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Deep histories and fluid futures in Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock

Originally published: Jump Cut on October 1, 2019 by Emily Roehl (more by Jump Cut) (Posted Oct 04, 2019)

Mni Sose, the Missouri River, is “a relative: the Mni Oyate, the Water Nation. She is alive. Nothing owns her.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] From the spring of 2016 through the winter of 2017, two concepts of this river came into stark relief as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies set up camps in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.[2] The outlines of this conflict were documented both by Indigenous artists and media makers and by private security firms working on behalf of the oil industry.[3] While the local police and media represented the struggle as a “protest” or even a “riot,” the rallying cry of those gathered to protect the water was Mni Wiconi, a Lakota phrase meaning “water is life” or “water is alive.”

The company building the pipeline, along with its unofficial emissaries in the local police, saw the river as an impediment to the flow of capital and sought to protect their right to put a pipeline through it to get oil to refineries. This understanding of the river is consistent with the actions of the U.S. government throughout its history of broken treaties with Indigenous nations.[4] Water Protectors at Standing Rock, however, acted not on behalf of the bottom line but on behalf of future generations and non-human relations. As Jaskiran Dhillon claims, Indigenous-led environmental justice movements are “embodying long-standing forms of relationality and kinship that counter Western epistemologies of human/nature dualism.”[5] This is the kind of movement that coalesced at Standing Rock, a movement for and with water.

According to Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, the struggle at Standing Rock was waged on three fronts: on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #NoDAPL, through independent journalism, and from a strong base of grassroots organizing.[6] The #NoDAPL trifecta of social media, independent journalism, and organizing was remarkably successful in raising awareness about actions in North Dakota, particularly as police violence escalated in the autumn of 2016. Throughout the encampment, #NoDAPL photographs, videos, and live video populated social media feeds around the world, drawing support for the cause in the form of donations, solidarity trips to the camps, and a mass Facebook check-in event on November 1, 2016, in which over one million users posted Facebook updates indicating they were at the camps in an effort to confound the local police in their social media surveillance.

Alongside the check-in event, which allowed remote supporters to “stand with Standing Rock” via social media, Facebook Live was a critical component of the anti-pipeline media strategy. This platform allowed water protectors on the ground to broadcast activities at the camps in real time. One of the most widely shared Facebook Live videos from the #NoDAPL struggle was a drone video made by Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals, which documented the November 20, 2016 night assault in which police officers in riot gear turned water cannons on Water Protectors in sub-freezing temperatures.

The public outcry following this brutality, buoyed by the widespread dissemination of Dewey’s Facebook Live video, was one of many factors that produced a temporary victory for Water Protectors at Standing Rock. In December of 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered a halt to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline pending a new environmental impact study. Within days of taking office, however, President Trump signed an Executive Order effectively reversing the decision, and the camps near Standing Rock were cleared beginning on February 22, 2017.[7] This might seem like a defeat for Water Protectors and anti-pipeline activists. Although the pipeline has been operational since June of 2017, the struggle that began at Standing Rock is far from over. The documentary film Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (2017), co-directed by Josh Fox, James Spione, and Myron Dewey, powerfully illustrates that this fight and the broader movement for Indigenous resource sovereignty has been going on for a long time and will continue well into the future.

In April of 2017, two months after the #NoDAPL camps were cleared, Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock was released. The film documents the day-to-day experience of life at the camps in North Dakota, focusing on everyday tasks like raising tents and preparing food, ceremonial and prayerful events accompanied by drumming and singing, and dramatic displays of police violence. It is presented in three parts with a coda, each directed in a unique style. “Part I: Awake” and the coda, directed by Josh Fox, features an illustrated voiceover spoken and co-written by Floris White Bull (member of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation).[8] “Part II: Backwater Bridge,” directed by James Spoine, is filmed in an observational style that captures both the everyday and chaotic qualities of life in the camps as well as the near-constant surveillance Water Protectors faced from private security helicopters. The third section, “Part III: Standing Rock Through Indigenous Eyes,” is directed by Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals and is an extended interview with the filmmaker and a condensed version of the social media coverage he provided throughout the encampment. The climax of this section, flashes of which appear at other moments in the film, is the drone footage of the water cannon assault from November 20, 2016.

