"Good Morning, Wasichu!"
I first learned about what was taking place in North Dakota on September 3rd, 2016. I was scrolling my social media accounts when an update from Democracy Now! came across my feed. It was video and commentary of a group of people in a freshly dug up field trying to stop construction equipment from advancing. As I continued to watch, I saw security guards, armed with dogs begin to attack the protestors. Like many others, this was my first time learning about the #NODAPL movement. It enraged me, and drew me in to wanting to learn more. 3 days later, on September 6th, and with some support from friends, I packed my bags and was on my way to Standing Rock. I never in my life thought I would end up in North Dakota, but alas, here I was.
Flying into Bismarck, I didn't know anyone on the ground. This was such a new experience to me. Luckily, I met a woman on the plane who was also on her way to the camps as well. She invited me to ride alongside her, her mother, and sister who were already at the camp. I was coming for 3 days to learn more about what was actually taking place. Like many others in white America, I was quite ignorant to the ongoing struggles of the native communities in this country. I say "white America", but I think its more America in general. Whole communities of mixed races barely even acknowledge or make note that native communities are still existent. I know my hometown of Atlanta doesn't show any respect to the first nation communities. We have the Braves, and thats more of a spit in the face. Bunch of fools Tomahawk chopping around the city, and yes, I was guilty as well. I wanted to see first hand what was taking place, and form my own opinions on the situation. I came with my camera, but never expected what would happen in the months following.
Arriving at Oceti Sakowin camp, the grass was still green and rippling with the winds. Children were playing, horses were being rode through camp, and through all hours of the day and night, you could hear tribal song and prayer. A tribe had just arrived via canoe. Camp was preparing to welcome them. It was something I had never experienced before. There was a magic in the air. You could feel the power of the nations that had already gathered to stand in solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That first night I had trouble sleeping. My anxiety from being in such a unique environment, along with the nonstop pounding of drums and song made it impossible for me to get rest. Around 2AM, I climbed out of my tent to to see the milky way forming behind a tipi directly across from me. The sky was so dark and clear that you could see every star in the sky. Nervously hoping to not offend anyone with my camera, I quietly began to try and shoot what was before me. The first photo at Standing Rock, and in the end, one of my favorites. Little did I know that I would shoot nearly 60,000 more before my time there was done.
I spent 3 days at Oceti Sakowin before returning to Atlanta. I eventually got the nerve to walk around camp, speak to people, and learn more about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and how it was effecting the community of Standing Rock, and those downstream of the Missouri River. It was a powerful few days, and at the conclusion, I decided this was a place I needed to be. A movement worth standing in solidarity with, and learn from. To better understand a culture too often ignored in the fabric of our nation. As I boarded my flight home on Sept 10th, I knew I would be back, but I didn't know when.
Now, before we go any further, let me explain a little about myself. Before Standing Rock, I wasn't a photojournalist. I lost my father to suicide in 2009 at the age of 26. The following year, I quit my job at a Fortune 500 company to begin knocking off my bucket list. In 2010, I bought a camera and a 1 way ticket to Thailand. The goal was to document my travels around the world using the retirement money I had pulled out. When I arrived in Bangkok however, the world had different plans for me. I found myself in the middle of a civil uprise called the "Red Shirt Protests". 21 people had died a block from my hotel the day before I arrived in a clash between the government and citizens, and the country was on shaky ground. Being one of the only Americans in the country at the time, I decided to use my camera to my advantage, and made a trek the resistance compound located in the middle of the city. Both military and protestors alike assumed I was a photojournalist because why else would someone be there that didn't need to be? It was a very violent point in the movement. I spent many days documenting what was taking place. Granted, I was not a photographer, and the photos were horrible, but it was what really sparked my path to the person I am today. As someone who was going through much trauma, I learned I could use my camera to documents and help tell the stories of others that were also struggling. Photography became a personal therapy for me. Fighting depression, using a camera was something I began to become confident with, and shooting was the only thing that could help me focus on the world in front of me instead of the memories. Documenting social justice issues I cared about gave me a way to positively contribute with my passion.
Upon arriving back in Atlanta, I knew I wanted to be back out in the Dakota plains standing in solidarity with nations I had witnessed gather. Determined to return, I began making efforts to handle everything at home. I put in my notice at work, found a sublease for my room, began raising money to afford the trip, and tied up any loose ends. A month later, with my bags packed, and a 1 way ticket booked, I was heading back to Standing Rock, only this time, I didn't know when I would be returning home.
I hitched a ride with a couple that was already at camp, but in town to get supplies. I was able to find them via social media, and offered to cover the cost of supplies in exchange for a ride on the 50 mile trek back to Oceti. Once back at camp, I began to set up my tent just downhill from Echo 1 (North Gate). Since I was once again alone, I wanted to make sure security could see my tent. I didn't plan on spending much time in there, and I had camera equipment, computers, and other belongings I couldn't carry with me everywhere. The first night was cold, so cold. Being from the south, the Dakota chill was a shock to my system. I had no idea how I was going to survive a whole month in a summer tent with only some thin clothes and a sleeping bag to keep me warm. I remember waking up the next morning, and my computer would not start. The chill had made it impossible to boot up. I was beginning to question what exactly I had gotten myself into. "Fuck it" I thought to myself, I was here, and I was glad to be here.
The following morning I made my way to the Sacred Fire. I remembered from my first visit that there was always a second fire burning, keeping coffee hot for anyone in need. After the previous nights struggles, I needed coffee more than ever. As I made my way up, I came across a woman trying to document the aviation numbers on aircraft that were hovering dangerously low over the camp. Her camera couldn't quite get the call numbers, so I rushed back to my tent to grab my camera and my 70-300mm lens to assist. Within 5 minutes, I had recorded the flight numbers of 3 security helicopters and law enforcement planes flying above us. She encouraged me to search for Myron Dewey, an indigenous journalist on the ground, so naturally I figured going to the media tent would be the best place to search for him. "Whats he look like?" I asked. "A tall native man" she said. Yeah...that helped. Nope, no Myron at the tent. When I asked the lady, a white woman working media check ins if they were keeping a log of aircraft fly overs, she didn't quite understand what I meant. I sat down and began to record a log of aircraft, time, call numbers, and descriptions the media teams could use for their records. I began spending the whole afternoon up there watching the helicopters and planes fly non stop directly above the camp. After a while, it became nearly impossible to keep up with. Meanwhile, the lady handling media check ins was being swamped with new journalists showing up to camp. I offered to assist her where I could, and by day 2, I was more or less heading up the check in process. By that 2nd night, I was also sleeping in the media tent at night to provide security.
I got used to the name Wasichu very quickly.