Standing Rock and How The Way We Search May Be Dividing Us
A few weeks ago, I accompanied a team of journalists to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to cover the peoples’ resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I joined them as a photographer.
A week before leaving, I started listening to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. The book is an exalted slap-to-the-face wake-up call regarding our textbook miseducation about the history of the indigenous peoples’ of what we now call the United States.
Yeah, it’s shortsighted to believe that listening to a book for a few hours could tell me all I needed to know to grasp the complex state of affairs at Standing Rock, but it was better than nothing.
As a result of listening, I would now enter the fray with a not-new, but rather reinvigorated distrust for conventional sources of information, just by being reminded that Christopher Columbus never set foot on North American soil.
And despite this fact, the United States was historically referred to as Columbia and to this day, the capitol of our nation, the District of Columbia, continues to perpetuate the myth that Columbus discovered America.
Three days before we were to fly in to Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota and location of the airport serving Standing Rock reservation, I read up on this acronym that had flooded my social media accounts, but about which I knew very few details: DAPL.
My armchair Google research led me to this basic understanding:
- People are protesting the route of the pipeline because it is going to cross the Missouri River, the longest river in the U.S., endangering a key water source.
- People are protesting that sacred sites have been, or will be, destroyed in building the pipeline.
- People have set up a camp on a strategic piece of Standing Rock reservation land to obstruct and/or monitor the DAPL construction site.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read. And, BTW, It Isn’t Everything. Not Even Close.
In hindsight, I know that this understanding was not 100% accurate, despite my reading a LOT of content surfaced by Googling “DAPL.”
Google worked its algorithmic magic — returning search results based on what I searched for. And because my search keywords were biased, and at times misinformed, Google returned a biased, and at times misinformed, view of the world.
So not only is there fake news, there is fake news tailored to my very own personal Google filter bubble.
Where we were actually headed was Oceti Sakowin Camp, right outside the border of Standing Rock reservation. The pipeline is/was slated to cross the river at Lake Oahe, just a little north of the Oceti Sakowin Camp and the Standing Rock reservation.
And while there is a second camp right inside the northern border of the Standing Rock reservation called Sacred Stone Camp, there is no such thing as something called “Standing Rock Camp.”
In fact, I found that if I Googled using keywords that were even just a tad outside of my rhetoric on the topic, the “reality” that Google served could change quite drastically. This seems obvious, but when I look at my searching behavior, I rarely make a conscious effort to keep the search keywords objective and clean to ensure that my search results are of the same quality.
Much of what I do in my day job as an information architect is to implement filters that help people find information faster.
“It isn’t information overload, it’s filter failure.” — Clay Shirky
I deal with documentation that helps software engineers build apps, so my filters are pretty innocuous in the grand scope of things. However, when you’re using Google, the lens through which many people see the world, filters are everything. The filters need to be pretty fucking smart — and even more importantly, ethical, because of the scale of influence.
Google delivers what seems to be everything, sequenced by their do-no-evil, read-my-mind accurate rankings engine. But with each adjective and verb, tilted slightly one way or the other, that I add to a baseline noun-based search like “DAPL,” Google can return worlds of diametrically opposed content.
Sure, Google is a machine just doing its job.
But in a time in which the world seems to be dividing right before our eyes, could our Google search habits be amplifying the division, segregating ourselves by our search results and influencing how we learn about issues that are important to us?
What about a tweak to the algorithm so that it considers the accuracy and objectivity of content on a page? How about a search operator that you can insert when you want Google to show you a balanced view of what you’re searching for?
At this point, I had to stop Googling because it was now clear that I’d never be able to get to the “truth” before we hit the ground in ND. The story in my head was getting more complicated, albeit closer to a more well-rounded view of the story.
Arriving in Bismarck
A faint moon guided our plane into Bismarck. Bismarck was to be our home base for the next few days as we traveled to and from the Standing Rock reservation.
Our hotel was buzzing with folks in town for a dermatology conference, a Black Angus association meeting, a Narcotics Anonymous conference, and work on the DAPL and the Bakken Shale.
Here are some t-shirts I saw in the airport gift shop:
Heading to Camp
A little research into our destination the next day revealed that the most direct route to the camp was closed. We’d have to take the more circuitous route shown in orange.
We first arrive at Sacred Stone Camp and the team is on the lookout for Madonna Thunder Hawk, who is to be our host. One of the producers asks around and a guy points to a woman in a beige knit camp.
We go over and our senior adviser who knows Madonna personally says, “That’s not Madonna.”
The producer says, “Are you sure? That guy said that’s Madonna.”
And our adviser says, “That’s not Madonna. I KNOW Madonna. I’ve SEEN Madonna before and I know what she looks like and that isn’t her.”
We’re in the wrong camp. We’re supposed to be at the camp across the Cannonball River.
We drive a little farther and enter the camp through a regal driveway lined with flags of many tribes and nations.
We park and find Madonna Thunder Hawk’s camp site, where they are raising their tribal flag.
Looking out across the body of the camp, I am curious, and fearful. The fear comes from a vibe of freedom and self-governance that I am unused to. Freedom means that no one is going to tell you what to do. It also means that, no one is going to tell you what to do.
