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Two tales from Standing Rock

Scenes from Standing Rock , Cannonball, North Dakota. Sunday December 4, 2016. Photo/David Jackson

4th December 2016
DAVID JACKSON, photographer

“There was an amazing energy at the camp when I arrived. There was expected to be a big stand-off on 4th December, the original federal government deadline for demonstrators to leave, and people had poured in from everywhere over that weekend to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. There were around 5,000 protesters in total, a broad demographic including hundreds of US veterans as well as the indigenous people who had originally set up camp back in April. Everybody understood that the proposed pipeline would run over the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s ancestral burial grounds and potentially contaminate their sources of drinking water.

Patty Porter, the woman holding the ‘Water is Life’ poster [second picture below], was amazing – so strong willed, powerful and full of energy. She had arrived by dugout canoe in a largely female group which had spent a week travelling down the Missouri River in the savagely cold North Dakota winter. They have inherited a belief from their ancestors that water is everything. It’s their drinking source, where they fish, gather and collect; it affects their hunting because animals rely on the water.

I was in the camp when news filtered through that the federal government had refused to issue the permit needed to drill under the Missouri River until “alternative routes” had been explored. I was running from one side of the camp to the other to take photographs of a prayer circle [previous pages] that stretched around the entire site, which was slow going because it was so icy and muddy. I heard drumming from the centre, where tribal chairman David Archambault was making the announcement. Word began to spread and after around 45 minutes the whole camp understood that construction had been halted. The atmosphere was electric and thousands of people moved towards the centre of camp. That’s when I took the photo of the boy on the horse [pictured top above]. He kept whooping and hollering. He was overjoyed.

Walking around the camp that night was special. I saw teepees glowing and smoke coming out of yurts [pictured below]. It was like seeing how things used to be when nomadic people used to follow the trails along the rivers. It was a resurgence of pride in indigenous culture. People had been forced to brave the elements, occupy their land and stand up for what they believed in. It had been a great day. But everybody knew that the battle wasn’t over. Donald Trump was about to be sworn in as president and we all knew what that meant.”

22nd February 2017
MICHEAL NIGRO, photographer

“The Standing Rock camp had completely changed by February. I had also been there on 4th December and experienced the sense of euphoria. When I returned ten weeks later only 200 to 300 protesters were left [pictured below]. It was initially hard to get my bearings because so many structures had been taken down and the vibe was so different. Many people had left the camp. David Archambault had urged people to go home after the permit was refused, which angered those protesters who believed the fight was far from over. Infighting has been a problem.

There were many moments of quiet prayer and pure desperation. The Army Corps of Engineers, the branch of the federal government handling the pipeline, had ordered protesters to leave by 22nd February or face felony charges, which can mean jail time. As the deadline approached there was a sense of impending doom. Everybody knew Trump used to have money invested in the project [financial disclosure forms show that he had a stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the firm behind the pipeline, until summer 2016] so his executive order on 24th January to revive the pipeline was not surprising.

I’d been in New York over the winter but when I heard that Standing Rock was going to be raided on 22nd February I worked hard to make sure I could be there. It was important to document what happened, as I felt the mainstream media were not covering the story properly. On the night before the raid I was up on Facebook Hill [named for being the only place on camp with mobile reception] and there were around 50 journalists there. All of them were from independent media outlets.

The photograph of law-enforcement officers [pictured left] lining up against demonstrators was taken moments before they charged at us. The man in the red hat is called Eric Poemz. His pelvis was fractured in the incident. The police didn’t care if you were a journalist; my credentials made no difference. They used military force, as if they were in Fallujah. I had to make a call – was it worth risking arrest or injury to document this story? When they chased us down it happened so quickly. My phone snapped off its mount and my camera broke. All of a sudden I was on the 1806 Highway with no way of reporting, which was heartbreaking.

The photo of the man carrying the flag [pictured above] was taken earlier that day from a spot I’d stood on in December when I’d looked out over a functioning town. There was a school, a tent for medics, a media centre, trash composting… When I returned in February it was almost deserted. The structures were ceremonially set on fire [pictured left] to prevent them from being desecrated by bulldozers and law enforcement.

It was not possible to prevent the pipeline construction from going ahead, but I left Standing Rock in February feeling positive. This is just the beginning. The movement brought all of these different people together and now there will be fights against this small bullying force, the billionaire class, across the US. People will study the Standing Rock camp for years to come as an example of how to fight corporate forces. So many lives were changed there – everybody involved felt the power of people coming together – and it was a victory for indigenous rights activists who have seen increased awareness of their cause.

The Standing Rock protests weren’t just about stopping the pipeline. They were at the intersection of so many social-justice struggles – income inequality, climate justice, Black Lives Matter, police militarisation etc – which are all more exposed now we have Trump in office. People are starting to realise that we have work to do.”

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