Standing Rock and media through history’s lens

UND professor assembles diverse lineup for behind-the-scenes look at pipeline dispute turned national debate

Jenni Monet

Award-winning American Indian journalist Jenni Monet was one of the first reporters on the ground to document Standing Rock’s protests of an oil pipeline that cut through the Standing Rock reservation, destined to intersect with the Missouri River, an important source of drinking water for the tribe. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Two phone calls bookended Jenni Monet’s last hours covering the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The first was to fellow American Indian journalist, Mark Trahant, then and now the Chuck Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at UND. The second, she says, was to her lawyer after a nearly 30-hour detainment in a cold storage garage of a North Dakota Sheriff’s Office.

“I think we’re going to get hurt,” Monet told Trahant in that first call, as she left her base at the Prairie Knights Casino & Resort. She was headed north to the last remaining NoDAPL camp – just before law enforcement moved in to shut it down.

Monet needed to alert someone to the gravity of the situation. She chose Trahant.

On Thursday, Monet, this year’s Jack Hagerty Lecturer, joined her old friend, Trahant, at UND to recount her story. Monet’s talk was part of a daylong “Standing Rock & The Media” symposium, which Trahant brought to campus to investigate the craft of journalism and its role in the NoDAPL saga. The event was part of Time Out Week at UND, a celebration of American Indian art and culture that leads up to the annual UND Indian Association powwow, or Wacipi.

Filled a void

An award-winning journalist already, Monet was one of the first reporters on the ground to document Standing Rock’s protests of an oil pipeline that cut through the Standing Rock reservation, destined to intersect with the Missouri River, an important source of drinking water for the tribe. Before the mainstream media showed up, her work filled a void on the front lines of the standoff between tribal supporters and the government.

Monet believed she had reason to be concerned on that early February day in 2017 when she phoned Trahant.

In the preceding months, Monet had heard about and witnessed what she and others called an overzealous reaction by law enforcement to “water protectors” living in camps along State Highway 1806 south of Mandan, N.D. Their stories describe a kind of “Selma (Ala.) of the North,” a reference to the 1960s civil rights movement. This played out in militaristic shows of force, on the tamer end, and use of high-pressure water hoses, attack dogs and rubber bullets to control people, on the other.

“It was the most under-reported story around the world,” Monet, a tribal citizen of the Pueblo Laguna, told her Hagerty Lecture audience.

‘Walk or get arrested’

Monet, the only credentialed journalist around when law enforcement moved in to close the last camp, explained that, despite her decorated career in media, the police saw her as an activist instead of a journalist. Monet says she followed all media ground rules and presented her credentials when asked. It wasn’t enough, though, after one state officer ordered her to “Walk or get arrested.”

She obliged.

“At the time, I was more concerned about my deadline,” she said. “Never once did I think I was going to get arrested – but I did.”

That brought Monet to her second phone call.

Monet demanded her one allotted phone call while confined with 19 other women, mostly American Indian, arrested that day. They were held in what she described as dog kennels in an unheated Morton County Sheriff’s Department garage.

Her incessant pleas eventually got her a phone, but it didn’t win her sympathy among fellow inmates. They begrudged her audacity in the face of authority, she said.

Monet eventually was the first to be released. That didn’t help the mood among the others.

Standing up

Monet was surprised by the reaction, but later realized she was witnessing the result of generations of subconscious indoctrination and the tendency to confuse subservience with self-preservation.

Others who spoke during the symposium alluded to this phenomenon. More than a just a protest or a mere environmental fight, NoDAPL was a visceral reaction against subservient culture and a clear example of Indigenous people standing up for sovereign rights, they said.

Others saw in Standing Rock uncomfortable parallels to infamous civil rights locations, such the aforementioned Selma and Birmingham, Ala. And still others pointed to NoDAPL as a profound example of American Indians coming together and working as one for a common goal.

Through it all, the day’s conversations explored the victories and challenges of journalism – grassroots social media to mainstream – in conveying the stories of Standing Rock.

