It's a grim end for one of the largest environmental protests in American history. Last Thursday, it was announced that the Army National Guard had cleared the vast majority of water protectors from the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock. In short order, construction on the section of the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing the Cannonball River will be complete, desecrating the ancestral lands of the Lakota Sioux who call that corner of North Dakota home.
It's a devastating blow for the Indigenous people for whom Standing Rock is not a symbolic fight, it's a life and death struggle. But perhaps a silver lining of the #NoDAPL movement is the energy that Standing Rock poured into grassroots environmental movements and the visibility that it gave to the plight of First Nations peoples all over North America.
Sarain Fox is the host of RISE, a documentary series on VICELAND that examines the struggles of Indigenous communities in the 21st century. The series' first two episodes chronicle the protests at Standing Rock, and Creators sat down with Fox to discuss the power of front line communities, the role of art in the camp, and what's next for the young Indigenous people who spent the better part of the last year fighting to protect their homeland.
Creators: Can you tell me what being at Standing Rock was like, through the lens of the creators and artists who were there?
Sarain Fox: We started filming RISE last April, right after Sacred Stone was established. I went back to Standing Rock in August, outside of my work for RISE, to do some outreach work through an organization called IP3, the Indigenous Peoples Power Project, which is linked to Greenpeace and the Ruckus Society. I grew up in a really politically active family, on the front lines with my mom, but I never got to see all of the inner workings of what front line communities really mean. The thing that I came away with—the thing that I'm still raving about and talking about—is the impact that art had on the messaging and the movement at Standing Rock.
I sat down with a lot of creators and they explained that art is just as important as bodies on the front line. The way they explained it is so beautiful and simple: The media will always try and silence Indigenous people. They will always try and silence the voice amplifying injustice. But when you control the messaging and when you can put art on the front line, no matter what angle they take photos from, no matter who the media outlet is, the only photo they can publish is one that has the art in it, and the art contains the messaging. You can't be silenced as long as art is part of the movement.
That's so powerful. Who are these people, what are they like, and what are they creating?
It's a mixture of people who were born and raised on Standing Rock, who are visual artists or spoken word artists, or just regular members of the community with a real interest in messaging and the movement. And then all of these incredible, well-known, established artists came to do art on the ground. What they were making were things like massive banners—the kinds of banners that have been used to shut down construction work—and silkscreening.
One of the incredible things that happened was they started printing small patches, and they did that because there were so many people coming to Standing Rock, that people were looking for souvenirs, or something that they wanted to take. It became problematic, because we needed the messaging to be a part of the front line actions everyday, so we needed those things not to go missing. The artists' reaction was actually quite beautiful. They decided to make smaller versions of those banners for people to have, and in doing that, all these people started pinning messaging on their jackets. So then you have thousands of people not only holding signs and using banners, but also marching in the street wearing these patches, so they really did take control of the messaging and movement through art. I'm all about action, and I love the idea of artists coming together making work in action, and to see it have direct impact is really powerful.
What were some of the symbols that they gravitated to?
This type of art has to be very strategic. One of the most famous images coming out of Standing Rock is this very simple, "Water is Life." It was actually a team from Canada who created that: Isaac Murdoch and Christi Belcourt, two really well-known artists. It was so simple, just a woman holding a feather or a thunderbird that says, "Water is Life," or "Protect the sacred," but done in really beautiful font specific to an artist. One of the most impactful messages was "Mni Wiconi," which means "Water is Life" in Lakota. To teach millions of people one simple phrase in your language and have them use it is profound and impactful and something we've never seen before in terms of ally-ship. I think that despite all of the hardship, despite all of the injustice, despite all of the the ideology that Standing Rock is a lost fight, I think we won in leaps and bounds in terms of what it's done for the movement.
Where was this art primarily made? Were people creating in their studios, outside of the camp, and bringing things to Standing Rock? Or were creators actually working on site?
The very first banner that was made onsite, which was used to stop construction, we made the night before, and we were up until 6:00 AM making that banner. When they rolled it out at 6:30 AM, it was still wet.
When I think of what Standing Rock is, it's all of these artists coming and making work on the ground. No matter how heated everything got, that's where I always went: to the Art Action camp first, because they were directly behind the strategy and I could always do something and have an impact right then. I could get my hands on some paint or help with the screens. I think that's important.
Can you set the scene for me at the camp? What was it like on the ground?
For me, it was one of the first times in my life that I could look around and say, "Oh, this is the living, breathing example of exactly what Indigenous people have been fighting for: the right to be and live off the land. It felt almost apocalyptic, in a way, because of the presence of teepees and tents and the traditional landscape, juxtaposed by modern technology that makes makes living off the land more accessible. But you could show up at Standing Rock with nothing, just the shirt on your back, and you would be provided with food, shelter, and protocol. That's really, really beautiful. So many people must have felt a longing for a place they maybe never had.
It was like a neighborhood. There was a center fire with a kitchen, eating quarters, a health tent where you could get supplements and find doctors. There was a media tent called "Facebook Hill," because sometimes that was the only place to get reception in camp. There is a school teepee, a day care, the Art Action camp, Red Warrior camp—which was all these really hardcore front line warriors. When you go to Standing Rock, you really are in your own world. That's why so many people ended up staying and are so heartbroken that they have to leave now.
Let's talk more about the Art Action camp. Who were the other people staying there and what were they like?
Greenpeace brought down a solar bus called "Sally Sunshine" with a [cellular reception] booster on it, and it was the first time that some people had cellular service on the ground. It meant that people could livestream from the camp, which changed everything. All of a sudden, there was access to the media that was never there before. I met Dallas Goldtooth, who is the head of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who was an incredible voice and who showed the world the impact that doing a daily live feed from the camp could have.
The Art Action camp was made up of four components: the artists who are creating, the legal team who is there to consult and inform people of risks before they go out, the media team—which I was a part of—who helps navigate press releases and how to communicate with the media, and then the action team who actually plans and strategizes. A lot of people thought that people were just getting arrested [at Standing Rock,] but there's actually a group of people called "the arrestables," and they go into every action knowing that they are going to be arrested. People would call it out: When the police started to come in, they'd be like, "Arrestables! Arrestables!" And those are the people who'd go in, so that young women and elders didn't get arrested. That's incredible! That's organization! I didn't even realize that this was a thing. And the reason we don't realize it's a thing is because everything is so organized that you don't see the work. Which is the real key to any good work, right?
So what do you think is next?
I'm afraid of the violence, and I know that those things are going to be hard to witness, but to be honest, I am most afraid of the heartbreak that losing this kind of battle will put on the shoulders of young people who are already marginalized. I am really am concerned about what this will look like for young, Indigenous people who have been on the front lines. How will they recover?
But we're still seeing a lot of art coming from everywhere, all across Indian country. People are still making pieces, holding benefit concerts, and making banners. I have a banner that we took to Sundance that says, "Exist, Resist, Rise," and I can't tell you how many people I lent it to—it just went down to Kansas and it's been on tour. People are still using this messaging and trying to bring awareness. But I do think we're about to witness the final standoff at Standing Rock, and I don't think it's going to be pretty.
Sarain Fox is the host of RISE on VICELAND, a series examining Indigenous cultures and the social and political factors that threaten their liberation in the 21st century. RISE airs Fridays at 9 PM. To learn more, click here.