Water in crisis

In an article on the role of media in the #NoDAPL movement, film and media studies scholar Janet Walker discusses coverage of the encampments by independent media outlets like Unicorn Riot and Democracy Now! as well as the use of new media tools like Facebook Live by Indigenous media-makers.[9] Walker’s analysis of Awake focuses largely on the third part of the film, directed by Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals, in which she draws attention to the way Dewey situates the #NoDAPL movement within the long history of broken treaties and Indigenous survivance. Indigenous historian Nick Estes has also written on the film, arguing that certain formal elements, including the repeated representation of police violence alongside scenes of everyday life at the camps, mirror the experience of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.[10] Both essays argue for seeing the struggle at Standing Rock as part of the history of the U.S. government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples—as a series of exploitative actions concerning land and resources that have been met with Indigenous resistance.

This essay will build on these observations and focus on Part I of the film, which is titled simply “Awake” and is directed by Josh Fox with a voiceover co-written by Fox and Floris White Bull, an activist and writer and a member of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. Awake is organized roughly chronologically, and Part I places us toward the beginning of the struggle, focusing on the early fall of 2016 and culminating in the events that occurred on Survivor’s Day, known to settlers as Thanksgiving.

White Bull’s voiceover throughout Part I recounts the “dream” of Awake’s title, and the theme of wakefulness and dreaming is woven throughout the film. This essay proposes that White Bull is the visual and aural heart of the film. By inviting the viewer to both wake and dream with her, she provokes them to rise from an unseeing, unhearing slumber to face the harsh realities of energy development at the expense of Indigenous communities while also inviting the viewer to dream while awake to imagine new futures.

The film’s imagined viewer might be understood as the audience for environmental documentary films more broadly: a left-leaning, politically concerned, middle class and largely white audience, a group commonly associated with mainstream environmentalism.[11] But this film also appeals to those who took part in the #NoDAPL struggle, people who see their experience reflected in its scenes of camp life and direct action. White Bull’s challenge speaks to both groups: those inside the movement and those who interacted with it via social media and documentary film viewing.

Josh Fox supports White Bull’s incitement with his distinctive visual style, which utilizes montage and rapid cuts of juxtaposed images to produce a sense of unease and urgency in the viewer. The narrative and aesthetic of Part I of Awake draws together vast time scales and documents the way Water Protectors took on the visual tropes of earlier moments of Indigenous activism, including the Red Power movement and going back as far as the earliest days of North American conquest. At the same time, the film points toward a future of resistance that reaches beyond Standing Rock to a vision of Indigenous resource sovereignty and averting climate crisis.

Floris White Bull in two photographs

In the opening scene of Awake, the frantic strains of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” underscore a watery montage: turbid and clear, choppy and still, we see bodies of water in daylight and under cover of clouds. The first image after the introductory credits appears to be a waterfall, white spray breaking from a tumult of roiling grey. The next moment, we see the dark blue-green churn of a river rattled by rain; in another, gently rolling waves are set ablaze by the setting sun; yet another shows the iridescent play of light on water, grey giving way to fiery salmon hues, scales of light shimmering on the edges of darkness. This sequence lasts nearly two minutes and introduces the film’s principal actor and the focus of the #NoDAPL struggle: Mni Sose, the Missouri River. Before the voiceover begins, before we see the camps, before the title of the film appears on the screen, we are offered a moment to contemplate water. The intensity of the music and the turbulence of many of the water images produces an anxious effect—this is water in crisis. As a framing device, the opening water montage establishes the stakes of the #NoDAPL struggle while centering non-human bodies of water in the narrative of pipeline opposition. The film will show us human bodies in the struggle—peaceful bodies subjected to military force. But it begins by showing us the water alongside which these bodies resist.

Near the two minute mark of the film, the water montage dissolves into a hazy shot of a photograph developing in fluid. The sepia-toned image appears to be an old photograph but is actually contemporary, produced with the nineteenth-century wet plate collodion process. Though it is not revealed until the final credits of Awake, this is a photograph of the narrator, Floris White Bull, shot in profile, wearing a long braid and wrapped in a shawl.[12] This photograph resembles the work of photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis, whose photographs of a “vanishing race” of Indigenous peoples at the turn of the twentieth century are iconic and immensely problematic due to their portrayal of Native Americans as romanticized subjects of the past.[13] Curtis’ photogravure prints and this image of a woman emerging through water share an aesthetic sensibility, but the inclusion of the photograph at this point in the film, as a pivot between the water montage and the beginning of White Bull’s voiceover, is instructive.

