November 09, 2016

Gallery: Portraits from the Standing Rock protests

Camille Seaman



In September 2016, photographer Camille Seaman joined protesters at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Here, she brings us up close with some of the many people who have been drawn there to defend the water and the earth.

In September, I felt called — not just as an indigenous person of the Shinnecock Nation but also as a photographer — to join the people standing up for clean water and protecting the land at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. I saw it as a chance to document a historic moment, a gathering of tribes that hasn’t been seen in over 100 years, from the inside. Since April, protesters have gone there to try to block construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cut through tribal lands and compromise its water supply in order to carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois. As I approached a camp and saw all the tipis, all the individuals brought together as defenders of water, I found myself pushing back tears. Ranging in age from infants to elders, people had traveled from all over the country and the world to stand in solidarity with the protesters.

I stayed at the Oceti Sakowin camp, the largest of Standing Rock’s four camps and home to around 1500 people while I was there. Before dawn every day, a rider on horseback (or, sometimes, a driver in a car) would make their way through camp, saying, “Good morning, my relatives! It’s a beautiful day. Wake up, and remember why you are here!” Then we would all gather in a circle and pray as the sun rose. Our prayers would be for those who opposed us, those who supported us from afar and those who were among us. These prayers continued all day and all night in many forms. In the evening, the sounds of singing and of drums (our mother’s heartbeat) could be heard in the dark. It was truly a wonderful place to be.

When I left the camp after a month, I wept again. This time, I felt like I was walking away from my family in their moment of dire need as the police kept pushing towards our sacred site. Despite President Obama’s requests to put a temporary halt on construction and to search for an alternate route, the pipeline operator has persisted in moving forward with its plans to tunnel under a reservoir used by the Sioux. Now back home and far away in California, I’m helplessly watching the protests and preparing to go to Antarctica to continue my long-term photographic project on the polar regions (TED Talk: Haunting photos of polar ice). But my resolve remains: We should take this opportunity to shift away from fossil fuels. Here are some of the portraits I took while in Standing Rock.