Memories of Thanksgiving at Standing Rock

T his holiday brings back painful memories. One year ago, I witnessed a militarized assault on peaceful protestors at Standing Rock. Unarmed Native and non-Native people were sprayed with high-pressure water hoses in below freezing temperatures, shot with rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash grenades. There were sound cannons and low-flying surveillance aircraft. It was a war zone.

Earlier that November evening, in my room at the Standing Rock casino hotel, Prairie Knights, a text alerted me to an incident at Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806, walking-distance north of the Oceti Sakowin camp.  I grabbed my video camera and ran to my vehicle.  At the end of October, the state had blockaded the highway with concrete barriers, on the north side of the short bridge that crossed over a small wetland. It was a pitch black and cold night. I pulled over at a safe distance and walked towards the bridge.

Clouds of tear gas framed the protestors silhouetted by huge lights on the other side of the blockade. An enormous vehicle methodically sprayed the crowd with water, in below freezing temperatures. Humvees crouched behind a wall of coiled razor wire. Rows of police in full military gear and helmets emerged from the darkness as I got closer. A drum group sang prayer songs. I filmed for a while, then stopped to help. Medics were trying to get the injured back to camp, where ambulances were waiting.  Over 300 were injured that night. In addition to severe hypothermia cases, many were seriously wounded by rubber bullets, one young woman lost her eye and another lost the use of her arm to flash grenades.

Ever since the militarized opposition to the protest had escalated in October, I often thought to myself: “We are the Iraqis.” I was constantly flashing back to occupied Iraq where I had witnessed the sights and sounds of war; ubiquitous low-flying helicopters and small surveillance planes, military vehicles and police everywhere, concrete barriers and razor wire, spotlights, checkpoints.

The first time I visited Standing Rock was in December 2002, a few months before I went to Iraq as a photographer for Time Inc., embedded with the U.S. Army during the 2003 invasion.  Every December 15th, on the anniversary of the assassination of Sitting Bull, riders on horseback and supporters in vehicles follow the journey that his and Chief Bigfoot’s people undertook on foot to seek refuge in the Black Hills, during the brutal winter of 1890. The prayer ride, which takes almost two weeks, culminates in a ceremony at the mass grave of those were massacred at Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  It was an honor to be invited.

The Standing Rock reservation straddles the border of North and South Dakota. In both these states, formerly known as Dakota Territory, the history of colonial westward expansion is palpable today.  General George Armstrong Custer lived in Mandan, North Dakota, 36 miles north of Oceti Sakowin camp, until his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass) in 1876. Many believe that the Wounded Knee massacre by his seventh Cavalry was in revenge for their defeat and his death at Little Bighorn.  While Congress sort of apologized for the massacre in 1990, expressing “deep regret”, 20 Medals of Honor awarded for “gallantry in action and other soldierlike qualities” to soldiers who surrounded and massacred a peaceful camp of men, women, children have never been rescinded. 250 Indians were killed that day, including Chief Bigfoot.

The sting of the seventh Cavalry defeat at Little Bighorn is still felt today.  Racism runs deep in the Dakotas.  Call it the Deep North.  The Morton County sheriff, based in Mandan, who headed the resistance to the protest, was often compared to Bull Connor.  Many descendants of the victors at Little Bighorn, and victims and survivors of Wounded Knee, were among the protestors (who prefer the term “water protectors”). The descendants of the defeated were not going to let the Indians win again.

During that Thanksgiving week, there were about 10,000 people staying at the camp. Jane Fonda hosted a dinner for the Standing Rock community at Ft. Yates, the main town on the reservation, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council meets.  I never made it to the dinner, but I heard that she brought organic turkeys.

Instead, I was filming a protest at Turtle Island, a small hill surrounded by water, crowned with an ancestral graveyard.  Energy Transfer Partners/DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) was planning to run the pipeline through the graveyard.  A large group assembled, determined to honor the ancestors who were buried there.  They managed to cross the water in canoes and on a makeshift bridge.  While the graves are now empty, it is still sacred ground. Police behind a wall of barbed wire on top of the hill shouted threats with bullhorns and sprayed water, but no one was injured. During the night police destroyed all the canoes.

Reader, you may have guessed that I’m making a film. I first arrived at Standing Rock at the end of the first week of September, to document a situation that had quickly escalated when DAPL bulldozed a sacred and treaty-protected area over Labor Day weekend.  Their private security guards set dogs on the Indians who objected.  Mainstream media, apart from Amy Goodman at Democracy Now, was pretty much ignoring the story.

I was there for a week, and returned twice in October, between crisscrossing the country to accompany my previous film “The Good Mind” to film festivals.  On November 4th, I came back and stayed until December 16th.  During that trip, I committed to making a film. In February, I spent two weeks there, and documented the evacuation of Oceti Sakowin camp.  The militarized opposition to an unarmed peaceful protest on behalf of clean water and treaty rights, which included law enforcement from seven states, may have been a canary in the proverbial coalmine for what’s coming.

History was always on my mind. The film, titled “We Are Unarmed”, follows three indigenous women who played significant roles, and provides historical and political context to what happened at Standing Rock.  For the most part, mainstream media overlooked the historical context, and so it was not part of the national discourse. In the same way that Thanksgiving, designated as a holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, doesn’t celebrate a historical reality, the American myth of western expansion ignores broken treaties and genocide.  At Standing Rock, the pipeline was laid in unceded 1851 and 1868 treaty territory. Treaties are the supreme law of the land, per the Constitution, so this was in fact unconstitutional.  At a time that the U.S. Constitution has perhaps never been more fragile, we must study the past to understand the present, and to protect our future.