This can best be illustrated by considering this photograph of White Bull next to another: the jacket art for Awake. Centered beneath the title and filling most of the frame, White Bull wears the common garb of camp life: a hoodie and bandana, goggles to protect her eyes from pepper spray, and a brightly painted vest featuring a flower and feather in clenched fists. It is important to note that the goggles are not covering White Bull’s eyes in the jacket image—she looks off into the distance in much the same way as the wet plate image. The angle of her gaze, slightly elevated toward the right side of the frame, suggests a view to the future. Between these two photographs of White Bull, we can see the film’s collapsing of time—past, present, and future—in the face of one woman. In the wet plate photograph, White Bull emerges as a figure from the past in traditional regalia. The series of images that White Bull posed for, which are featured on the photographer’s website, also include shots in which she holds a cow’s jawbone, dons a gas mask, and carries a “We are here to protect” sign. These contemporary images infiltrate the historical archive of Indigenous representation that Curtis is shorthand for. Unlike Curtis’ The North American Indian, in which the photographer labored to represent traditional culture without a trace of the trappings of modern life, this series of photographs of White Bull show her to be both a woman with a deep history (not unrelated to the representational violence enacted by photographers like Curtis) but also a woman of the present, self-consciously commenting on her own historical representation.

On the film jacket, signaled by her clothing but also by the inclusion of Water Protectors and a “We are here to protect” sign in the background, White Bull is located squarely in the present amidst a contemporary anti-pipeline action. The image on White Bull’s vest references both recent-past and present Indigenous struggles: the Red Power and American Indian Movement that began in the 1960s and the contemporary Idle No More movement. The raised fist as a symbol of political struggle has a long history in the visual culture of protest, not least of all in the Black Power and Red Power movements. From Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers to the occupation of Alcatraz, the raised fist became a symbol of solidarity in political movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s and is part of the visual culture of labor organizing, the Chicano movement, feminism, anti-war activism, and environmentalism.[14] The American Indian Movement altered the fist symbol with the addition of the feather. The Idle No More logo also incorporates the feather. This movement was started by four women in Canada in 2012 and continues to advocate treaty rights and resource sovereignty for First Nations peoples. Their logo features a black fist on a red circle ringed in black. Unlike the Black Power fist that this logo resembles but similar to the AIM logo, this image integrates a symbol of peace into a salute of defiance, which represents Idle No More’s commitment to nonviolence as a technique of political resistance. Nonviolence was also used at Standing Rock.[15]

A shock from far away, an explosion

As the watery introduction dissolves into a sunset view of the camp, White Bull begins her voiceover: “I had a horrible dream last night. I don’t know why.” Her dream is illustrated at first with a series of moving images of plants, flowers, and the night sky. She speaks of her seasonal preparations, of “chopping wood, drying meat, gathering berries,” and of putting her children to bed at night, “dreaming their Lakota dreams.”

These dreams are swiftly interrupted with scenes of violence: police in riot gear, Water Protectors sprayed with water cannons, the fuzzy outlines of huddled bodies, icy spray and tear gas lingering in the air, which White Bull describes in the voiceover as “a shock from far away, an explosion.”

White Bull goes on to describe a “long, dark moment” as a rapid succession of images of carbon infrastructure, natural disasters, and smoke stacks flash across the screen. White Bull relates that it felt as though she was “traveling across hundreds of years. All things became afraid. All living things fought to survive. Trees became fearful of being chopped down. Rivers ran scared of being poisoned.” These images identify White Bull’s nightmare as a vision of twentieth century development and its consequences: the unnatural disasters of industrial accident and climate change.

Paired with these images of industry and offered as their counterpart, Part I of the film features numerous short scenes of police violence. Officers with their faces obscured behind visors, batons raised and mouths open, shouting, attack Water Protectors with pepper spray. In the midst of this brutality, White Bull’s narrative returns to the future: “I looked at my five children sleeping in their beds. What would they do if their water was ruined? How would they live?” Her children appear in grainy, home video-style scenes, smiling for the camera. We see children at one of the camps circling a drum. The children and the young people of the #NoDAPL movement embody White Bull’s vision of the future.

One of the central concerns of Water Protectors as expressed by White Bull is preserving the land and water as an act of responsibility to future generations.[16] [open endnotes in new window] It is unsurprising that the filmmakers include so many images of children in Awake: the #NoDAPL movement was a youth and woman-organized struggle. One of the founding moments of the movement occurred when a group of teenagers completed a run from Standing Rock to Washington D.C. in the spring of 2016 to urge the Obama Administration to stop the pipeline. As White Bull relates,

The youth council of our nation took it upon themselves to set about the task of waking the world to our dream. They ran from our reservation at the center of the continent all the way to the headquarters of the colonial system, Washington D.C. They ran there to speak to the president and ask him, please don’t destroy the last place we have. Stop the black snake and start the healing of this continent.

