Was it all a dream? Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock is more than a documentary; it is a jarring dream sequence, a cinematic poem of juxtaposed images and scenes of life and violence that defined the months-long Indigenous-led protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Grainy social media videos intercut with high-quality footage of multiple clashes with police, everyday life at the camps, and firsthand interviews with the participants themselves. The mash-up, between high- and low-end production, is most likely the product of the all-star codirectors. The Paiute-Shoshone filmmaker and educator Myron Dewey, who relentlessly documented the protests via social media, takes center stage. From his boots-on-the-ground perspective, we get a firsthand glimpse of what it was like to live under 24-7 police surveillance, in what looked and felt like a war zone, and during the tender moments of camp life, in the largest Indigenous-led protest in recent memory. Citizen journalists, like Dewey, provided critical hour-by-hour updates through livestream broadcasts, whether from cellphones or drone cameras, when mainstream media failed to take notice. The other two codirectors, Josh Fox and James Spione, hail from the award-winning documentaries Gasland (2010) and Incident in New Baghdad (2011), respectively. Awake, however, is gripping not because of big names—actress Shailene Woodley is also an executive producer—but because of the way it is told. The story is about more than the heroic efforts to stop a pipeline. If there is a central theme, it is historic and ongoing trauma, and the condition of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a topic that comes up several times during the film, is hardly “post-” for Indigenous communities. Trauma is perpetual for those still reeling from colonialism, genocide, and the continued theft and destruction of their land, water, and air, issues not confined to the DAPL protests but certainly exacerbated by them. The opening sequence begins with serene images of water—bubbling oceans, flowing rivers, rippling streams. Violent catastrophe interrupts tranquility. The nightmarish story of colonization plays itself out, not as a relic of the past but alive and well in our current epoch of devastating human-made climate change: massive flooding, scorched earth from the ravages of oil and gas extraction, and an army of militarized police wreaking havoc in scene after scene upon the unarmed bodies of Water Protectors, the humble name for the young and old, the everyday Native and non-Native people who vowed to stop DAPL from crossing Mni Sose, the Lakota name for the Missouri River. Images of cops hovering on a hill above Water Protectors are immediately contrasted against horrific images of cavalrymen from the nineteenth century indiscriminately cutting down Indigenous peoples with gun and sword. The connections between past, present, and future are blurred, and they cannot be neatly disentangled. A nightmarish past haunts a nightmarish present with little interruption. Equally so, another past haunts the dreams for a more just and sustainable future, a uniquely Indigenous vision. The answers for a just future, the filmmakers would have us believe, lie in the power of Indigenous-led movements that seek to correct relations between human and nonhuman worlds. Mediating the realization of that dystopic nightmare or that Indigenous dream, however, are the police and the state, the footmen of capitalism. The calm, steady voice of Floris White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the film’s lead, cuts through the familiar cacophonic soundtrack for our era of mass dissent, the screaming and chanting of protesters and the repetitive, low concussive explosions of police flashbangs, rubber bullets, and teargas canisters. “I am not dreaming. I am awake,” White Bull declares over the clamor. “To be alive at this point in time is to see the rising of the Oceti Sakowin.” Out of chaos the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations, is reborn. While the rise of the Oceti Sakowin was central to the formation of the camps to oppose DAPL, it is not to Awake. Instead, the film’s central focus concerns “wokeness,” or better yet, the process of awakening, as the title suggests. What does it mean to be “woke,” a measure of awareness of what is happening in the world, in this era of irreversible climate change and when one’s land and water are perpetually targeted for corporate plunder and as national sacrifice zones? The underlying tension is how best to go about undoing the violence to the land and water and to the bodies tied to them, especially when one side possesses the endless resources of a heavily militarized police state. There is a sincere naïveté of Awake’s protagonists, the Water Protectors, concerning their sense of disbelief that police would behave the way they do. The film tries to make sense of the nonviolent responses to what becomes cruelly ritualistic brutality and harassment at the hands of police—from dousing people with water in freezing temperatures, to military checkpoints, choke points, and barricades, to shooting people point blank with rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and tear gas, permanently taking a woman’s sight in one eye and blowing another woman’s arm off. There are several moments in the film when the narrators, Dewey and White Bull, consciously try not to make the story about the police. Yet the film is about the police, the enduring trauma they inflict, and the role they play in snuffing out dissent. That aspect is inescapable, despite the Water Protectors’ genuine attempts to speak to officers’ humanity by inviting them into dance circles and shaking their hands. At one point, Dewey calls the police “a distraction” to shift attention back to stopping the pipeline and realizing the dream of Standing Rock. The overwhelming police presence, however, cannot be ignored. But there are no hard facts that explain why the hundreds of police at the DAPL protests descended on the isolated rural geography of North Dakota; why the ninety-six different law enforcement jurisdictions, Border Patrol, and Homeland Security were called in by North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple under the powers of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a program originally intended to provide assistance to states dealing with natural disasters; or why Native people are killed by police at the highest rates, why 2016 was a particularly deadly year, and why the majority were killed during routine police stops, not during dramatic mass protest actions like the one at Standing Rock and elsewhere. This is not a fault of the film. Awake is more about the psychological, surrealistic, and phenomenological, a study on the conditions of consciousness from a particular point of view (the Water Protectors) to make sense of a series of beautiful and tragic events and experiences (the DAPL protest camps and police brutality). In other words, the film is about what it means to live with PTSD and ongoing trauma when one’s entire world and dreams of freedom are entirely structured by violence, death, and destruction, whether it is visited upon Indigenous communities or upon the earth. Awake is a process, and, in some ways, that is the most troubling aspect of the film. If you had the privilege of going to the camps north of Standing Rock, the film evokes feelings of joy and happiness that defined camp life and the protests, in general. The camps were also, much like the film, disorienting and at times felt frustratingly disorganized, another indelible feature of the great awakening of a twenty-first-century Indigenous movement. This is not unique to the DAPL protests but is characteristic of all movements throughout history, the messiness of getting free. The nonlinear narrative style also gives an idea of what it is like to be traumatized by police while simultaneously being empowered by the sheer historic character of the camps, within and beyond them, and how the movement spread like wildfire to other parts of the world and to other movements. The repetitive images of police brutality juxtaposed alongside moments of living and experiencing freedom also speak to what it is like to live with PTSD. It interrupts a normal routine with persistent flashbacks and triggers, where one cannot describe the joy felt at the camps and participating in the protests without also recounting the horror. What undergirds these aspects, however, is the crushing reality of being awake: Obama and his administration could not save the water and refused to halt the pipeline; Trump continued and accelerated Obama-era domestic energy production, and within two weeks in office the remaining resistance camps had been violently evicted; and the police and military, as they have for centuries, will continue to play a mediating role in crushing what are otherwise grassroots and truly democratic climate justice movements, especially those led by Indigenous peoples. This may be cynicism, or it may be just sobering up that this is the challenge ahead for future movements and struggles as the world relentlessly burns. Are you awake yet? © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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