Jodi Gillette and Mark Trahant

Jodi Gillette (left), who’s Hunkpapa Oglala Lakota and a former advisor on American Indian affairs to President Barack Obama, worked with the media to raise consciousness of Standing Rock’s NoDAPL fight. Gillette (above left) participates in a question-and-answer session with UND Chuck Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism Mark Trahant. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today..

Master narrative

Jodi Gillette, who’s Hunkpapa Oglala Lakota and a former advisor on American Indian affairs to President Barack Obama, is not a journalist. Rather, she works with the media to raise consciousness of Standing Rock’s NoDAPL fight. She also tries, sometimes successfully, to get shareholders of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the industry lead for the Dakota Access Pipeline, to divest from the company.

Gillette, a lawyer by trade, said NoDAPL should be viewed through a prism that reflects American Indians and their history as a continuum and not something from the old days.

She said the master narrative of the United States has always been that the land is destined to be conquered for the greater good. But for American Indians, she said, the conquering has been a reoccurring theme, written on the scorched ashes of some 200 treaties, especially involving national infrastructure projects.

Gillette points to irrigation and dam projects that have displaced Native people from their homelands, mining in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, and new railroads that led to the decimation of the great North American bison herds, a major food supply for Plains Indians.

“The government has completely disregarded our place and our rights to be who we are,” Gillette said. “(People) say – oh, that was in the 1800s. They think we are from the past, we’re past tense – extinct.”

Battle cry

Gillette argues today is no different, referring to Big Oil projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

She and others against the pipeline contend that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally envisioned a Missouri River crossing in North Dakota upstream of population centers Bismarck-Mandan. Plans were later revised to bypass the Capitol City and have the pipeline cross the Missouri on reservation land, pipeline opponents say.

“We’ve never said ‘yes’ to that pipeline,” said Gillette, arguing a lack of process that would allow Standing Rock to protect its own future.

ETP maintains it has followed all necessary legal steps to notify and work with Standing Rock’s tribal government about concerns.

Gillette said the Standing Rock demonstrations were a sign that Indigenous people had grown tired of the status quo. It was long overdue recognition that American Indians have a voice. She also sees Standing Rock as a sort of battle cry and a playbook that’s being used around the world where Indigenous lands and people are threatened.

“The next Standing Rock can be wherever you take a stance to protect Mother Earth,” she said.

Scott Davis

Scott Davis (right), executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, has served the state of North Dakota throughout the Standing Rock pipeline saga. A descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, he often finds himself caught in the middle as he seeks common ground or opportunities for dialogue between sides. Photo by Richard Larson/UND Today.

In the middle

Caught in the middle of it all is another non-journalist who spoke at the symposium.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, has served the state under three governors, including Jack Dalrymple and Doug Burgum during the NoDAPL demonstrations at Standing Rock.

A descendant of the Turtle Band of Chippewa and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Davis has been trying to find common ground or opportunity for dialogue among all sides in the pipeline debate.

“My first priority, as always, is to help my people,” Davis said. “I just do it in a different way.”

Davis said that a lack of a single voice was his biggest challenge in dealing with NoDAPL protestors.

“There were a lot of different agendas in that camp,” he said. “Who’s in charge? We had no idea. Different agendas were in charge on different days – and that’s when it started to get ugly.”

Davis, who’s always stressed the importance of building relationships, said he had hoped that all sides could have continued working toward a solution instead of devolving into a fight.

“It’s brought you a lot of attention,” Davis would say to the protestors, “but are you really winning? Are you moving the needle forward?”

Jason Begay, Scott Tolan and Renee Jean

A panel of reporters, comprising (left to right) Jason Begay, veteran American Indian writer and University of Montana journalism faculty member; Scott Tolan, who worked as a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times; and Renee Jean, a reporter with the Williston (N.D.) Herald, discuss the craft of journalism and its relation to the Standing Rock pipeline demonstrations. They also presented behind-the-scene accounts of what they saw while covering the dispute. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Dogs and hoses

Sandy Tolan, a freelance journalist for the Los Angeles Times and others, was a reporter like Monet who provided some of the most intimate descriptions of life in the NoDAPL camp, the myriad perspectives involved as well as measures used by government to control the protests.

