On Thursday, the effort to stave off the pipeline at Standing Rock came to an end with more than 40 arrests and a smattering of burning campsites, small blazes started by holdouts. Impending spring floods and the warnings of the authorities–recently empowered by a decision, backed by President Trump, to let the pipeline continue–had even led the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Dave Archambault II, to urge protesters to leave. By Friday, a remote patch of prairie that had drawn global attention and thousands of supporters was empty of people, a wasteland of months of camping equipment and abandoned cars.
The movement isn’t finished, however. A lawsuit by the tribe could still block the operation of the pipeline across the Missouri River on grounds that it would imperil the reservation’s drinking water. Meanwhile, disinvestment campaigns are afoot: This month, the Seattle City Council voted to not renew its contract with Wells Fargo, which is helping to fund the 1,172-mile project; the city of Davis, California, also decided to withdraw its funds from the bank, and other local governments are being pressed to follow suit.
Whether or not the oil flows, as the filmmakers Matt Peterson, Malek Rasamny, and Vanessa Teran document, some of the “water protectors” who stayed through the frigid winter are determined to extend the energy and the lessons of Standing Rock to a broader civil rights movement. Their film, Indian Winter, mostly shot in late November and early December, shows the rough and waning–but still hopeful–days of an already historic campground.
For the online premiere of the film, the three filmmakers wrote an essay about their experience and what’s next for the moment. Read it below:
The movement of water protectors that has been occupying treaty lands in North Dakota demonstrated that for the Great Sioux Nation–as well as the many native and non-native allies that joined them–struggles for the environment, autonomy, and a new way of life cannot be restricted to reservation boundaries.
Since the summer, territories like the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Morton County, and North Dakota were challenged by the circulation of tens of thousands of people gathering to confront the decimation of their sovereignty and decision-making. These people–as we saw during the weeks we spent at the camps from September to December–came to defend the rights of the water, the rights of the land, and the rights of the seven council fires of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota peoples, or Oceti Sakowin.
The eviction this week was not really a defeat: the movement demanded and inspired a shift towards multi-generational thinking about the environment, and the promotion of a native-led perspective to stave off the pipeline and other extractive projects. From the National Guard’s barricades on Highway 1806 to President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the United States-Mexico border, many communities will need to come together to challenge the political and financial agreements and imperatives that seek to limit the circulation of people and their access to territories, resources, and the associated histories and spiritual meanings.
Standing Rock has been the high-point of struggle in the last decades in the United States, following most recently Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. What made Standing Rock distinct was a historical context of both war and prayer, a continuation of the Indian Wars of the 19th century defending tribal sovereignty and a way of life as being one and the same. The Standing Rock movement made clear that the question of the Dakota Access Pipeline is not just a political or administrative issue, but a core metaphysical question about the unseen price paid to maintain certain forms of life at the expense of others.
Grappling with that question called for an unprecedented kind of political organization, and demanded inward reflection too. As native activist Kanahus Manuel put it, “there’s going to be another pipeline here, and another mine here and another this there. And as indigenous people we have to start collectively organizing on mass scales like this to be able to address these big issues. This is our infancy stage right here.”
The movement at Standing Rock has to be juxtaposed with the social and economic conditions of the surrounding Lakota reservations: Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and others. That is to say one must understand the spiritual condition from which the forward guard of Standing Rock was drawn–the forced condition of passivity and victimhood, surviving with economic rations from the federal government for food, gas, etc. Many natives throughout the United States have become permanently unemployed, structurally outside of the job market, and therefore external to the base expectations of what living a life means today. In that context, Standing Rock became an opportunity for people to recreate a life and community not simply in resistance to the construction of a pipeline, but to a whole architecture of an imposed economy of time, subsistence, and human relation.
As we try to capture in our film, Standing Rock offers the blueprint for a new community–one that’s rooted to a specific territory through the indigenous of that land, and open to all committed to the protection of that space.