The danger posed to future generations and to the water on which they rely is identified in a sequence of images that flit between a fiery explosion so violent as to be almost indecipherable and drone video of the pipeline right-of-way being cut into the North Dakota landscape. White Bull continues:

The dream went deeper, underground, under the earth—a fire under the earth, the oil that caused it, spread everywhere, up through the water and into the scorched skies, rising oceans, collapsing cities, millions fleeing their homes, starvation, death, and ruin.

In both the voiceover narrative and also in the sequencing of images, the film makes an emphatic connection between the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the many dangers of fossil fuel extraction and transportation, not least of which is pipeline rupture and explosion. It is here that White Bull shares the prophecy of the Black Snake and delineates the extent of the damage the pipeline will likely do:

It was foretold that it would bring death, that it would be the youth that would rise up, and that behind them the mothers would rise, and behind them our warrior would rise. We the seventh generation are given the task of defeating it. It is called the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is proposed to carry billions of gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to Illinois. To do that, it has to run underneath the Missouri River, the Mni Sose, the water source for seventeen million Americans and the only source of water for my home, the Standing Rock Nation.

The scarred land images of pipeline construction captured by the drone fade into a sun drenched aerial view of Mni Sose, its natural curves a stark contrast to the aggressive linearity of the pipeline scar. In this moment, White Bull’s voiceover defines the mission of Water Protectors:

In my dream, my friends and loved ones are sent to the last place on earth that still had clean air, clean water, unpolluted and uncontaminated. A great river ran through this center place, Mni Sose. We needed to protect the water at all costs.

Moving from dream to reality, Part I of the film recounts a standoff between Water Protectors and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department over Turtle Island, a sacred site to the Standing Rock Nation cordoned off by police in the fall of 2016.[17] White Bull’s narrative compares the scenes of violence along the banks of the river to another battle waged between Indigenous peoples and a militarized state: the Battle of the Greasy Grass, known to settlers as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. White Bull states,

We defeat fear every day. The battle raged for several days. It’s the same story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But it’s today. The police continued to abuse their authority with violence, just like the Seventh Cavalry.

At this point, interviews with Water Protectors on the front lines are intercut with historical images, rough etchings of cavalrymen attacking Indigenous people and shooting at close range.

These visions of past military violence are placed in sequence with contemporary scenes of police violence. White Bull adds, “It was as if this ancient battle was playing itself out right before my eyes. They came to our sacred burial ground we call Turtle Island. They walked upon the burial sites of our ancestors. We pleaded with them to leave.” Toward the end of Part I, we see the standoff reach a dramatic climax on Survivor’s Day, Thanksgiving. White Bull states,

On the day that we call Survivor’s Day, Thanksgiving, as Americans all sat down to their dinner table, we built a bridge, a bridge so that people could get across to Turtle Island to pray and show that we’re still here.

The police responded by shooting water and pepper spray at Water Protectors and surrounding the site with razor wire.

We are something new on the planet, but we are not

The most generative quality of Awake, clearly communicated in Part I, is the way the film addresses time. White Bull wonders, “Was this a vision of the future, present, the past? I don’t know. The Black Snake has been prophesied for generations.” Here and elsewhere, White Bull and the filmmakers draw together the broad timescales of the #NoDAPL struggle. By including historical etchings and White Bull’s rendering of the Black Snake prophecy, the film emphasizes the relationship between contemporary energy development and the over five-hundred year history of resistance to settler colonialism in the Americas.[18] White Bull also articulates the movement’s present-day relevance within a broad range of anti-pipeline actions, stating, “The Dakota Access Pipeline is not the only snake there is. There are hundreds that are being proposed to drill across the United States.” Her words are illustrated by Fox with maps of U.S. pipeline routes interspersed with scenes of pipeline explosions.[19] The veiny pipeline routes on these maps overlap to create confused webs that obscure large swaths of the North American continent. By intercutting these maps with footage of pipeline disasters, Fox makes an argument often made by pipeline opponents about leaks: it’s not if, it’s when. Pipelines will fail. Fox paints the present-day stakes of pipeline development with fire.

