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What I Saw at Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s Dakota Access Pipeline Protest

Photojournalist Sophia Borazanian reports from the front lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest with images and advice for activists.

Sophia Borazanian is a New Orleans-based photojournalist. Since early October, she’s been supporting and documenting the front lines of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s protest against Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access Pipeline.

The controversial construction project, which will transport crude oil from North Dakota across four states, threatens the environmental and economic future of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Tension between the activists and law enforcement erupted on Thursday October 29, including the arrest of 140 people. The situation continues to heighten as construction gets closer to the Missouri River and the protesters are determined to not give up.

Here’s what Borazanian told us about her experience at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest:

Standing Rock is the largest gathering of Native Americans in over a century, with every tribe in America and many more from around the world represented. The kindness of the people, the strength in their solidarity, the beauty of the North Dakota landscape, the spirituality within the camp moved me.

They have gathered to protect the Missouri River (the longest river in North America) from being contaminated by a pipeline that will carry 570,000 barrels of oil each day across the river and the country. They are also protecting their land rights, which have been diminished time and again in the last 150 years.

There is urgency, as the pipeline will reach the Missouri river by the end of November. As I made my way back to the camp for the second time in the hope of spreading word to the rest of the country on what is happening there, I happened to arrive on a day when the North Dakota police formed a small army around peaceful protesters and removed them from the planned path of the pipeline by using full riot gear, rubber bullets, sand bag pellets, tasers, pepper spray, sound machines, tanks and helicopters. They arrested 141 people, keeping them in dog kennels for hours before sending them to Fargo and charging them with felonies.  

The construction of the pipeline is now in sight of the Oceti Sakowin camp, which is less than four miles from the Missouri and sits just outside of the Standing Rock Reservation on federal land promised to the Sioux tribe in the Treaty of 1851, making it the most poignant of all the three camps developed. People in the camp are under a lot of stress as helicopters fly in a continuous circle above them, police sit in tanks on surrounding hills, infiltrators pose as protesters among them and the only road exiting the camp has been blocked to the side where the pipeline lays.

All of this dramatically changed what it meant to be a photographer within the camp. I encourage photographers to make the trip to Standing Rock, as the movement needs public attention. But be aware while you photograph and post your images to the internet. Police have been looking at pictures posted on the web and charging the people they can identify in them with crimes. Always ask someone before you take their picture and take straightforward portraits instead of landscapes so that your intentions aren’t misconstrued.

This isn’t a game. It is incredibly important that the Native Americans at Standing Rock stop this pipeline and they’re in a historic moment. If you are someone who cares send winterizing materials like stoves, firewood, propane, army tents, tepees, and medicine. If you want to show support by visiting make sure you bring more than you take.

Sophia Lee Borazanian’s online portfolio

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