STANDING ROCK, ND?—?A circle had formed around a long table at the top of Media Hill, the gentle perch where wireless communication thrives in the mostly digitally challenged Oceti Sakowin Camp. Seated at the table before a crowd of cameras and microphones were various activists and tribal leaders. A press conference was underway. It was streaming on Facebook LIVE. The gathering of media at such an international scale represented one of the most organized events like it since the movement here began.
“Thank you for seeing us,” said Eryn Wise. “A lot of people don’t.” The Jicarilla-Apache/Laguna Pueblo water protector was among five panelists addressing dozens of members of the media on Saturday, November 26. The group included a smattering of advocacy bloggers, freelance journalists, and staff reporters with such elite publications as Vogue and The Washington Post. The day before, Wise was posting Facebook LIVE events from the encampment on behalf of The New York Times.
Since April, when the movement to try and stop construction of the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline began, media presence at Standing Rock has mostly consisted of activists with cell phones streaming Facebook testimonies to their friends and followers.
Their voices have helped galvanize the movement, and on Sunday, November 20, it shined an essential light on what brand-name media has mostly ignored: mounting tension, a violent and militarized police force, and prayer actions by demonstrators who insist they are unarmed.
On the night of the 20th about 400 demonstrators were hosed down with water in sub-freezing temperatures by Morton County Sheriffs deputies. Water protectors on the front lines opposite police say concussion grenades were also used. During the stand-off, which lasted for as long as six hours, major media attention was starkly absent. Instead, Facebook LIVE feeds broadcasted the unfolding drama, where at one point a quarter-million people had tuned in to watch what has largely been described by many as warfare.
The day’s mass gathering on Media Hill suddenly represented a critical new shift in the anti-pipeline occupation: exposure.
“It’s been overnight that it’s come to this,” said Dave Archambault II. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman has grown a mustache and a light goatee. On this day, he also wore a baseball hat?; an altogether different look from the suit-wearing persona Archambault presented during his October media-blitz in New York.
“We’re not violating any laws,” said Archambault. That message was among his primary points to address at the press event. In less than a month, the struggle at Standing Rock has intensified, in large part, under a media blackout.
Three weeks ago, on October 27, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department along with a coalition of out-of-state deputies and soldiers with the North Dakota National Guard performed a militarized sweep on water protectors at the 1851 Treaty Camp north of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Since then, dramatic clashes with police have evolved into a routine theater of arrests—more than 520 since August—along with police shooting water protectors with rubber bullets, tear-gas, mace, and ironically, water, the very resource that the activists have vowed to defend.
The Missouri River remains the primary focus of the growing movement. The ribbon of water is the tribe’s primary supply along with millions of others downstream. The tribe worries the pipeline will rupture eventually and contaminate the river. Energy Transfer Partners, operator of the pipeline, has refuted these claims, saying they are unfounded.
On this day, the press conference focused conversation on Friday’s eviction notice issued by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The federal agency was rescinding its permit to the thousands camped out at the Oceti Sakowin camps. As of Saturday, there’s believed to be as many as 10,000 people living in the community of teepees, RV’s and winterized tents and yurts.
“Suggested forced removal and state oppression; this is nothing new to Native peoples,” said Dallas Goldtooth, a lead organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network.
“This is where our people have been for thousands of years,” added Nick Tilson, another movement organizer with the Indigenous Peoples Power Project. “We’re not going to move unless it’s on our own terms ‘cause this is our Treaty land…pure love for our land; pure love for our people. And so there’s no place for fear.”
The messages conveyed at the top of Media Hill on Saturday were a deliberate attempt to craft a narrative that has been covered, in large part, by smaller publications for months, including Indian Country Today. It was also a direct attempt to dispel a storyline repeatedly crafted by Morton County, that some of the water protectors are violent criminals.
“While the violent faction within the protest group is a minority, it is a real threat to law enforcement,” read a statement released on Saturday by Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz.
“The hostile actions law enforcement have endured include being shot at, having molotov cocktails, rocks, sticks, bottles, cans, and feces thrown at them, having buffalo stampeded at them, being spit on, and being verbally assaulted,” the statement read.
In the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline, fought on the ground and in the courts, it’s also been one waged by all sides—?the tribal nation, the police, the energy companies, and the government?—in the court of public opinion.
As time turns towards the transition of power in the United States, the focus now has become one focused on federal involvement. Morton County has called on U.S. Marshals to assist in the encampment eviction on Army Corps land. Water protectors continue to repeat calls for President Obama to intervene.
“President Obama, when you came here [in 2014] you promised you would protect tribal sovereignty and spiritual belief,” said Thomas Lopez, Jr. a Standing Rock tribal member and organizer with the International Indigenous Youth Council.
“You promised you would protect our sacred way of life. And here we are protecting that sacred way of life. And where are you?”
“You are in silence.”
Silence has mostly veiled this historic moment at Standing Rock. Whether elite media remains interested in the struggle could determine its outcome.