Documentary Remembers Standing Rock in Beauty and Catastrophe
By Kelly Hayes
In October of 2016, I wrote a piece called How to Talk About #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective. I had visited the Standing Rock camps twice at that point, at the request of local youth who coordinated skill shares for Water Protectors, and I had written extensively about the movement. About a year later, I was asked to share my thoughts on the documentary, Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock.
But how does one critique a dream? A dream isn't bound by timelines or historical nuance. It's as much feeling as fact, and the lines between the two often blur.
As the name implies, Awake, A Dream of Standing Rock, is a series of images and reflections, unbound by the conventions of documentary storytelling. The film's dream-weaving approach at times works masterfully, capturing sounds and images that should be preserved in crisp, heartbreaking detail. In other moments, the film veers between the poetic and the historic with such ease that I was left wondering whether some viewers would know the difference.
The film's first chapter was directed by Josh Fox, who exposed the environmental toll of fracking in Gasland. The footage expands upon familiar scenes, invoking imagery that elicits every emotion it intends to. Co-writer Floris White Bull's poetic narration is penetrative and well-paced. But poetry does have its limitations. One can hardly complain because, as the title warned, Awake is a dream of Standing Rock, not a hard timeline, or an exploration of the complex lessons it taught.
But hybridizing poetry and history is risky. When a narrator veers between poetic flourish, such as White Bull's characterization of the camp as a place without hate or fear, and factual details, about police attacks and pipelines, edges can blur.
The film's second section is both breathtaking and essential. Without narration, the images and activities of the people being filmed tell their own story, and the footage provides a haunting sense of what it was like to be on the ground in Standing Rock, during that sprawling movement moment.
As someone who was deeply connected to these events but not a long term resident of the camps, I was grateful for the moments captured in Part II. During a sequence where Water Protectors knelt in prayer on Backwater Bridge, I could feel the holiness of the moment, and I could even remember how the cold air felt in my throat as I walked on that bridge.
And when Protectors were attacked on the bridge with water cannons, I relived every emotion I experienced that night, knowing my friends were on that bridge, soaking and battered, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.
At that point, I messaged some of my friends who were traumatized by police in Standing Rock to offer a trigger warning.
The film's third and final section was directed by Native filmmaker and activist Myron Dewey, of Digital Smoke Signals. The importance of Dewey's work as a documentarian is inarguable. But as a direct action educator and organizer, I must disagree with his initial commentary in Awake.
In Part III, we are presented with text summaries of some of the legal history at work. Next we hear Dewey's take on events. Dewey's first major assertion is that Morton County Police had initially been friendly to protesters, and only turned violent after the desecration of sacred ground by Energy Transfer Partners.
In truth, police frequently approach protesters respectfully, at first, with tensions mounting as movements grow, threatening the status quo with their potential.
Further, attributing police violence to desecration de-contextualizes Native struggle from the realities of policing and resistance. People who brave the frontlines of liberation struggles are routinely battered in the U.S., whether they are challenging pipelines, police violence, or any other oppressive instrument or practice. Native people are killed by police at a higher rate than any other group, and our movements have always been met with violence and repression. It would be ahistorical to assume that police would have continued to treat Water Protectors gently as the movement grew, if not for the desecration.
The fear of what Water Protectors might accomplish caused law enforcement to show its true character in Standing Rock. From dogs and water cannons to COINTELPRO tactics that aimed to escalate tensions between Protectors, what police unleashed in Standing Rock was an unsurprising culmination of a history of violence toward Natives. No new violation of the sacred was needed to trigger this violence that has recreated itself since first contact.
Police who approached with a smile, and even joined round dances in the early days of the movement, were two-faced foes—always one order away from everything that followed. To deny this not only separates us from history, but from other justice movements in which people have been brutalized when they raised their hopes and voices too high.
To his credit, Dewey does capture the intractable nature of law enforcement in Standing Rock, highlighting the lack of accountability and, ultimately, the impunity with which police harassed and harmed Water Protectors, while criminalizing Protectors for minor or even wholly imagined legal offenses.
As someone who believes in the importance of frontline storytelling, I appreciate Awake for what it uplifts. Despite my narrative disagreements with the film, I think it's an important effort, that should be seen—especially for the film's second section.
It is the hope of any movement moment that it be remembered, and carried by many voices, which will mean the offering of many perspectives. If the viewer understands Awake as a puzzle piece in a much larger picture, in which many complexities go untouched, it will aid in their understanding.
But it is also crucial that the viewer understand the film as a dream, a vision, and a re-remembering, not a historical or social analysis of a movement and its many moving parts.
At their best, the Standing Rock camps were still rife with contradiction and difficulty. They had no uniformity of belief with regard to tactics or strategy. In truth, no such uniformity is possible in such an unprecedented convergence. Native peoples are not exempt from any of the difficulties that the tactic of occupation can bring. Factions form. Conflicts unfold. Participants butt heads over tactics and strategies—and some will invariably confuse the two.
The Standing Rock I knew was not a mystical place with a uniform perspective. It was a complex place—an experiment in love, hope, courage, and solidarity, unlike anything our peoples had experienced. It was full of beauty and catastrophe. It was bitingly human because we are human. And, as is often the case, the magic was in the mess.
At the film's end, the legacy of Standing Rock is addressed, with White Bull telling us that "what started in Standing Rock is now all over the world." A number of struggles and global movements are highlighted, in quick succession, in a narrative that seemingly attributes those movements to the momentum of Standing Rock. In some cases, the participants in those movements actually call themselves "Water Protectors," in the spirit of Standing Rock. But some of those struggles, like the fight against oil companies in the Amazon, substantially predate the Standing Rock encampments. It's important for us to acknowledge this, both out of respect for those movements, and as a challenge to those who viewed Standing Rock as something wholly new or unusual.
The story of Standing Rock—of state violence merging with corporate interests, of human potential and human destruction—is not an original concept. It has many iterations, across history and around the world. Standing Rock is no less special for this. If anything, I hope the unacquainted will take it as an invitation, to study the struggles they may have missed, and to join the fray when called.
Watch the trailer below:
Kelly Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Kelly is a queer Native writer, organizer, and movement photographer. She is also a direct action trainer and a co-founder of The Chicago Light Brigade and the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She is a contributing writer at Truthout and blogs at TransformativeSpaces.org, where this article originally appeared, about U.S. movements and her work as an organizer against state violence.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation. Reposted with permission from our media associate Yes! Magazine.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.