Documenting resistance and repression at Standing Rock
All photos by Tom Harjo
#NoDAPL (No North Dakota Access Pipeline) is a movement to block the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that would violate sovereign indigenous lands, contaminate drinking water, and destroy fragile wildlife habitat. What began as marches, meetings, and rallies at the North Dakota State Capitol has now escalated into indigenous people and allies physically blocking the pipeline from being built through tribal areas. This past Sunday night, November 20, police forces violently attacked and injured protestors who were attempting to clear access to a public bridge blocked by military equipment. According to Democracy Now, “More than 100 Native Americans and allies fighting the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline have been injured by police who attacked them with rubber bullets, tear gas, mace canisters and water cannons in freezing temperatures.” Protests continue despite the police repression.
Tom Harjo is a photographer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico who has been at the Oceti Sakowin (or “Seven Council Fires”) Camp resisting the North Dakota Access Pipeline. He is a Creek, Seminole, Quapaw, Shawnee, Delaware and Cherokee Indian. He first went to the camp following the September 3rd clashes sparked by Dakota Access Pipeline private security releasing dogs on unarmed, peaceful Water Protectors. Having worked in the movie industry as a Key Grip, and with a longtime passion for photography, Harjo decided to use his talents to extensively document the protests. He wants to use his photos to combat the corporate media blackout, completely insufficient reporting on the police occupation, and lack of a Native perspective in reporting of any kind. Tom speaks about his photos below.
TOM HARJO: I was aware of the #NoDAPL movement and camps but had not yet fully committed myself to the cause. But after seeing Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now reporting of the events I was in tears. I saw men, women, children and elders being attacked. I cried, not only for the Protectors, but for the lack of humanity displayed by a corporation hellbent on making money by pushing this pipeline on my relatives, the Lakota. I was at Standing Rock four days later. I arrived not knowing anyone at the camp, where the camp was, or if I would even be welcomed. But I was compelled to be there. I wanted to be there for myself, to help in any way I could.
I wanted to be there to represent my family, because most could not afford to make the journey. And I wanted to be there to raise the awareness of my non-Native family and friends. Not only about the issue of the right to clean water but to show them something beyond news clips and stereotypes of Native people. So, my first trip I posted pictures, via IPhone and social media, of everyday camp-life. I photographed welcoming ceremonies, Facebook/Media hill and the everyday people in the various camps. I tried to show the Unity, Solidarity and Brotherhood that I was a part of at the camp.
In preparing for my current trip I noticed there was a lot of live and recorded video coming out of the camps and not many stills. So, I hoped to fill that gap. And I wanted to portray something that news organizations and other photographers have overlooked or were incapable of showing. As a Native photographer I wanted to show the #NoDAPL movement from a Native point of view.
Why photography and what is the message? I take a camera wherever I go. It’s a habit. I lost my lens cap many years ago and realized I really didn’t need it. It just gets in the way. And I love still photography because you can capture a moment and then take your time to examine it. So, I took these portraits of policemen at Front-Line actions as evidence. When you’re standing face to face opposite a line of cops, dressed in paramilitary uniforms, holding clubs and industrial-sized cans of tear gas, details are inconsequential.
Your mind is on the big picture of making your message known and then how do I survive this. Also, the general public rarely sees a policeman up-close and probably never as a potential aggressor. So, these portraits put you on the Front-Line as an unarmed, peaceful and prayerful Water Protector. And you can examine what our local police forces in this country have become.
Between now and January 1st is a critical time in this struggle. DAPL must have the pipeline up and running by the 1st in order to meet a shipping partners deadline. The company has vowed to drill under the Missouri River with or without a permit from the Corps of Engineers. The drilling equipment is in place, behind a 12’ high barbed-wire fortress next to the river. So, your support is needed now. I have a GoFundMe page that will help support the immediate needs of the camp and my photographic efforts to document the Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement. This isn’t just about Standing Rock and Native people. The North Dakota Access Pipeline threatens everyone downriver who depends on the Missouri for clean water.
In a Facebook post on Monday, November 21 following police attacks, Tom also wrote the following:
It’s been a long day. Up before 6 to re-occupy the bridge and finding military humvees in place of the paramilitary local cops. The concertina wire was frozen in place from the night before. Our security had stayed up all night to keep watch. One fellow was asleep, shut down, unable to move. And then the elders moved to the front line. Songs and prayer followed. I felt the power in these songs, I felt the life force in those prayers. And this is what the police, DAPL, the state of North Dakota and, let’s be real, the United States fear the most. The police, at every action including last night, try to intimidate and goad us into a fearful response. They use clubs, industrial size tear gas, sound cannons, “non-lethal” projectiles and now water cannons. But none of it has broken the connection to the peaceful spirit within us. Indians should have never made it out of the 1800s. But we did, and many, like the Lakota, adapt to the 21st century but remain grounded firmly in their past. The dominant culture has no connection to their past. No sense of belonging to this land, no solidifying spiritual practice, nothing to point to that says they truly belong here. For them the earth is a canvas where they paint the same house, farm, church, store. Their religion is based on words on a page, far removed from it’s spiritual origins. And the reason they belong here starts with land theft and free slave labor. This is why it’s OK to beat, mace, taser or kill people of color. It’s their tradition. And it’s also why they have never attempted to understand our point of view. Its true, we just don’t see the world the same way. The western tradition of beating people into submission isn’t our way. That is the strategy of the Morton County Sheriff. It was clearly demonstrated last night for all the world to see. But it didn’t work. And it hasn’t worked for 500 years.