A few weeks ago, I traveled hundreds of miles from Utah to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where the historic gathering of thousands of people from all over the world are coming to protect the water. The Dakota Access Pipeline is planning to pass under the Missouri River, the lifeline of 18 million people who rely on it for their water. If completed, the Dakota Access Pipeline will transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
As a Diné (Navajo), I knew it was my responsibility to be there, to help my people, ancestors, and the land. It was this spiritual connection to the land that ultimately, led me to take this journey.
I arrived at the Oceti Sakowin camp where thousands of people were already set up for the night. The camp is located in a shallow valley in the middle of prairie land and nestled closely to the north of the Cannon River. As I stood on the infamous “Facebook Hill,” I looked down on the camp. I saw hundreds of tents, teepees and trailers on the horizon. I heard sounds of laughter, singing and the beating of drums. I stood amazed, as I watched smoke spirals in the air from the numerous campfires as the sun set. It was beautiful!
Feeling grateful and content, I prepared for a good night’s sleep. As a landscape photographer, I’m well equipped with camping gear to withstand extreme weather conditions, so I looked forward to a cozy night. It wasn’t. I endured 70-80 mph winds, a wind-chill of -10 degrees, with sleet and rain. Throughout the night, the wind gusts were so strong, my tent was blown completely flat numerous times, flapping on my face as I laid in my sleeping bag. It sounded like a freight train was rushing by my tent. I thought for sure, I was going to end up in Kansas.
The next morning was devastating. Hundreds of tents were shredded by the high winds. I watched people gather their belongings that were scattered throughout the camp. I wandered amongst them, to help clean up and mend tents. Due to this natural devastation, I couldn’t help but wonder why the people came to the camp and what was making them stay. I asked them a simple question, “Why are you here?” With so many different people and nations, I couldn’t believe how their responses were so similar and meaningful. I was moved by their reactions.
Even through these harsh conditions, I mostly remember the beautiful people and their resilience. The presence and spirit of our ancestors are strong in the camp, because of the love, unity, prayer and songs. This spirit of love and unity is what inspired me to capture these images. It was a spiritual awakening for me.
I produced this video to show the world what I felt, what I saw, and share the real reason why people are here––for our future, our survival and for all humanity.