Displaying the courage, strength, and love-filled justice of the water protectors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), who brought hope to many through their actions at Standing Rock in 2016, the documentary Awake: a Dream from Standing Rock invites us all into the ongoing work of water protection. (See trailer below.) Floris White Bull speaks of the industrialized world we live in as a bad dream from which some of us are awakening. Rather than seeing a sustainable future as the dream, Awake flips the script, recognizing that the unrealistic dream is the belief that we can go on living as we are, using more resources than can be sustained, and poisoning the very water, air, and land we need for continued survival. Floris White Bull says:
“I’m not dreaming; I’m awake. I’ve been woken by the Spirit inside…. Will you wake up and dream with us? Will you join our dream? Will you join us?”
A film in three parts, the styles of the different filmmakers are visible as the documentary moves through Part I: Awake (Josh Fox, International Wow Company), Part II: Backwater Bridge (James Spione, Morninglight Films), Part III: Standing Rock through Indigenous Eyes (Myron Dewey, Digital Smoke Signals), and a Coda (Josh Fox). Though the film is produced by Josh Fox and he directs some of it, Awake is different from most of his other films, in that he mainly remains behind the camera. Front and center are the voices and faces of the Indigenous water protectors.
In Part I, we learn the background of the situation at Standing Rock, the Native prophecy of the black snake that the water protectors see as this and other oil and gas pipelines, and the pain surrounding the American practice of Thanksgiving, which serves as a continual reminder of the way European colonists have taken advantage of Native hospitality for the last 500+ years. We see young Native Americans rise and draw attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline through a run to Washington, D.C., and we see their elders supporting them in standing up to face fear and destruction with love. We see thousands of people from all over the world gathering at Standing Rock. We see peaceful protests being met with dog attacks, mace, water hoses, and rubber bullets.
In the midst of it all, the water protectors stand in dignity and continue to show care to those lining up against them. Floris White Bull speaks truth to power:
“We’ll not be violent. We won’t fight back in that way. We won’t feed into that negativity…. We are something new on the planet, but we’re not. We’re something very old. We are warriors of peace. We won’t surrender.”
Part II shows what it was like to live in the camp for those months as more and more people arrived, and as the snow began. People worked together to set up tents for gathering and eating, water protectors participated in peaceful prayer protests with sage ceremonies, and Indigenous people from all over North America aligned themselves to one rhythm through drum circles. At night, protestors were sprayed with water in below freezing temperatures. Army veterans arrived by the hundreds to join the water protectors, helping to erect more permanent structures as the snows came. A 9-1-1 caller asks the haunting question:
“Who protects the people from the police?”
Part III shows the situation from an Indigenous perspective. Filmed and produced by Myron Dewey and other Indigenous camera people, this section points out that the citing of DAPL is in violation of treaties with the Great Sioux Nation dating back to 1851 and 1863. This section also describes the altercations with the forces protecting the pipeline: at first, private security of the firms building the pipeline, and later the Morton County police and sheriffs. At first, local law enforcement were friendly to protestors, joining in dances and mingling with water protectors, “but then they removed themselves from the circle, and that’s when the violence began,” says Dewey. Detailing destruction of evidence of illegal practices by law enforcement and DAPL personnel, attempts to make progress on DAPL at times when few were watching, the arrest of journalists, and the bulldozing of sacred sites, this section documents on film the unjust and illegal actions undertaken in order to try to discredit the local Indigenous population and disregard the law.
While there is celebration in December 2016 when the Obama Administration announces a hold on all DAPL construction until after a thorough environmental review, this celebration is subdued — particularly for the viewer, who knows that stay only proved temporary. Trump signed the DAPL forward on his second day in office.
The Coda shows the forcible removal of water protectors from the camp, as local and state officers and federal troops were sent in with riot gear to arrest everyone. However, the film ends by reminding us that this activism at Standing Rock enlivened similar protests all over the country and world. Indigenous populations are standing up against pipelines and other environmental concerns from Australia to Latin America, from Europe to the South Pacific. One commenter said their camp was destroyed but their spirits were not broken. Chase Iron Eyes stated:
“It’s not just about stopping a pipeline; this is about the survival of humanity.”
While this film was difficult to watch because the protests did not end in the full victory we would wish for, it is a sobering and inspiring reminder of the importance of nonviolent direct action to draw attention to environmental injustice. The #NoDAPL fight continues in other ways, through divestment from the banks and other corporations behind the pipeline, and through ongoing lawsuits.
The film concludes with a call to action, and you can find information about ways to get involved on the website. You can start with the Awake Activist Guide, and they also suggest supporting the organization Defund DAPL, as well as supporting the mental health of those who participated in the protest by donating to Lakota Way. And finally, they suggest:
“Pray more, consume less, wage peace, protect water, resist.”
Awake is available to stream for personal use on Netflix. You can purchase or rent it for educational purposes or community viewings through Bullfrog Films. This would be an important film to share with high school and college courses relating to community organizing and environmental justice, as well as any American history course in which the teacher wishes to show the ongoing impacts of historical treatment of Native Americans. Community groups desiring to gain inspiration for similar activism in their regions will also find this film motivating and powerful.