Photo Essay by
Half a million barrels of oil now flow through a pipeline that passes close by the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. For the Indigenous people who live there, and the thousands of protesters who spent months there through 2016, it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Throughout the year, protesters occupied a piece of land where the Dakota Access Pipeline was to traverse. They were determined to stop its construction, saying the land was sacred and would be at risk of environmental catastrophe if the pipeline were to ever leak.
By November, the protest had become a sprawling camp featuring semi-permanent structures, security gates, even a tent staffed with legal representatives doling out advice in case of arrest.
The protesters were under constant threat of police raiding the camp. Many feared they could be rounded up by the authorities at any moment.
Photojournalist Nick Kozak had heard much about the protest in the media, and was curious to know more about the people who were participating. He decided to go to North Dakota and spend two weeks at the camp, meet the people for himself, and document what was happening.
After Kozak left, protesters celebrated a partial victory. On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers denied permission to let construction of the pipeline go ahead, although that was not the last word.
Then on February 7, recently elected president Donald Trump gave the final go ahead, and Energy Transfer Partners built the pipeline in the months that followed.
Despite failing to stop its construction, many hoped the protests would force changes to the way American native tribes are consulted when it comes to projects that affect their land, water, and air. Whether that will happen is still not clear.
In the following pages, Kozak shares his experiences in his own words and images.
The entrance to the camp was constantly monitored by people at the gates. They called themselves security. I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, so I didn’t have real issues, but even I had to back off and be like, “Okay, all right. Sorry.” They were power-happy, a little trigger-happy as well, so to speak. It depended so much on who you were talking to, what their mood was. You had to factor in that there were a lot of tired, hungry, cold people. There was an airplane circling all the time and chatter about the authorities — I don’t believe it to this day — releasing some sort of chemical on the camp. They created noise just to keep us up. Some of it, I think, was true, and other parts I don’t necessarily think were.
I wanted to capture the daily life, the uniqueness of outsiders coming together for this one cause. I wanted to capture the Indigenous aspect, although that was the hardest thing, because I was consistently told, “You can’t photograph this, you can’t photograph that.” You had to prove your intentions before I could get to that point and you had to ask at each and every step. I wanted to get into these stories and understand who was there and why.
I befriended the guy who lived in that little school bus with its solar panel and wood-burning stove. He was there for months and he shared his experience to that point. Whenever there are discussions about oil, climate change, and the environment, I think back to Standing Rock and think, that’s what it takes to create even a blip on the radar. How are we going to conquer this challenge? We can’t event stop one pipeline. While I was there, someone showed me a map; there’s something like two million miles of pipeline in the States.
The standoffs were tense, people tried to literally voice their thoughts against the authorities. There was that day — it was super snowy — where the vets came out in droves to stand with the protestors. The camp was like a constantly changing, adapting organism. In so many ways, it was chaotic, but in many ways it was organized. The authorities called it an illegal occupation because it was, technically. It was the Army Corps of Engineers’ land right next to the Standing Rock reserve. Yet the tribe was happy to have these people there because they were against the pipeline going under their river. There were a lot of disagreements throughout the encampment and discussion about how it played into the actual residents at Standing Rock. They questioned whether they felt all of these outsiders, including myself, were respecting their wishes. Were their messages even being heard?
There was no sense that the cops were in any way there to preserve our safety. There was the feeling that if shit goes awry, you better run because they are there to arrest you. That threat was ever present and you felt that this could happen at any moment. Some people wanted to get arrested just to make a point, but the financial costs and headaches that follow really suck. There were rumours popping up on a regular basis; “Oh, they’re coming in, they’re going to raid.” That messes with your psyche.
I learned this term ‘wearing black,’ for people who were ready to die there. It came up on a regular basis.
I came across many incredibly focused people who had been there for weeks and months. They were completely, 110% committed. I learned this term “wearing black,” for people who were ready to die there. It came up on a regular basis. I think there were a lot of transients, people not coming from stable jobs in cities, to come live there for three, or five, or seven months. There were people already on these long-term voyages. Some individuals I met actually went from protest to protest. Protest is probably an understatement; it’s not a very strong word to describe these movements.
I had an exchange with a member of the Fort Albany First Nation community, a place I’ve been going for a few years as part of my own documentary work, which is mostly focused on youth, their residential school, St. Anne’s, and learning about intergenerational trauma and how individuals are coping. This guy, Stephen Joseph, said to me on Facebook, “Go there. You need to go if you can.” He said something along the lines of, “Be the eyes and ears for us.” Many First Nations people felt a connection to this event, even though it was halfway around the continent. They felt a connection to the fight for its Indigenous, anti-colonial aspect.
It was touching to see the veterans show up. They truly were there in support. These were individuals that not so long ago were defending the state and the powers that be, and here they were saying, “This is wrong. You have to respect these people and their tribe. They don’t want this, they never agreed to this, and here you are ready to fire at them.” Whichever way you looked at the situation, it was shocking to see the authorities’ readiness to attack. Who’s to say who should be on the land? The oil company never received permission from the tribe to go under the river.
No one was getting paid, as far as I understood; they were doing things because they had to and they felt compelled to participate. People were coming from all over the country; a lot of interesting people. I saw so many of them sleep outdoors in minus 15 degrees and just get up and go about doing their thing.
I reflected upon it after and thought, “This is monumental.” Whether you look at it from an environmental angle or an Indigenous angle, a North American angle. Trump had just been elected. And yet here you had this standoff, that unfortunately, as predicted, the companies involved were probably going to get their way, but not without a fight. This was really people saying, “No, there needs to be change.”