An Indigenous Artist Captures the Racial Violence at Standing Rock

Jim Denomie’s paintings present an emotional response to the violence of white supremacy that emerged during the DAPL conflict.

Jim Denomie, “Dog Day Afternoon” (2018) (all images courtesy the artist)

MINNEAPOLIS — The Anishinaabe artist Jim Denomie, who is based in Franconia, Minnesota, became aware of the Standing Rock resistance movement through Facebook. “It wasn’t really covered by mainstream media, not until much later and even then it was limited,” he said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I watched some of these videos of [the private security company] bringing in these vicious dogs challenging people and running around free, and then I read some of the quotes later about how one horse had gotten bitten.”

The Standing Rock movement began in April of 2016 as a resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Initiated by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a preservation officer with the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, it took place first on Allard’s land on the banks of the Cannonball River in North Dakota, but soon spread to other camps as hundreds and eventually thousands of “water protectors” (a term coined by activist Dallas Goldtooth) joined the movement.

Denomie was battling cancer at the time, and was unable to travel to North Dakota. However, his wife, author Diane Wilson, and his son, activist Cody Cyson, both made the trip to Standing Rock multiple times, and learned from them and from his son’s friends what was really happening. “One of the friends was on the front lines the night they were using water cannons,” Denomie related. “So he was telling me things that weren’t on Facebook. You wouldn’t have discovered through research unless you met this person and talked with them.”

Denomie reacted to the videos of dogs attacking the “water protectors” by making a sketch from memory. That sketch became source material for a painting called “Dog Day Afternoon” (2018), which depicts the dogs as ghostly monsters with giant teeth and vampiric eyes. The dogs face the water protectors, along with their handlers, including a man in a T-shirt sporting the Cleveland Indians’ racist mascot and a dog-headed man wearing a suit and carrying a martini glass, while a helicopter flies above and a bulldozer with an American flag looms in the background. “Dog Day Afternoon” is one of three new works inspired by Standing Rock, which Denomie is showing at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis.

Jim Denomie, “Standing Rock, 2016” (2018)

The other two pieces are “Wounded Knee, 2016” (2018) and “Standing Rock, 2016.” (2018). Like “Dog Day Afternoon,” the paintings present an emotional response to the violence of white supremacy that emerged during the DAPL conflict. Denomie connects this violence to historical atrocities, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, in which 250 to 300 Lakota men, women, and children were shot by US Cavalry after those with weapons had been disarmed. Denomie contextualized this body of work as part of his “ongoing dialogue” with American history.

The Standing Rock movement continued throughout the fall of 2016, gaining support from tribes across the US and Canada, and as well as from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and from environmental groups and other activists. In December, the federal government blocked construction of the pipeline in favor of an environmental study, but the good news was short-lived; incoming President Trump reversed this decision, by President Obama, almost immediately after entering office. Much of the camp had been cleared by that time, due to the bitter winter and Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault’s call for the camp to disband. By February 2017, the site was cleared, and by April 2017, the pipeline’s construction was complete.

Yet the impact of the #NoDAPL movement can be seen in the number of artworks produced. Since 2016, Native artists — Cannupa Hanska Luger, Nicholas Galanin, and the late Shan Goshorn, to name a few — have found inspiration in the Standing Rock movement. “I saw it as an Indian Woodstock,” Denomie said. “There was a response from people coming from all over the country and eventually from all over the world. It was the connection of the internet — with social media and Facebook — that made the event what it was.”

Denomie’s work reflects the spiritual energy he believes was present at Standing Rock. “As I was painting, I came to understand there were spirit protectors protecting the water protectors,” he explained. “I got some of this through discussions with somebody I met in Portland, Oregon who was a member of Rosebud reservation. He had talked to an elder at Standing Rock, and she told him that when they dug up the ground, they released these thunder beings. They broke a spiritual meridian.”

Denomie’s version of these thunder beings appear in his painting “Standing Rock, 2016” as brightly colored frogs that crawl out of the river and face off against two-headed dogs; the dogs are accompanied by a military presence and a Donald Trump figure who fondles a scantily clad Lady Justice.

Jim Denomie, “Wounded Knee, 2016” (2018)

Denomie told me this painting is his representation of what he learned about the thunder beings, who guarded the water protectors to prevent even worse outcomes or harm. “Even when they brought the private security company with the attack dogs, there were people that got hurt or got bitten, but because of the spiritual protectors. It could have been worse.” He added, “That stuff is not obvious. It’s something that comes to you, kind of like a dreamlike form. It comes from out there — it’s not something you go shopping for.”

In the foreground of “Standing Rock, 2016” a rabbit pops up from a hole in the ground next to activist and AIM member Leonard Peltier, who has been in prison since 1975 for the shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. In the painting, Peltier is trapped halfway in a well and wears a T-shirt that reads “I’m toast.” While Peltier wears the shirt because President Obama did not pardon him, the rabbit nevertheless represents hope.

When Denomie conceived the painting in early 2018, his preliminary sketch depicted the oil pipeline crossing the river diagonally, which he later incorporated into the final painting. “I inserted a few key players and then quit, because I knew I could fill the rest of the painting in with what I had in my head.” He continued, “Things came to me in process […] I often learn more about some of these events, whether they are historical, political, or even social or cultural events, as I paint.” He likens his style to the literary genre of creative nonfiction. “It’s about reality, it’s about fact and truth, but it’s told in a creative way,” he stated, explaining that storytelling feels innate for him, and it is part of his Anishinaabe heritage.

Denomie didn’t start painting until later in his life. As a young man, he struggled with addiction and dropped out of high school. In 1989, as he was about to turn 34, he got sober, and attended the University of Minnesota the following year. At the university he focused on art and American Indian Studies, and began a process of reclaiming knowledge of his own culture. His connection to this history can be seen in his painting “Wounded Knee, 2016.” He created the sketch for the work the night after seeing videos of law enforcement spraying the water protectors with water cannons: “It was just very infuriating to me. I just saw this police force protecting these oil companies’ interest, but it went beyond that — it become a racial thing. It was obvious it was mainstream white people against brown people in the way they treated them.” He titled the painting “Wounded Knee, 2016” “because, to me, it seemed to have the same tension, the same perils for disaster fatalities as it did for the Wounded Knee Massacre.”

Denomie’s anger is palpable in these three large-scale paintings, which have a nightmarish quality. They serve as artistic records of the Standing Rock protests. It may be too early to grasp the impact of Standing Rock — especially as resistance against other pipelines such as Line 3 in Minnesota continue — but Denomie’s work exists as a witness to the racialized violence that evokes atrocities in America’s past, and continues today. 

Jim Denomie: Standing Rock Paintings opens February 22 at Bockley Gallery (W. 21st Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota).

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