically beautifully telling of the Sioux fight against the pipeline as its construction threatens the tribe's water supply and disturbs sacred burial grounds. The documentary also delves into the area's indigenous history, stories that all too often go untold. RISE premieres on VICELAND tonight, with an airing of the first Standing Rock episode, Sacred Water. Both Standing Rock episodes are also being screened at Māoriland Film Festival in Otaki (March 15 and 19).

Since the filming, President Trump came to power and expedited the Dakota Access Pipeline, meaning oil could be flowing through it as early as this month. Despite this heartbreaking result for the protestors, Carson-Fox sees a victory in the ongoing struggle for the recognition of indigenous rights.

"I think pipeline or not, you can't take back what Standing Rock has done for the people worldwide," Carson-Fox told VICE New Zealand. "I think it's been happening slowly, this general waking up, but I think there has been an alignment and no matter what happens moving forward, this kind of uprising is medicine for the people and can't get taken away. That's the same with RISE, now that information is out there it can't be taken away."


Carson-Fox is indigenous Canadian, of Anishinaaabe lineage. Her mother is a therapist, healer and teacher who raised her three daughters with traditional teachings. "That's not everyone's story and I know I sit in a place of privilege to always have my teachings," she says.

A dancer and an activist, Carson-Fox has a natural presence on screen and readily connects with the people whose stories are being investigated. "We don't just go in and tell the story," she says. "I can say this absolutely, every community we went into I now have family there."

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard

At Standing Rock, the action is driven mostly by women. Camp founder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard put a plea on Facebook for support and the "water protestors" came, in their thousands. What's striking to see in RISE is how many of them are young women. Young mothers like Bobbi Jean Three Legs who in one scene rallies the crowd: "It doesn't take extraordinary people to do extraordinary things. It takes a good mind and a good heart."

Traditionally in indigenous communities the women have always been leaders, says Carson-Fox. "I think that the only thing that got in the way of that was colonisation. We are now reclaiming our own self governance structures. For a lot of communities that means realigning women as leaders and allowing women to step back into those roles. Inherently women are caregivers, so their inherent responsibility is to take care of life. I think these young women see their futures, and the future of their ability to carry on life, as under threat. It's quite incredible that we're seeing young people understand how precious that action and ability is."


Bobbi Jean Three Legs

Māoriland Film Festival co-ordinator Madeleine de Young says there has been a lot of conversation about Standing Rock within the Māori community and it was a "no-brainer" to include the RISE episodes about it in their programme of indigenous films, especially when she saw they were directed by Canadian Michelle Latimer whose work they have previously screened.

"Standing Rock is indicative of where we're at," says de Young. "Indigenous people have been quick to pick up social media and digital technologies as a means to communicate. I think it was just waiting for a big enough issue to tip over and pull everyone in together."

The same issues arise in indigenous communities the world over. Flick through the Māoriland programme and films from around the globe tell tales of poverty, water, mining, land and child welfare. Issues that we are grappling with in New Zealand. "I was at an event where [Children's Commissioner] Judge Becroft was speaking and he said something that stuck with me," says de Young. "He said, 'When we look back on our time now we will consider it with the same disdain that we look back on the Victorian Era.' We're in need of a revolution but we're settling with very slow evolution."

Sarain Carson-Fox

Sarain Carson-Fox has her own personal and lasting connection with New Zealand. As a dancer she has worked with the celebrated founder of Black Grace contemporary dance company, Neil Ieremia at the Banff Centre. "During that time I was exposed to the haka and all of his dancers came in. There definitely was an exchange, and a true exchange because it all happened in the body," she says. "Working with Neil, I actually accessed an entire kind of power in my body that I didn't know was there. It was a really grounded deep connection to the earth, and it's been in my body ever since."


As an activist, Carson-Fox finds dance a starting point for difficult conversations. "There are things that I can communicate in an intimate space, in a theatrical space, that I can say with my body that I could never say in words," she says. "There is a universal language that allows me to break down barriers. I can be so much more raw."

Now that it has begun through RISE, Carson-Fox's involvement with Standing Rock is not over. She predicts the fight will "get worse before it gets better" and she plans to be there to support it. When asked where else the world should be paying attention, she sighs. "Oh my goodness. So many places." There's the battle over copper mining on the Apache stronghold Oak Flat—the subject of another RISE episode—and uranium mining around the Grand Canyon. "And unfortunately for me the fight is coming to my back yard," says Carson-Fox. "Our prime minister Justin Trudeau approved three pipelines in the last couple of months."

What keeps her energised? "It really is the young people," she says. "I see these young people who are so brave and so selfless. They are willing to step up to the plate and do extraordinary things for the future, and all our futures. It's the women. I feel like I'm supported by an entire community and I feel like it's the women who are right behind me, and then the men support them. It's so powerful."

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The first episode of RISE 'Sacred Water, Standing Rock Part One' premieres tonight on VICELAND, Sky Channel 13.