The film is also laser-focused on the future, which White Bull identifies as a conflict between oil and water: “The battle for the future is laid out clearly before me. On one side, greed, fear, money, violence, hate, and oil. On the other, generosity, faith, freedom, peace, and water.” Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore state this in similar terms in an article published during the encampment in 2016. They argue that the #NoDAPL struggle can be understood as a clash of two worldviews:

On one side is the unquestioned assumption that land is merely a warehouse of lifeless materials that have been given to (some of) us by God or conquest, to use without constraint. On this view, human happiness is best served by whatever economy most efficiently transforms water, soils, minerals, wild lives, and human yearning into corporate wealth. And so it is possible to love the bottom line on a quarterly report so fiercely that you will call out the National Guard to protect it. On the other side of the concrete barriers is a story that is so ancient it seems revolutionary. On this view, the land is a great and nourishing gift to all beings. The fertile soil, the fresh water, the clear air, the creatures, swift or rooted: they require gratitude and veneration. These gifts are not commodities, like scrap iron and sneakers. The land is sacred, a living breathing entity, for whom we must care, as she cares for us. And so it is possible to love land and water so fiercely you will live in a tent in a North Dakota winter to protect them.[20]

The time scales of these two worldviews are as divergent as their aims: the short-term gains of capital accumulation with its refusal to acknowledge the long-term effects of development versus a deep connectedness to the past and future that demands an account of industrial impacts.

The film’s relationship to time is summarized toward the end of Part I when White Bull states, “We are something new on the planet, but we are not. We are something very old.” Part I of Awake weaves together moving and static images of the past and present with White Bull’s narrative, which she embodied on screen in interviews and through documentation of life in the camps. Accompanied by a series of scenes of preparing food and raising tents, White Bull describes Oceti Sakowin: “We have everything we need at camp. We chop wood, carry water, attend to the sick and injured. We create art, we report to the outside world, we cook for ourselves. There’s no money, no electricity. There’s no hate, there’s no fear. There’s no starvation, there’s no homelessness.” In words and actions, White Bull actualizes the future she ardently imagines for her children.

Not only does White Bull embody the dream, but so do the thousands of people who traveled to Standing Rock in solidarity. White Bull relates, “The first days on the blockage, we asked for people to come to stand with us. It was a shot in the dark, if anybody would hear us, if anybody would care. The camp grew along the banks of the Missouri River. We called it Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires. Thousands from all over the continent and the world came to pray with us, to face the fear with love. We call ourselves Water Protectors. We are here to protect the water.” The dream the Water Protectors share is “so ancient it seems revolutionary.”[21] One of the most recognizable landmarks at Oceti Sakowin is featured in Part I of Awake and communicates the geographic scale of the response from Water Protectors: a mile-marker post with many wooden arrows pointing in all directions toward the places from which people traveled.[22] Including an image of this mile marker post in the film communicates the movement’s broad reach to outside viewers while also addressing Water Protectors who recognize it as a symbol of camp life.

Part I of Awake ends in the midst of an encounter between Water Protectors and militarized police officers on Backwater Bridge, the title of Part II. On a cold, overcast day, Water Protectors with gloved hands raised walk out toward armored cars flanked by razor wire. Giant flags flutter in the sky; a blue flag is painted like waves. White Bull intones:

I am not dreaming. I am awake. I have been woken by the spirit inside that demanded I open my eyes and see the world around me, see that my children’s future was imperiled. See that my life couldn’t wait in slumber anymore. See that I was honored to be among those who are awake, to be alive at this point in time, to see the rising of the Oceti Sakowin, to see the gathering of the nations and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths. Will you wake up and dream with us? Will you join our dream? Will you join us?

As White Bull implores the viewer to join in the dream, to wake up and face the fear of seeing things as they are, the image cuts to black.

I am not dreaming. I am awake

Through montage and voiceover, through image and narrative of past, present, and future, Part I of Awake conjures immense time scales, including the more than five hundred-year history of Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism as well as the future of Indigenous struggles against energy infrastructure. Images of Indigenous peoples, like the wet plate photograph of White Bull at the beginning of Part I, reference the iconic and damaging representations made by people like Edward S. Curtis, but do so with a difference: these images are placed in sequence with the very real, continued presence and struggle of Indigenous peoples to protect water, land, and life across time scales and across human and non-human relations. The film also examines the broad material scale of oil—the far-reaching effects of spills and other industrial disasters, including climate change, on air and water, land and bodies.

