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Edmonton photographer describes covering Standing Rock and Dakota Access pipeline

Click to play video: 'Edmonton photographer covers Standing Rock and Dakota Access pipeline' Edmonton photographer covers Standing Rock and Dakota Access pipeline
WATCH ABOVE: For weeks the Standing Rock Sioux and environmentalists gathered to protest the Dakota Access pipeline. Edmonton photographer Amber Bracken was in North Dakota covering the protests and joined Shaye Ganam to share her experience – Dec 12, 2016

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.

READ MORE: Alberta’s Indigenous land defenders show solidarity with Standing Rock 

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.

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Her work has been featured by a number of news outlets, including Buzzfeed, MacLeans and The Globe and Mail.

READ MORE: Police fire water cannons, tear gas at Dakota Access pipeline protestors 

“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.”

near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Staff carrier Phil Littlethunder, Lakota from Rosebud, SD, on the highway outside a pipeline construction site north of Sacred Stone Camp, ND on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. The staff was passed to him by his uncle, Bill Littlethunder, when he taught the younger man to dance. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Amber Bracken. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Jesse Jaso, 12, enters the Unity Teepee, at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannonball, ND on Saturday, September 10, 2016. The teepee is signed by camp supporters from all over North America and around the world. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Sacred Stone Camp near Cannonball, ND on Thursday, September 15, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 13, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
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near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Monday, November 14, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
The flags at Sacred Stone camp are each brought by tribes as they arrive near Cannonball, ND on Sunday, September 11, 2016. Organizers say there are over 220 tribes represented. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 20, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Sacred Stone Camp near Cannonball, ND on Thursday, September 15, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
A demonstrator, or water protector, sings and holds out his arms to show he is unarmed as police spray the crowd with water canons, despite temperatures below freezing, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 20, 2016. Many people gathered at the road blockade were injured when police deployed water canons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
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A man is treated with milk of magnesia after being pepper sprayed at the police blockade on highway 1806 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 20, 2016. Many people were injured when, with temperatures below freezing, police deployed water canons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Tuesday, November 22, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Sacred Stone Camp near Cannonball, ND on Wednesday, September 14, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Sacred Stone Camp near Cannonball, ND on Saturday, September 17, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
Demonstrators, or water protectors, struggle to protect their bonfire as police spray water canons, despite temperatures below freezing, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sunday, November 20, 2016. Some reports stated demonstrators were setting fires but the only fires they had were used to warm soaking wet people. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective
near Canon Ball, North Dakota on Saturday, November 19, 2016. Courtesy: Amber Bracken, Rogue Collective

For Bracken, witnessing this moment in history in person influenced “the nuance of her understanding” of the issue and of the people affected.

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“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.”

READ MORE: Dakota Access pipeline construction halted by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 

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.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan activist has ‘eyes opened’ at Standing Rock protest 

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.”

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READ MORE: Donald Trump backs Dakota Access pipeline, memo shows

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.

“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.”

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Bracken shares many of her photographs on Instagram, Twitter and on her website.

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.

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