As Soft As The Earth Is by Morgan R. Levy

Bernie and Jayli in their traditional Earth Garden. August 2016

“To the extent which an eleven-year-old can have a meaningful relationship with photography, it was around that age that I really started taking pictures. A couple years earlier, the teenage daughter of some family friends secretly showed me a video she’d made of her and her friends hanging out smoking. I was enthralled and then subsequently obsessed with the need for a video camera of my own. Thanks to my parents’ unfailing support of my artistic endeavors (and some babysitting money) I got my camcorder and made videos for a number of years. As with many childhood hobbies, my interest in the video camera dwindled. But around this same time, I was becoming a nerdy-Francophile (and looking at images by Cartier-Bresson and Brassai) and at about age eleven I resolved to be a photographer. I bought my first camera, a Canon AE-1, with money from the babysitting fund. By thirteen I’d built a darkroom in my garage and spent most of high school building an identity founded on photography.

Over the years I’ve been asked on more than one occasion about how I became a photographer. Through this process I’ve crafted a personal narrative out of slippery memories from childhood and adolescence. Being presented with this question again for this interview made me curious if the story I tell had any basis in reality, so I consulted with my parents to see if and how our memories aligned. They corroborated the story about the family friend’s camcorder, and also reminded me of the polaroid camera they gave me when I was eight years old. My step-mom said there was no amount of film that would’ve satiated me, and that I persisted at making a picture until I felt it was right. On a family trip I accidentally left the camera in a taxi and was inconsolable. My step-mom said that it was as if I’d lost a limb.”

Eagles Nest is a culturally important site for the tribe. However, now to access it, multiple barbed wire fences need to be jumped. The fences are reflective of how the community was divided into allotments in the mid 20th century as well as the commodification of the land. February 2015

“In the 1940’s the U.S. government forcibly relocated the affiliated Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes to construct the Garrison Dam. It was an area the tribes occupied for centuries. In a matter of years the land was flooded and the tribes’ ancestral home vanished under water.”

“Since February 2015 I’ve made four trips to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation where the M.H.A. Nation now resides. When I began this work I focused on the fracking industry’s impact on the community. In the past two years, however, I’ve learned through interviews with residents that oil is only one part of a more complex and intergenerational story. In addition to the extractable minerals deep in the earth under Fort Berthold are layers of history, culture, trauma and resilience. These substrata play a fundamental role in understanding the present-day social, political, and physical landscape of Fort Berthold. The scope of the project expanded and now my ambition is to create a comprehensive portrait of the people living through this transitional period as well as images that represent the rippling effects of history, industry, and loss on this community in North Dakota.”

“Can you imagine trying to cover almost a million acres with five people? We do have casuals we that we can try to call in but there’s maybe ten of them? Back in the old days, before all the drugs and everything we used to have ninety [people] on the call list. People used to fight to get in. They wanted the job, now you’ve got to recruit… Round here anyone worth a damn, they’re working at a good job.” –Marle Baker, Wild Land Fire Management, February 2016

“Conversations with residents have underscored that while fracking is destructive and disruptive, decades of disenfranchisement by the government had already traumatized the community. As one individual remarked, “the tribe’s been through so many involuntary transitions, we’ve barely been able to get stabilized before another jolt hits.” Undeniably fracking has benefited North Dakota’s economy and as a whole the M.H.A Nation has profited financially enabling them to improve infrastructure including roads, schools, and residential housing. Conversely there’s little consistency in terms of individual profit thus money has become a divisive issue.”

The road leading to the former site of Elbow Woods, now submerged underwater. August 2016

“Like tributaries on Fort Berthold all of the issues at play ultimately flow to Lake Sakakawea, a man-made body of water on the Missouri River formed from the construction of the Garrison Dam. The water plays a prominent role in my images as it functions as a physical metaphor for the past, present, and future of the tribe. It is both a vessel of historical importance due the tribes’ ancestral ties to river dating back to 1000 C.E. and a site that represents profound loss. Yet on a summer day Indian families dot the lake either swimming or sailing boats often purchased with money from oil revenue. The lake has multiple identities and a constantly evolving meaning.”