Both in the title of the film and in the language of Water Protectors like White Bull, wakefulness and dreaming are keys to understanding the #NoDAPL struggle. Whereas the drone video of the scraped earth pipeline right-of-way represents a linear, settler conception of time and the seeming inevitability of fossil fuel infrastructure, the film’s repeated use of images of water and White Bull’s clear articulation of the struggle as part of a much older one asserts an alternative notion of time, of seasonal cycles and return, of circularity and reflexivity. Awake aesthetically and aurally collapses linear time, overlapping the past, present, and future in an effort to resist the forward thrust of capitalism in the form of unchecked energy development.

Conclusion: “It was always we, the people”

This movement has always been of the people, not of any government. It was always we, the people, that were always on the ground, on the front lines. It was always the people, common people, so people have to continue that. So although our camp is burned, it has sprung up thousands of places across the globe, spurring growth as the wildfires cross the prairies. The spirit of our people cannot be conquered because we are the spirit of the water and the earth itself. Our ancestors are calling on us. We have the chance to resist and to change America, the globe, forever. So I’ll ask you once again: will you join us? Will you join our dream?[23]

During its first six months in operation, the Dakota Access pipeline spilled five times, and the Standing Rock Nation continues to mount legal challenges against Energy Transfer Partners.[24] In June of 2017, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers failed in its assessment of the pipeline’s potential impacts on the tribe. The Corps has defended its permitting process, and lawyers from the tribe and Earthjustice continue to pursue the case.[25]

The Standing Rock Nation also faces new struggles in the form of voter suppression. In 2018, the Supreme Court refused to overturn regulations in North Dakota that require voters to present identification that includes a street address. The law disproportionately affects Indigenous communities in rural counties, who often have post office boxes in the absence of physical addresses. The law was passed on the heels of the 2012 election, in which Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp won by a margin of only 3000 votes and had widespread Indigenous support.[26] In a response to the Supreme Court’s refusal published by the ACLU, Ashoka Mukpo writes,

This is an attack that must be confronted for what it is — a threat to democratic governance that will have the effect of taking away the most basic right of a large number of vulnerable voters of color.[27]

In November of 2018, North Dakota Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp was defeated by Republican candidate Kevin Cramer. Even so, voter suppression across the country was met by a number of Indigenous media initiatives in the weeks leading up to the 2018 general election. For example, Native Vote, an initiative of the National Congress of American Indians, is a non-partisan online initiative that assists with voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns alongside educating people about candidates and voting rights and collecting data on voter registration and participation.[28] In the run-up to the election, Native Vote published a number of memes and videos online in their efforts to encourage Indigenous communities to vote. Using hashtags like #EveryNativeVoteCounts, #NativeVote18, and #WeVoteWeCount, they promoted voting via social media by drawing attention to the history of Indigenous voting rights, which were not secured by law in the United States until the 1970s.[29]

Pipeline battles continue in the Dakotas. In South Dakota, which contains a portion of the Standing Rock reservation, the state legislature has passed two laws aimed at suppressing protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to run through the state.[30] The laws require pipeline companies to cover part of the cost of responding to protests and demand high fines for anyone found guilty of “riot-boosting” or promoting protest. Environmental and tribal groups have condemned the laws, particularly the way they were rushed through the state legislature with little time for public comment.[31]

The #NoDAPL trifecta of social media activism, independent journalism, and grassroots organizing continues to be leveraged against the increasingly draconian policies of the right-wing government of the state and nation. Films like Awake are critical viewing in this time where Indigenous rights and the rights of nature are endangered by the policies and practices of the U.S. government. The film makes a powerful argument to heed the call of Floris White Bull to wake from slumber and dream with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.


1. Jaskiran Dhillon and Nick Estes, “Introduction: Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, and Mni Wiconi,” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, December 22, 2016, accessed March 16, 2019, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-standing-rock-no-dapl-and-mni-wiconi. [return to page 1]

2. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.7 billion infrastructure project built by Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners. The pipeline can transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to storage facilities in Illinois and on to refineries. The first camp in opposition to the pipeline was established in April of 2016. The camps were cleared in February of 2017.

3. Energy Transfer Partners hired North Carolina-based private security firm TigerSwan to conduct multi-level surveillance of the encampment; this included digital and aerial surveillance as well as infiltration of the camps. Alleen Brown, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri, “Leaked Documents Reveal Counterterrorism Tactics Used at Standing Rock to ‘Defeat Pipeline Insurgencies.’” The Intercept, May 27, 2017, accessed March 16, 2019, http://www.theintercept.com/2017/

4. For an overview of the relationship between the Lakota and the U.S. government, see Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019).

5. Jaskiran Dhillon, “Introduction: Indigenous Resurgence, Decolonization, and Movements for Environmental Justice,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9 (2018), 1.

