Police officer yelling from behind his visor. Group of police officers with batons attacks Water Protectors.
Water Protector runs from a police officer. Children at the camp sing and drum in a circle.

Paired with these images of industry and offered as their counterpart, Part I of the film features numerous short scenes of police violence. Officers with their faces obscured behind visors, batons raised and mouths open, shouting, attack Water Protectors with pepper spray. In the midst of this brutality, White Bull’s narrative returns to the future: “I looked at my five children sleeping in their beds. What would they do if their water was ruined? How would they live?” Her children appear in grainy, home video-style scenes, smiling for the camera. We see children at one of the camps circling a drum. The children and the young people of the #NoDAPL movement embody White Bull’s vision of the future.

One of the central concerns of Water Protectors as expressed by White Bull is preserving the land and water as an act of responsibility to future generations.[16] [open endnotes in new window] It is unsurprising that the filmmakers include so many images of children in Awake: the #NoDAPL movement was a youth and woman-organized struggle. One of the founding moments of the movement occurred when a group of teenagers completed a run from Standing Rock to Washington D.C. in the spring of 2016 to urge the Obama Administration to stop the pipeline. As White Bull relates,

“The youth council of our nation took it upon themselves to set about the task of waking the world to our dream. They ran from our reservation at the center of the continent all the way to the headquarters of the colonial system, Washington D.C. They ran there to speak to the president and ask him, please don’t destroy the last place we have. Stop the black snake and start the healing of this continent.”

The danger posed to future generations and to the water on which they rely is identified in a sequence of images that flit between a fiery explosion so violent as to be almost indecipherable and drone video of the pipeline right-of-way being cut into the North Dakota landscape. White Bull continues:

“The dream went deeper, underground, under the earth—a fire under the earth, the oil that caused it, spread everywhere, up through the water and into the scorched skies, rising oceans, collapsing cities, millions fleeing their homes, starvation, death, and ruin.”

In both the voiceover narrative and also in the sequencing of images, the film makes an emphatic connection between the Dakota Access Pipeline project and the many dangers of fossil fuel extraction and transportation, not least of which is pipeline rupture and explosion. It is here that White Bull shares the prophecy of the Black Snake and delineates the extent of the damage the pipeline will likely do:

“It was foretold that it would bring death, that it would be the youth that would rise up, and that behind them the mothers would rise, and behind them our warrior would rise. We the seventh generation are given the task of defeating it. It is called the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is proposed to carry billions of gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to Illinois. To do that, it has to run underneath the Missouri River, the Mni Sose, the water source for seventeen million Americans and the only source of water for my home, the Standing Rock Nation.”

The scarred land images of pipeline construction captured by the drone fade into a sun drenched aerial view of Mni Sose, its natural curves a stark contrast to the aggressive linearity of the pipeline scar. In this moment, White Bull’s voiceover defines the mission of Water Protectors:

“In my dream, my friends and loved ones are sent to the last place on earth that still had clean air, clean water, unpolluted and uncontaminated. A great river ran through this center place, Mni Sose. We needed to protect the water at all costs.”  

Moving from dream to reality, Part I of the film recounts a standoff between Water Protectors and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department over Turtle Island, a sacred site to the Standing Rock Nation cordoned off by police in the fall of 2016.[17] White Bull’s narrative compares the scenes of violence along the banks of the river to another battle waged between Indigenous peoples and a militarized state: the Battle of the Greasy Grass, known to settlers as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. White Bull states,

“We defeat fear every day. The battle raged for several days. It’s the same story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But it’s today. The police continued to abuse their authority with violence, just like the Seventh Cavalry.”

At this point, interviews with Water Protectors on the front lines are intercut with historical images, rough etchings of cavalrymen attacking Indigenous people and shooting at close range.

These visions of past military violence are placed in sequence with contemporary scenes of police violence. White Bull adds, “It was as if this ancient battle was playing itself out right before my eyes. They came to our sacred burial ground we call Turtle Island. They walked upon the burial sites of our ancestors. We pleaded with them to leave.” Toward the end of Part I, we see the standoff reach a dramatic climax on Survivor’s Day, Thanksgiving. White Bull states,

“On the day that we call Survivor’s Day, Thanksgiving, as Americans all sat down to their dinner table, we built a bridge, a bridge so that people could get across to Turtle Island to pray and show that we’re still here.”

The police responded by shooting water and pepper spray at Water Protectors and surrounding the site with razor wire.