The tribe’s heard of animals, which includes buffalo, cows, horses, and elk. Ted Siers, the direct of the tribal ranch commented on the closeness of the tribe and how while acclimating to the new noise and traffic the fracking industry brought the animals would huddle in corners. February 2015

“The Lake Sakakawea is perhaps most importantly the primary drinking source for many residents of Fort Berthold. Nine oil and gas pipelines run under the lake and another is under construction. A leak in one of these pipes would be catastrophic. Adverse physical effects of the oil boom are undeniable. Spills and leaks are a potential threat to the health of the community, their animals and crops. Past spills have already done irreparable damage to the landscape. In November 2014, the New York Times reported that from 2006–2014 more than 18 million gallons of oil and toxic wastewater were spilled in North Dakota.

However, there are activists’ spearheading a grassroots campaign to advocate for tighter safety regulations on flaring and a geo-spatial physicist using remote sensing technology to measure air and water quality. Numerous individuals are aggressively fighting to ensure the safety and well being of their community and land.”

“I get oil money, but I can’t wait until it quits. I work for my money.” –A.J. Solis, Librarian, August 2016

“Over the course of the last year it has become increasingly clear through interviews with residents I’ve photographed that no linear or singular narrative exists to explain how this dramatic industrial transformation has affected the community. There are voices of ambivalence, grief, anger and fortitude. Often and understandably the borders of these attitudes and emotional responses dissolve and blend into one another. More than just oil comes to the surface when mineral rich earth is drilled.”

“I’m not traumatized. I am adapting. I’m not saying people aren’t experiencing trauma, I know many people experience the loss of a child or something, there’s a war that takes a child or something like that. Those are traumas. We are still here. It’s not trauma time. Now if I was standing right here and this was the only thing that was left and we had no medicines, and I wasn’t looking out at water, and I couldn’t breath right now, I couldn’t see our land and I couldn’t harvest my medicines, I might be kind of traumatized but I’m still me, I’m still Hidatsa, I’m still Mandan, I’m still Arikara. I’m still here and my little girl’s there. I have five kids, four of which are in college, two of which are finishing their PHD’s. I’m not traumatized. I won’t be. We’re still here. It’s not trauma until it’s done. We’re not done. We’re here. we’re talking, taking pictures.”

Pipeline markers. August 2016

“The work wasn’t born out of an interest in a story about fracking explicitly. In November 2014, the New York Times published a series of articles about the oil and gas industry in North Dakota. Regarding Fort Berthold, the articles centered on the not insignificant problem of tribal government corruption. However, the series loosely touched on the literal and metaphorical scars being inflicted by the industry on the people and landscape. I became curious about who those people were, what those landscapes looked like. I felt a pull to depict them more fully. And it struck me that there was a bigger story worth looking at. I have my very dear friend Teresa to thank for introducing me to this community as much of her family resides there.”

Pete and Charlie. August 2016

“Over the years the subject matter of my work has varied, but threaded continuously throughout is an unrelenting interest in the psychology of both people and place. In recent years I’ve worked on a long-term project about the lives of young physicians and how those who take care of us aren’t afforded the opportunity to care for themselves. I looked at what life looked like once the white coat came off, and the existential complexity of bearing responsibility for other people’s lives. In the past I’ve been drawn to landscapes in Iceland, where geology serves nicely as a metaphor for psychology as there is always something going on below the surface due to the geothermal nature of the island. And now I’m working on the project As Soft As The Earth Is, which at face value, is about the impact of fracking on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota but at its core, is a project about the rippling effects of repeated trauma and how people reconcile morally complex issues.“

“You know we had the reservation, and then we had the boarding school era, we had Christianization, and then we had smallpox and the dam. And to me this is another form of generational trauma, but we’re living through the trauma and not realizing the trauma. And then our kids will have a story of their own generational trauma.”– Sonya Abee, Graduate Student, February 2016

“As an outsider in this community my primary goal so far has been to learn as much as possible about the history of the M.H.A. Nation and its residents personal experiences through conversations with the people living through this change. A vital part of my process so far has been to spend extended time with my subjects prior to photographing them as I’m trying to translate sentiments and ideas expressed verbally into visual imagery. I’m trying to create images that I hope fairly represent the various and conflicted attitudes of the community.”

A flare at night. August 2016


Thanks for reading this interview with Denver-based photographer Morgan Rachel Levy.

To see more of Morgan’s work visit her Instagram or Website.

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Originally published on Art Narratives