6. While this essay focuses on media representation, the importance of independent journalism at Standing Rock and the way movement organizers connected with media makers to combat mass media narratives cannot be overstated.

7. President Trump’s January 24, 2017, Executive Order directed the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the review and approval process for the easement under Lake Oahe (the disputed section of the pipeline that crosses Mni Sose near where Water Protectors set up camps). Within two weeks of Trump’s order, Energy Transfer Partners had begun construction once more. For a timeline of the policy and legal milestones in the #NoDAPL struggle, see Rebecca Hersher, “Key Moments in the Dakota Access Pipeline Fight,” The Two-Way, NPR.com (February 22, 2017), accessed April 7, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/22/514988040/key-moments-in-the-dakota-access-pipeline-fight.

8. Josh Fox is an environmentalist and documentary filmmaker. Prior to co-directing Awake, he wrote, directed, and starred in How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (2016), though he is more widely known for his Oscar-nominated documentary film Gasland (2010), which addresses the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

9. Janet Walker, “Standing with Standing Rock: Media, Mapping, and Survivance,” Media Fields 13 (February 2018).

10. Nick Estes, Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (film review), Environmental History 23.2 (April 2018): 383–386.

11. For a critique of the mainstream environmental movement as a largely white and middle class concern that fails to address issues of social justice and the disproportionate effects of environmental degradation on communities of color, see the field-defining environmental justice scholarship of Robert D. Bullard, in particular Dumping in Dixie: Race Class and Environmental Quality, 3rd edition (New York: Routledge, 2000). For a deeper history of environmental justice that accounts for settler colonialism, see Estes’ Our History Is the Future.

12. The wet plate collodion photograph of Floris White Bull was taken by Shane Balkowitsch at Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio in Bismarck, North Dakota. Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio online portfolio, accessed March 14, 2019, https://nostalgicglasswetplatestudio.zenfolio.com/blog/2018/5/floris-white-bull.

13. Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian (1907). Taschen published Curtis’ complete portfolios in 1997. The Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan staged a critical reappraisal of Curtis’ work in 2017, and while the museum’s website does not host a page about the exhibit, it was reviewed and photographed by Sarah Rose Sharp for Hyperallergic on June 22, 2017, accessed March 14, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/383706/a-critical-

14. In the twenty-first century, the fist has become an incredibly fluid symbol, showing up in contexts as varied as Occupy Wall Street, corporate advertising, conservative political movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, music marketing, and the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

15. As White Bull states in her voiceover in Part I, “We are here to serve. We face death on the front lines. We will not be violent. We will not fight back in that way. We will not feed into the negativity. We won’t give that negativity life; we will not give it our life.”

16. The Standing Rock Youth Council became the International Indigenous Youth Council. As it states on their website, “The International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC) was started and led by womxn and two-spirit peoples during the Standing Rock Indigenous Uprising of 2016 while peacefully protecting the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” accessed March 16, 2019, https://indigenousyouth.org/about. [return to page 2]

17. The moments of Part I that do not contain White Bull’s voiceover are shot in a journalistic style and include short interviews with Water Protectors and observational filming of actions at and near the camps.

18. For a history of Indigenous resistance to U.S. settler colonialism and expansionism, see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (New York: Beacon, 2014). For a consideration of contemporary Indigenous resource struggles, see Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

19. For example, the film includes news footage of the the Kalamazoo River oil spill of 2010 in Michigan, where an Enbridge pipeline burst and dumped bitumen into the river. The Kalamazoo spill remains one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.

20. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore, “The white horse and the humvees—Standing Rock is offering us a choice,” Nation of Change, November 7, 2016, accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.nationofchange.org/

21. Kimmerer and Moore.

22. This signpost has been added to an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” The exhibition runs from 2014 to 2021. National Museum of the American Indian Website, accessed March 16, 2019. https://americanindian.si.edu/.

23. Floris White Bull, from the Coda to Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock(2017).

24. “Dakota Access Pipeline Leaks Start to Add Up,” The Takeaway, WNYC Studios, January 11, 2018, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.wnycstudios.

25. “Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Renews Legal Challenge Against DAPL,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Website, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.standingrock.org/content/standing-rock-sioux-tribe-renews-legal-challenge-against-dapl.

