For Edmonton freelance photographer Amber Bracken, the similarities between North Dakota and Alberta were hard to miss: oil, prairies, strong indigenous populations.
She didn’t want to “over homogenize” but told Global News there was a sense of familiarity.
Bracken has visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe three times, for two weeks each in September and November and one week this month. For most of her stay, she camped, surrounded by as many as 8,000 people who flocked to the area to protest the Dakota Access pipeline.
“I was curious about the idea of ‘why you?’ Obviously this is an important moment, there’s a little bit of momentum here, but why did you specifically answer the call?
“I met students who put their education on hold to come for who knows how long. I met people who had kids at home who they made arrangements for. I met people who brought their kids. I met people who quit their jobs. I met people who were commuting like 20 hours in a weekend just to be present,” Bracken said.
Her work has been featured by a number of news outlets, including Buzzfeed, MacLeans and The Globe and Mail.
“Some of the stuff from Nov. 20 is really graphic. People notice it because it’s shocking to see people injured,” Bracken said. “But, by itself, that doesn’t even come close to representing what Standing Rock is or what those camps are.
“That’s a huge minority kind of an incident. Most of the time it’s very peaceful and totally different than that.”
For Bracken, witnessing this moment in history in person influenced “the nuance of her understanding” of the issue and of the people affected.
“They really want people to know that it’s a prayerful camp, that it’s a camp that’s based on traditional ways and ceremony, that it’s very significant,” Bracken said. “The Sioux people, the name that they use for themselves is Očhéthi Šakówiŋ… It’s actually the uniting of the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux Nation. The last time something like that happened was before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”
“People think of it as a protest camp. For them, they’re praying for a better outcome.”
The pipeline is largely complete except for the now-blocked segment underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. It would have passed under a lake near the reservation and protesters say it would have threatened a water source and cultural sites.
On Dec. 4, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it wouldn’t grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Bracken is back home in Edmonton but watching closely to see what happens next in southern North Dakota. This story, she feels, is far from over.
“Obama’s administration did deny the permit but again, who knows if that will be upheld when Trump takes power in January,” she said. “Also there’s mistrust of the pipeline company themselves.”
Bracken herself witnessed between 10 and 15 “actions” or demonstrations. The majority of them, she said, were peaceful and spiritual.
“Every single time, they would pray before they left camp, they would pray before they started anything when they arrived at the location, there would be prayers throughout and they would always finish in prayer,” she said. “Two got violent. The one that got a little bit out of hand was a situation where police kind of interrupted what they had planned to do by blocking off the road they wanted to go down.
“They got there and there wasn’t prayer and immediately things escalated quickly.”
She also witnessed traditional ceremonies that were so sacred they cannot be photographed.
“It literally moved me to tears,” Bracken said.
“The first time I came across a water ceremony it was a misty morning down by the river. I didn’t expect them to come down and this group of 200 people comes down and they’re singing in unison and nobody’s talking.
“There’s this beautiful music and these people coming out of the mist.
“I was just standing there watching and listening. I went to go tell the singers afterwards – the women – that I thought the song was beautiful and I was really moved by the ceremony and when I opened my mouth to tell them… my emotions took over and I was crying.”
The local photographer will be sharing more about her experience in North Dakota on Global News Morning Edmonton on Monday at approximately 8:10 a.m.