The Lay of the Land
My freedom vibe is quelled pretty quickly as we find out that we are required to obtain and wear media passes. We go to a tent outside of which a dozen people are already lined up for passes. To paint the picture accurately, these are not the mainstream media; these are citizen journalists.
Although, I would hear later in the camp’s media center that mainstream media, like Anderson Cooper and Dan Rather, had been turned away from reporting from the camp. So, when one hears complaints that the mainstream media refuses to cover the Standing Rock story, I think there is more to that than meets the eye.
In the way that most “news” is shaped today, there is ALWAYS more. And that “more” is usually subtle and left out because it could make people think too hard, lose interest, and stop scrolling and clicking through.
The “more” is left out because it introduces gray areas. When a detail of a story will leave the reader unable to say “Hell yes!” or “Hell no!” the detail will likely be left out. If a story takes too long to read and doesn’t lay out a clear yes or no perspective on a topic, it’s harder for it to go viral.
We finally make it to the front of the line for media passes and are told that the camp has been infiltrated. They warn us that when there is an encounter with law enforcement, people wearing media passes are the first who are targeted and have their equipment taken away.
They also tell us that photography of people, animals, and tents is prohibited without first getting consent. This is because so much of what Oceti Sakowin Camp is about is ceremony and prayer focused on stopping DAPL, and photography of ceremony and prayer is forbidden.
They warn us that photographers have had their cameras confiscated for not following these rules in the camp. I stood there with a camera with a huge zoom lens hanging around my neck. Suddenly, I felt like a criminal.
They look at my California driver’s license, take my photo, and give me my media pass — a piece of paper taped to a literal shoestring necklace.
My job just became a bit more challenging in that my aim to capture candid life in the camp now had to happen without photographing any candid life.
The Water Protectors
We head down into the heart of the camp and within a few seconds, I am approached by a towering person with an eagle feather twirling in the wind from a freshly coiffed mohawk.
“Show me the expiration date on your pass.”
I show it, am given the once over, and am left standing there. When they said law enforcement would target me, I thought they meant outside of the camp.
Oddly enough, the five Chicano and indigenous journalists I’m with are not asked to show the expiration dates on their passes. This irks me, but I make up an internal excuse that makes being racially profiled okay so that I can continue with my job.
For each of our interviews we did, I took photos after requesting and receiving consent. However, outside of this, I didn’t take many photos because I didn’t believe in asking for consent to take posed photos portrayed as “life in the camp.”
Here are photos of just a few of the strong and dedicated people who generously agreed to share their stories with our team.
Here’s a collage of observations and experiences from my time spent in the camp:
- There is no fee to stay in the camp. Meals, wood for heat, and facilities are all provided by the camp. Camp sites are not assigned.
- They tell us that some meth heads came to stay at the camp, but that didn’t last long because there is no drug supply in the camp. If people who don’t live according to the goals of the camp arrive, the community will correct itself and ask those people to leave.
- I’ve never been to the Peace Corps, summer camp, nor Burning Man, but an aspect of Oceti Sakowin Camp felt like a burgeoning hybrid of the three. In one of the morning meetings, impassioned, manic, and earnest young White women in flowing gauzy skirts and parkas declare the goals of their ongoing projects — running the cafeteria, setting up internet connectivity, and constructing compost toilets — and recruit volunteers from an eager crowd.
- We visited the recently constructed Art Center with multiple silk screen stations set up where folks can print banners, posters, and the shirts off of their backs.
- I hung out in what seemed to be the entertainment center of the camp, where I listened to a Native-American man sing a song for the crowd and then introduce his mother, who he delightedly put on the spot to speak. She stood at the mic and made an impassioned plea to the young women of the camp to wear blankets or ponchos to cover themselves as they are in prayer. She advised them to not go out alone after dark and not to knock on the door of men.
- Beaded Hello Kitty coin purses and pendants are laid out for sale on a table outside a tipi.
- A mountain of clothing overflows from a makeshift stall. A young White man jumps out of a pickup truck with three garbage bags and dumps even more clothing onto the pile. In the orientation meeting, one of the facilitators instructs people, “When you leave, take a bag of clothing with you. We don’t need any more clothing!”
- Along the upper ridge of the camp next to the highway, two preadolescent boys ride horses, bareback, bouncing off the backs of the spotted grey animals. Along the Cannonball River, a group of people stand around a horse that appears to be playing, knee-deep in the water.
- As I wandered through the camp, a little boy popped out from behind a tent with a wooden stick in his arms. He points it at me like a gun and says, “Give me all your money!”
The Image That I Couldn’t Digitize
Rising above the camp is Facebook Hill, apparently named as such because it is the only place in camp where you have a chance of getting a signal strong enough to post a Facebook status.
And it is here that the most prized image of our time in the Oceti Sakowin Camp unfolded. I couldn’t take the photo, so I recorded it in my mind.
From the top of the yellowing hill, dusty little boys with shoulder-length dark hair rode skateboards down the slope, slowed by bumps of dirt and clumps of grass.
Some stayed upright, others tumbled over and rolled their bodies down the hill.
Once at the bottom, they picked up their boards and ran back up the hill, to do it all over again.