"We are something new on the planet, but we are not"

The most generative quality of Awake, clearly communicated in Part I, is the way the film addresses time. White Bull wonders, “Was this a vision of the future, present, the past? I don’t know. The Black Snake has been prophesied for generations.” Here and elsewhere, White Bull and the filmmakers draw together the broad timescales of the #NoDAPL struggle. By including historical etchings and White Bull’s rendering of the Black Snake prophecy, the film emphasizes the relationship between contemporary energy development and the over five-hundred year history of resistance to settler colonialism in the Americas.[18] White Bull also articulates the movement’s present-day relevance within a broad range of anti-pipeline actions, stating, “The Dakota Access Pipeline is not the only snake there is. There are hundreds that are being proposed to drill across the United States.” Her words are illustrated by Fox with maps of U.S. pipeline routes interspersed with scenes of pipeline explosions.[19] The veiny pipeline routes on these maps overlap to create confused webs that obscure large swaths of the North American continent. By intercutting these maps with footage of pipeline disasters, Fox makes an argument often made by pipeline opponents about leaks: it’s not if, it’s when. Pipelines will fail. Fox paints the present-day stakes of pipeline development with fire.

The film is also laser-focused on the future, which White Bull identifies as a conflict between oil and water: “The battle for the future is laid out clearly before me. On one side, greed, fear, money, violence, hate, and oil. On the other, generosity, faith, freedom, peace, and water.” Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore state this in similar terms in an article published during the encampment in 2016. They argue that the #NoDAPL struggle can be understood as a clash of two worldviews:

“On one side is the unquestioned assumption that land is merely a warehouse of lifeless materials that have been given to (some of) us by God or conquest, to use without constraint. On this view, human happiness is best served by whatever economy most efficiently transforms water, soils, minerals, wild lives, and human yearning into corporate wealth. And so it is possible to love the bottom line on a quarterly report so fiercely that you will call out the National Guard to protect it. On the other side of the concrete barriers is a story that is so ancient it seems revolutionary.  On this view, the land is a great and nourishing gift to all beings. The fertile soil, the fresh water, the clear air, the creatures, swift or rooted: they require gratitude and veneration. These gifts are not commodities, like scrap iron and sneakers. The land is sacred, a living breathing entity, for whom we must care, as she cares for us. And so it is possible to love land and water so fiercely you will live in a tent in a North Dakota winter to protect them.”[20]

The time scales of these two worldviews are as divergent as their aims: the short-term gains of capital accumulation with its refusal to acknowledge the long-term effects of development versus a deep connectedness to the past and future that demands an account of industrial impacts.

The film’s relationship to time is summarized toward the end of Part I when White Bull states, "We are something new on the planet, but we are not. We are something very old." Part I of Awake weaves together moving and static images of the past and present with White Bull’s narrative, which she embodied on screen in interviews and through documentation of life in the camps. Accompanied by a series of scenes of preparing food and raising tents, White Bull describes Oceti Sakowin: “We have everything we need at camp. We chop wood, carry water, attend to the sick and injured. We create art, we report to the outside world, we cook for ourselves. There’s no money, no electricity. There’s no hate, there’s no fear. There’s no starvation, there’s no homelessness.” In words and actions, White Bull actualizes the future she ardently imagines for her children.

Not only does White Bull embody the dream, but so do the thousands of people who traveled to Standing Rock in solidarity. White Bull relates, “The first days on the blockage, we asked for people to come to stand with us. It was a shot in the dark, if anybody would hear us, if anybody would care. The camp grew along the banks of the Missouri River. We called it Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires. Thousands from all over the continent and the world came to pray with us, to face the fear with love. We call ourselves Water Protectors. We are here to protect the water.” The dream the Water Protectors share is “so ancient it seems revolutionary.”[21] One of the most recognizable landmarks at Oceti Sakowin is featured in Part I of Awake and communicates the geographic scale of the response from Water Protectors: a mile-marker post with many wooden arrows pointing in all directions toward the places from which people traveled.[22] Including an image of this mile marker post in the film communicates the movement’s broad reach to outside viewers while also addressing Water Protectors who recognize it as a symbol of camp life. 

Part I of Awake ends in the midst of an encounter between Water Protectors and militarized police officers on Backwater Bridge, the title of Part II. On a cold, overcast day, Water Protectors with gloved hands raised walk out toward armored cars flanked by razor wire. Giant flags flutter in the sky; a blue flag is painted like waves. White Bull intones:

“I am not dreaming. I am awake. I have been woken by the spirit inside that demanded I open my eyes and see the world around me, see that my children’s future was imperiled. See that my life couldn’t wait in slumber anymore. See that I was honored to be among those who are awake, to be alive at this point in time, to see the rising of the Oceti Sakowin, to see the gathering of the nations and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths. Will you wake up and dream with us? Will you join our dream? Will you join us?”

