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Art, celebrity and how Standing Rock will shape protest in the Trump years

A man arrives at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Cannon Ball, N.D., in September. The Standing Rock protest drew indigenous people from all over the continent. (Doug McLean)
A man arrives at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Cannon Ball, N.D., in September. The Standing Rock protest drew indigenous people from all over the continent. (Doug McLean)

EARLY IN APRIL, a time when the frigid North Dakota plain is still quilted with snow, several dozen Native American men and women set out on horseback for a 25-mile ceremonial ride from the Standing Rock Sioux tribal headquarters in Fort Yates to the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers.

There they set up a small encampment of tepees on a site known by Native Americans as Sacred Stone. The camp was a protest against an encroaching crude oil channel, the Dakota Access pipeline, whose placement underneath the Missouri River threatened a key waterway and Sioux burial grounds.

At that moment, it might have strained the imagination to believe that nine months later, the camp would not only still be active but that it also would have become a full-fledged cultural touchstone.

A protest camp at Standing Rock dusted in snow. (Doug McLean)
A protest camp at Standing Rock dusted in snow. (Doug McLean)

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Standing Rock has galvanized thousands of Native people from all over the continent — along with thousands of non-Native supporters. It has introduced phrases such as “mni wiconi” (Lakota for “water is life”) into the popular parlance. And it succeeded, at least for the short term, in its mission — to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to block a permit for the pipeline.

No matter what ultimately happens with the pipeline, Standing Rock has also demonstrated the vital role of culture in protest and the direction that protest might take in the future over other issues.

At its core, the Standing Rock protest has been a Native American one, with Native iconography, language, ritual and architecture. But beyond Native communities, it’s also a cultural encounter that has provided fresh ways of thinking about everything from the contours of the landscape to the nature of protest.

Standing Rock, says Nato Thompson, artistic director at the New York-based arts nonprofit Creative Time, “represents an important kind of learning curve.”

Recent social movements in the U.S., such as the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s and the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011, championed issues of economic inequity that are still part of the national conversation. But these movements were far less adept at contending with the ethnic and racial issues that intersected with that concern.

Coming on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, Standing Rock has been different, says Thompson. “There was a profound wrestling with race and culture as it applies to class,” he says.

And that could inform the types of protest actions we see in the coming months and years.

“The dominant social movement is going to be a pushback against the [Donald] Trump administration,” Thompson says. “It will be extremely galvanizing across a broad spectrum. So I think the issues of Standing Rock — centered around prayer, around humility, around landedness — could be part of a larger movement across America.”

Since summer, a cross-section of cultural figures, from painters to photographers to musicians to actors, have been involved in Standing Rock — as activists, supporters and artists.

Artist Guadalupe Rosales, known for creating the Chicano youth archive “Veteranas and Rucas” (currently on view at Los Angeles’ Vincent Price Art Museum), ferried winter supplies to North Dakota in her truck. Melissa Govea, of the Los Angeles collective Ni Santas, helped fabricate protest signs at an art tent in one of the camps. The punk/hip-hop L.A. band Aztlan Underground played a concert at the Red Warrior camp over Thanksgiving as a way of lifting morale.

Shailene Woodley is arrested by a Morton County sheriff's deputy near St. Anthony, N.D., in October. (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)
Shailene Woodley is arrested by a Morton County sheriff's deputy near St. Anthony, N.D., in October. (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)

Actress Shailene Woodley has supported Standing Rock since August, through public appearances and by making a number of trips to the area to participate in some of the actions. In October, Woodley made headlines when she was arrested with more than two dozen other people during an attempt to blockade the pipeline route. This was the moment many beyond the Native and protest communities first became aware of Standing Rock.

Artists in the U.S. can play a marginal role in political life, so their gestures are often treated sensationally or skeptically by the press. (Sample headline: “Shailene Woodley Knows She’s Not Saving the World.”) But this type of involvement is hardly new.

Actress Jane Fonda, who has a lifetime of activism under her belt, has publicly supported the #defundDAPL (Defund the Dakota Access pipeline) cause on social media, has donated shelters and bison meat to camp kitchens and flew to North Dakota in late November to help serve Thanksgiving meals. In December, she withdrew her funds from Wells Fargo as an expression of public protest, since the bank has invested in the pipeline project.

“Throughout history, actors have stood up to power,” Fonda told The Times at a December Standing Rock event held at the Depart Foundation, an arts space in West Hollywood. “Artists in general, through their writing, through their plays, through their acting, through their art — it’s very natural for artists to be standing with Standing Rock.”

Protestors hold the mirrored shields devised by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation. (UnKnown Collective / Cannupa Hanska Luger)
Protestors hold the mirrored shields devised by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation. (UnKnown Collective / Cannupa Hanska Luger)

At its core, the Standing Rock protest has been a Native American one, with Native iconography, language, ritual and architecture. 

