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

by Emily Roehl

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.”

Sunset view of Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the Water Protector camps.

Close-ups of plants.
Close-ups of plants. Still from a timelapse video of the night sky.

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.”

Fog from tear gas and weaponized water hangs in the air over Water Protectors on November 20, 2016. Hazy view of Water Protectors huddled together on November 20, 2016

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.

Oil pumpjack. The cooling towers of a nuclear reactor.
Mobile homes washed away by flood waters. Flares at a refinery.