26. Eric Bradner, “A voter ID decision could impact Native Americans – and the Senate race – in North Dakota,” CNN, October 12, 2018, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/12/politics/north-dakota-voter-

27. Ashoka Mukpo, “Supreme Court Enables Mass Disenfranchisement of North Dakota’s Native Americans,” ACLU website, October 12, 2018, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/blog/voting-rights/supreme-court-

28. Native Vote website, accessed March 16, 2019, http://www.nativevote.org/.

29. Native Vote Facebook page, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/pg/nativevote/posts/. “Every Native Vote Counts”video, YouTube, September 25, 2019, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Li2pH_0LdeU&feature

30. James Nord, “South Dakota passes law to discourage Keystone XL pipeline protests,” APNews, March 7, 2019, accessed March 16, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/198de2dc96094036b2941f72df0e6cb9

31. North Dakota State Senator Troy Heinert believes the laws will be challenged in the courts. James Nord, “South Dakota passes law to discourage Keystone XL pipeline protests,” Washington Post, March 7, 2019.

Works cited

Balkowitsch, Shane. Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio (Bismarck, North Dakota) Online Portfolio. Accessed March 14, 2019. https://nostalgicglasswetplatestudio.zenfolio.com/blog/2018/5/floris-white-bull.

Bradner, Eric. 2018. “A voter ID decision could impact Native Americans—and the Senate race —in North Dakota.” CNN. October 12, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/12/politics/north-dakota-voter-id-native-americans/.

Brown, Alleen, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri. 2017. “Leaked Documents Reveal Counterterrorism Tactics Used at Standing Rock to ‘Defeat Pipeline Insurgencies.’” The Intercept, May 27, 2017. http://theintercept.com/2017/05/27/leaked-documents-reveal-security-firms-counterterrorism-tactics-at-standing-rock-to-defeat-pipeline-insurgencies/.

Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.

Curtis, Edward. 1997. The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios. Cologne, Germany: Taschen.

“Dakota Access Pipeline Leaks Start to Add Up.” 2018. The Takeaway. WNYC Studios. January 11, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/across-country-smaller-pipeline-leaks-start-add.

Dhillon, Jaskiran. 2018. “Introduction: Indigenous Resurgence, Decolonization, and Movements for Environmental Justice,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9.

Dhillon, Jaskiran, and Nick Estes. 2016. “Introduction: Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, and Mni Wiconi.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights. December 22. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-standing-rock-no-dapl-and-mni-wiconi.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. New York: Beacon.

Estes, Nick. 2018. Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (film review). Environmental History 23.2 (April 2018): 383–386.

Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. New York: Verso.

Hersher, Rebecca. “Key Moments in the Dakota Access Pipeline Fight.” The Two-Way. NPR.com. February 22, 2017. Accessed April 7, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/22/514988040/key-moments-in-the-Dakota-access-pipeline-fight.

International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC) Website. Accessed March 16, 2019.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall and Kathleen Dean Moore. 2016. “The white horse and the humvees—Standing Rock is offering us a choice.” Nation of Change. November 7, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.nationofchange.org/2016/11/07/white-horse-humvees-standing-rock-offering-us-choice/.

Mukpo, Ashoka. “Supreme Court Enables Mass Disenfranchisement of North Dakota’s Native Americans.” ACLU Blog. October 12, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2019. http://aclu.org/blog/voting-rights/supreme-court-enables-mass-disenfranchisement-north-dakotas-native americans/.

“Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and Native American Nations.” National Museum of the American Indian Website. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://americanindian.si.edu/.

Native Vote. 2018. “Every Native Vote Counts” Video. YouTube. September 25, 2019. Accessed March 16, 2019.

Native Vote Facebook Page. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/pg/nativevote/posts/.

Native Vote Website. Accessed March 16, 2019. http://www.nativevote.org/.

Nord, James. 2019. “South Dakota passes law to discourage Keystone XL pipeline protests.” APNews. March 7, 2019. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.apnews.com/198de2dc96094036b2941f72df0e6cb9

Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio Online Portfolio. 2018. Accessed March 14, 2019.

Sharp, Sarah Rose. 2017. “A Critical Understanding of Edward Curtis’s Photos of Native American Culture.” Hyperallergic. June 22, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2019. http://hyperallergic.com/383706/a-critical-understanding-of-edward-curtiss-photos-of-native-american-culture/.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

“Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Renews Legal Challenge Against DAPL.” 2019. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Website. Accessed March 16, 2019. https://www.standingrock.org/content/standing-rock-sioux-tribe-renews-legal-challenge-against-dapl.

Walker, Janet. 2018. “Standing with Standing Rock: Media, Mapping, and Survivance.” Media Fields 13 (February 2018).

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