As White Bull implores the viewer to join in the dream, to wake up and face the fear of seeing things as they are, the image cuts to black.  

“I am not dreaming. I am awake”

Through montage and voiceover, through image and narrative of past, present, and future, Part I of Awake conjures immense time scales, including the more than five hundred-year history of Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism as well as the future of Indigenous struggles against energy infrastructure. Images of Indigenous peoples, like the wet plate photograph of White Bull at the beginning of Part I, reference the iconic and damaging representations made by people like Edward S. Curtis, but do so with a difference: these images are placed in sequence with the very real, continued presence and struggle of Indigenous peoples to protect water, land, and life across time scales and across human and non-human relations. The film also examines the broad material scale of oil—the far-reaching effects of spills and other industrial disasters, including climate change, on air and water, land and bodies.

Both in the title of the film and in the language of Water Protectors like White Bull, wakefulness and dreaming are keys to understanding the #NoDAPL struggle. Whereas the drone video of the scraped earth pipeline right-of-way represents a linear, settler conception of time and the seeming inevitability of fossil fuel infrastructure, the film’s repeated use of images of water and White Bull’s clear articulation of the struggle as part of a much older one asserts an alternative notion of time, of seasonal cycles and return, of circularity and reflexivity. Awake aesthetically and aurally collapses linear time, overlapping the past, present, and future in an effort to resist the forward thrust of capitalism in the form of unchecked energy development.

Conclusion: “It was always we, the people”

“This movement has always been of the people, not of any government. It was always we, the people, that were always on the ground, on the front lines. It was always the people, common people, so people have to continue that. So although our camp is burned, it has sprung up thousands of places across the globe, spurring growth as the wildfires cross the prairies. The spirit of our people cannot be conquered because we are the spirit of the water and the earth itself. Our ancestors are calling on us. We have the chance to resist and to change America, the globe, forever. So I’ll ask you once again: will you join us? Will you join our dream?”[23]

During its first six months in operation, the Dakota Access pipeline spilled five times, and the Standing Rock Nation continues to mount legal challenges against Energy Transfer Partners.[24] In June of 2017, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers failed in its assessment of the pipeline’s potential impacts on the tribe. The Corps has defended its permitting process, and lawyers from the tribe and Earthjustice continue to pursue the case.[25]

The Standing Rock Nation also faces new struggles in the form of voter suppression. In 2018, the Supreme Court refused to overturn regulations in North Dakota that require voters to present identification that includes a street address. The law disproportionately affects Indigenous communities in rural counties, who often have post office boxes in the absence of physical addresses. The law was passed on the heels of the 2012 election, in which Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp won by a margin of only 3000 votes and had widespread Indigenous support.[26] In a response to the Supreme Court’s refusal published by the ACLU, Ashoka Mukpo writes,

“This is an attack that must be confronted for what it is — a threat to democratic governance that will have the effect of taking away the most basic right of a large number of vulnerable voters of color.”[27]

In November of 2018, North Dakota Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp was defeated by Republican candidate Kevin Cramer. Even so, voter suppression across the country was met by a number of Indigenous media initiatives in the weeks leading up to the 2018 general election. For example, Native Vote, an initiative of the National Congress of American Indians, is a non-partisan online initiative that assists with voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns alongside educating people about candidates and voting rights and collecting data on voter registration and participation.[28] In the run-up to the election, Native Vote published a number of memes and videos online in their efforts to encourage Indigenous communities to vote. Using hashtags like #EveryNativeVoteCounts, #NativeVote18, and #WeVoteWeCount, they promoted voting via social media by drawing attention to the history of Indigenous voting rights, which were not secured by law in the United States until the 1970s.[29]

Pipeline battles continue in the Dakotas. In South Dakota, which contains a portion of the Standing Rock reservation, the state legislature has passed two laws aimed at suppressing protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is slated to run through the state.[30] The laws require pipeline companies to cover part of the cost of responding to protests and demand high fines for anyone found guilty of “riot-boosting” or promoting protest. Environmental and tribal groups have condemned the laws, particularly the way they were rushed through the state legislature with little time for public comment.[31]

The #NoDAPL trifecta of social media activism, independent journalism, and grassroots organizing continues to be leveraged against the increasingly draconian policies of the right-wing government of the state and nation. Films like Awake are critical viewing in this time where Indigenous rights and the rights of nature are endangered by the policies and practices of the U.S. government. The film makes a powerful argument to heed the call of Floris White Bull to wake from slumber and dream with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.