More significantly, artists of all races and ethnicities were on hand to take part in an unprecedented cultural event — a large gathering of Native Americans that required non-Natives to adapt to the Native way of doing things.

“It’s a whole different reality out there,” says Andrea Bowers, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work has explored issues of solidarity and protest. “It’s a different set of rules. It’s based on Native prayer and spirituality, and there’s a different hierarchy of power, so it’s necessary to just step back and be in service.”

Susanna Battin, another Los Angeles-based artist, whose work often engages issues of water and landscape, had a similar experience during her November visit.

“The media coverage has been about the conflict and confrontation,” she says. “But this was a historic cultural moment — the collaboration, the listening, the breaking down of colonial misconceptions, the style of leadership that we in middle class white America just haven’t experienced.”

Outsiders, in fact, were given an information packet that outlined the ground rules when they arrived. Among these: “Follow indigenous leadership,” “understand this moment in the context of settler colonialism,” “never attend a ceremony without being expressly invited.”

“This is our culture,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger, a New Mexico-based artist who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation and has participated in the protests since they began. “This is why we say this is not a protest, why we are ‘water protectors.’ We’re not just in protest of a pipeline. What we are trying to do is maintain a cultural practice.

“Our original bible, that comes down from on high, it is the land. We tell stories about magical characters that are bound to the landscape. Why is that stone red? There is a story. So where everyone else sees a pipeline and ‘progress,’ what we see is someone going through our bible and editing things without any care, ripping a line straight through that story.”

The Native-focused culture of Standing Rock is part of what drew hundreds of indigenous people from all over.

“That was the motivator for me to go,” says Raven Chacon, an Albuquerque-based artist who is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation — and part of the contemporary arts collective Postcommodity. “What you saw was truly a global community, but with the majority of them being American Indian people. That was something I’d never seen in my life.”

Standing Rock has been transformative for non-Natives too.

Doug McLean is a longtime environmental activist and photographer who went to Standing Rock on numerous occasions in the summer and fall.

“When I worked at Greenpeace,” he says, “there was the concept that it was founded on which was the Quaker principle of bearing witness. The best journalists and the best artists are the ones who get the most out of the way and are simply a lens.”

Bearing witness is exactly what many of the artists at Standing Rock have done — and it is already filtering into their work.

Luger created dozens of mirrored shields from Masonite and reflective vinyl that were as much protective devices for frontline protestors as they were bright works of sculpture. Bowers took pictures around camp; Battin, of the industrial pipeline architecture penetrating agricultural fields. Chacon, who was inspired by Standing Rock’s sonic qualities, recorded audio of one of the prayer-filled actions.

Artists and healers gather before a pop-up wellness center at the Red Warrior Camp at Standing Rock. (Joel Garcia)
Artists and healers gather before a pop-up wellness center at the Red Warrior Camp at Standing Rock. (Joel Garcia)

“What you saw was truly a global community, but with the majority of them being American Indian people. That was something I’d never seen in my life.”

Raven Chacon, artist

“All of the women in the camp walked onto the bridge, which has been a site of contention,” he says. “About a thousand women walked up there in complete silence. So I was able to capture the sound of a thousand people being completely silent. The only sound you could hear was drones. It was surreal.”

How exactly some of these elements will work their way into art, and, ultimately, the larger culture, remains to be seen. But as with Occupy, which helped inspire a wave of artist-activist movements, some of which are still active, Standing Rock is set to have a cultural butterfly effect.

Molly Larkey is a Los Angeles sculptor who went to Standing Rock over Thanksgiving weekend. During her journey, she collaborated with photographer Jen Rosenstein to create a record of the myriad individuals who attended the protest.

“I’m really interested in that what Standing Rock did was show how things can be different, how culture could be different,” she says. “I’m really interested in how we organize our money, how we can create different kinds of economies.

“It can be things that happen in small ways too. How we relate to each other, for example. At camp, you were encouraged to slow down, be receptive, listen. It reminded you how important those things are.”

“I don’t know anyone whose life wasn’t changed by being there,” says Joel Garcia, co-director of the Boyle Heights arts nonprofit Self-Help Graphics, who traveled to Standing Rock over Thanksgiving with a group of Chicano artists, many of whom observe indigenous traditions as part of their Mexican heritage. “It recalibrates things for sure.”

Bowers, who was at Standing Rock when a group of U.S. military veterans arrived in support of the protest, was moved by the nature of group dynamics motivated by respect.

“To see Native and white vets get into arguments, then have them talk it out, and in the end, I’d see them hug each other — saying, ‘You’re here, you are family now,’ ” she says. “It’s not the way we do things. This was a respect to culture and the process embodied that — everything embodied that.”

The Oceti Sakowin camp at dusk. (Doug McLean)
The Oceti Sakowin camp at dusk. (Doug McLean)

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