Tolan was struck by parallels he saw at Standing Rock to the African American struggle for civil rights. He referred to the use of National Guard troops, attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses in hypothermia-inducing November weather to control protestors at Standing Rock. In Tolan’s mind, it was reminiscent of how Birmingham (Ala.) City Commissioner Bull Connor infamously ordered local firefighters to hose down rioters in 1963.

Tolan also interviewed an American Indian mother and grown son who had been arrested and allegedly held in dog kennels, similar to the ones Monet said she experienced. The difference in this case, Tolan said, was that the mother and son bore tracking numbers scrawled across their forearms, an attempt by law enforcement to more easily identify its captives in the face of an onslaught of NoDAPL prisoners.

The ordeal was an unwitting, yet no less unfortunate, tie to the Jewish Holocaust, another time in world history when human branding was used for tracking, Tolan indicated.

“This is the story that epitomized, to a large extent, the police response to Native-led protests,” Tolan said.

False balance

Tolan said these incidents convinced him that the NoDAPL story needed to be told through a civil rights lens. He was surprised that more of his friends in the national media didn’t do the same.

Instead, most national outlets followed the New York Times lead with more of a “he said/she said” approach. Tolan argued this trend created a “false balance” or moral equivalence in coverage that shouldn’t have been there given the obvious brutality taking place.

Tolan’s coverage also delved into the beautiful. He talked about meeting Phyllis Bald Eagle and her husband, Black Horse, as they built a sweat lodge on the pipeline’s intended path.

Bald Eagle told Tolan how, because of NoDAPL and the unprecedented convergence of some 300 American Indian nations in a show of support at Standing Rock, the Lakota/Dakota and Crow nations were able to resolve a nearly 150-year-old cold war. The two tribes had been at serious odds because, as the story goes, the Crow had served as scouts for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his Calvary during a series of bloody battles with the Lakota/Dakota people.

The convergence of nations at Standing Rock allowed the Crow and the Lakota/Dakota to reconcile their differences, forgive, hug and cry, Tolan noted. The story helped Tolan realize that what was going on at Standing Rock was so much more than a protest over a pipeline.

“I think that it’s too bad that that part of it was largely missed by the national media,” Tolan said.

Jenni Monet

Monet, who faces a June court appearance in North Dakota for her involvement as a journalist at Standing Rock, said the work of American Indian reporters is crucial to bringing greater awareness to important issues in Indian country. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Real story

Jason Begay, a veteran American Indian news writer and member of the journalism faculty at the University of Montana, agreed with Tolan’s assessment of the real story.

Begay said, too often, when mainstream media tries to tackle issues important to Indian country, its coverage gravitates to the four “Ds”: drinking, dancing, drumming and death. He said NoDAPL brought a new American Indian focal point to the media – protesting.

So when he showed up at Standing Rock with a bunch of University of Montana journalism students, it was important to him that his crew find a less cliché angle to cover – not just the protests.

The scene down “Crazy Horse Avenue” at one of the camps was apt inspiration for Begay. There he saw the 300 flags of 300 sovereign Indian nations adorning the corridor, a sort of United Nations for Indigenous America.

“That’s 300 languages, 300 governments … possibly 300 religions all coming together as one to make this huge statement against the project,” Begay said.  “That was the story.”

Too important

As Monet wound down her lecture on Thursday, she reflected on the work of fellow American Indian reporters and grassroots activists who do the difficult work on the ground, telling life-changing stories long before the mainstream and national media swoop in and take over.

And sometimes this work gets them in trouble with the law. Monet knows this truth all too well. Soon she’ll be making her way back up to North Dakota from Tucson, where she teaches at the University of Arizona, for a June court date, stemming from her arrest at Standing Rock.

Monet gives no hints of regret.

“American Indian freelance journalists are a rare breed, for sure,” Monet told her audience at UND, “but I would not change it for the world no matter how hard the work is – it’s just too important.”