Vladimir Nabokov said it well when he noted that, in the context of Imperial Russia, the powers that be  “remained aware that anything outstanding and original in the way of creative thought was a jarring note and a stride toward Revolution.” In contemporary times, we may not live in an autocratic state, but we still are faced with oligarchical businessmen who seemingly have the power to invoke a police state against peaceful citizens protesting for human rights. Glaring examples of this in United States are the issues of water rights, Native sovereignty, and an oil company invading Indigenous territory in North Dakota — the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

"Thunderbird Woman" Isaac Murdoch 2016. Image courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger

Isaac Murdoch, “Thunderbird Woman” (2016) (image courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger)

It has been many months since the camps in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation were established in the pathway of the DAPL. Now, thousands of Indigenous and non-Native people are occupying these ancestral lands, peacefully gathering in protest against the pipeline. The self-designated “water protectors” represent people from over 300 Indigenous tribes, a convergence that is unprecedented in Native America.

The protest in North Dakota, while remarkable and inspiring, is not the first, nor the last stand against treaty violations for Indigenous North Americans. For a very abridged crash course of Natives within the past decade fighting for the rights to their land, we can look at protests against the National Defense Authorization Act bill, authored by Arizona Senator John McCain, which sold away the sacred site of Oak Flat, on the Apache San Carlos Reservation in San Carlos, Arizona, to an Australian company to mine copper ore. There is also the battle against a ski resort in Flagstaff, Arizona, utilizing grey water to make manmade snow on Dook’o’oosłííd (San Francisco Peaks), one of the sacred mountains of the Navajo Nation. And there is the case of  the Unist’ot’en Tribe in unceded territory in Northern British Columbia, fighting a total of seven pipelines slated to go through its ancestral lands. This fight in North Dakota is not new, but it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Demian DinéYahzi holding protest sign of his own creation (image courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger)

Demian DinéYahzi holding protest sign of his own creation (image courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger)

The escalating tensions erupted yesterday, when armed security and police on Standing Rock attacked water protectors with water canons in freezing temperatures, shot people (including women) with rubber bullets, and utilized chemical warfare against the unarmed civilians in the form of mace and tear gas. But what does this have to do with art? Art, as is evident throughout history, has played an instrumental role in political observations and persuasive dialogues, as well as documenting political change. In the protests against the DAPL, Indigenous artists are instrumentalizing the tools they have within their creative wheelhouses to continue to raise awareness.

Nicholas Galanin, "Standing Rock Cuff" (2016) (image courtesy of the artist)

Nicholas Galanin, “Standing Rock Cuff” (2016) (image courtesy of the artist)

This week marks a peaceful, artist-led migration to the camps at Standing Rock, “Give Thanks.” It is billed by organizers as an act of “conscious, peaceful, respectful support [that] is needed now more than ever to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). With president-elect Donald Trump preparing to take office, and as Energy Transfer Partners defy Obama, federal agencies, and protesters, [as they] prepare their final phase of construction, slated to begin around November 21st.”

Indigenous artists including Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit), Demian DinéYazhi (Navajo), Starr Hardridge (Muskogee Creek), and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Lakota/Mandan/Hidatsa), as well as many others, have been creating work in protest against the DAPL and in support of the water protectors. They are creating a lexicon of iconography that can be read cross-culturally, overcoming language barriers to reach a broader demographic. Posters, banners, and stickers are being disseminated en masse to engage the public, and circulating online with the hashtags #standwithstandingrock, #mniwiconi (Lakota for “Water is Life”), #waterislife, #protectthesacred, and #nodapl. Fine art objects, jewelry, wearable goods, and paintings have been produced for sale, to generate money to support the people living in the camps. Artists are trying to do their part to aid in this cause.

“Reservations and slavery were tools enforced by white power structures,” DinéYazhi told Hyperallergic. “Right now, the same structures are harming sacred ancestral land. It’s not purely Indigenous spirituality, it’s something much deeper that is woven into the fabric of human existence that we’ve been distracted and manipulated away from honoring.”

Luger, who was born on Standing Rock, has been at the forefront of the artists’ movement against DAPL. He and his wife, Ginger Dunnill (Native Hawaiian), have traveled up to the camps in North Dakota many times since the occupation started. Dunnill, who runs the podcast Broken Boxes, has made several audio recordings on the ground at Standing Rock, gathering firsthand testimony from people dedicated to protecting water and Indigenous land rights. Luger, meanwhile, has created objects, as well as a how-to video calling for people to create “mirror shields” to send up to the water protectors. In the tutorial, Luger explains the process of making these objects, the materials needed, and urges viewers to make six and send them to the camps. The mirror shields are poetic armor, forcing the aggressor — in this case the armed DAPL security — to look at themselves as they attack men, women, and children who are defending water. Luger told Hyperallergic: “Many artists, including myself, have been using what means we have, as creative people with large networks, to share information, mobilize support, raise funds for camp supplies, create film documentation to help break the media blackout and create various forms of media, art and useful physical objects for the water protectors on the front line.”

Luger, Galanin, Dunnill, and artists Merritt Johnson and Dylan Mclaughlin, created the short film, “We Are In Crisis,” an ode to Standing Rock, in which aerial images taken from drones are paired with prose, spoken by Luger, which tells of a beast (oil) devouring of the natural world. Additionally, Galanin’s jewelry piece, “Standing Rock Cuff,” was created and sold to the Burke Museum to generate support funds for Standing Rock.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, "Thanksgiving Table" (2016) (image courtesy of the artist)

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Thanksgiving Table” (2016) (image courtesy of the artist)

“It is necessary for us to support our brothers and sisters in Standing Rock,” Galanin told Hyperallergic. “[T]he colonial continuum of destruction and violence is 500 years of war on Indigenous bodies, Indigenous land, and Indigenous future.”

"Black Snake", 2016 Starr Hardridge (Muscogee Creek) image courtesy of the artist.

Starr Hardridge (Muscogee Creek), “Black Snake” (2016) (image courtesy of the artist)

Starr Hardridge’s painting, “Black Snake,” plays on the Lakota prophecy of a black snake that is the bringer of end times. Hardridge renders this snake, cut into many sections, as a symbol of the need to not only stop the DAPL, but also to end or cut our dependency on fossil fuels. Hardridge told Hyperallergic, “Standing Rock is important because it is symbolic of humanity coming together to protect a fragile ecosystem which all lives depend on for survival. It is especially important for me not only as an Indigenous person, but as an artist as well, to reflect current events and happenings that are going on now.”

The battle over Standing Rock is far from over. The basic human right to clean water is in jeopardy, not only for Indigenous people, but for over 20 million people whose water supply from the Missouri River (the largest river in North America) will be endangered if  the DAPL proceeds. Some may think that art is a frivolity in times of crisis, but I disagree. It is conscious action, not only of protest, but also of hope, giving beauty and strength to the cause while letting the opposition know that they are not backing down. The art of Standing Rock is evidence of voices rising collectively to do what is right.

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...