By Catherine Murton Stoehr
NORTH BAY – On June 14, a Washington D.C. judge found that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to fully consider environmental risks when approving the Dakota Access pipeline. This was the resistors’ first big win since President Obama’s attempt to halt the project in December of 2016. On that same day a thousand kms due north 100 people met on the traditional territory of Nipissing and Dokis First Nations in North Bay, Ontario to view “Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock” As one organizer explained “We are fighting a pipeline too.”
Hosted by the anti-pipeline group “Stop Energy East – North Bay” the event brought people from Nipissing First Nation together with members of the local labour, church, environmental, arts, and university communities.
The film documented the events of last spring, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposed the construction of a pipeline through their treaty lands by setting up a camp and putting out a call to supporters from all nations to join them.
Told as a story in four parts “Awake” presents the conflict in North Dakota as one eruption of a many headed, ongoing global struggle between water and oil. Offering none of the usual framing devices of a documentary, no statistics, no dates, and no “back-story” on characters, the film hangs together on the scaffold of a dream.
A woman’s voice shares the “horrible” dream. Having put her five children to bed “smiling and squirming… a long dark moment unfolded as if I was traveling across hundreds of years, all things became frightened… It was the fear that had contaminated the world.” Looking at her children she wonders, “What would they do if the water was ruined? How would they live?”
Over the next 90 minutes the film shows panoramic scenes of the water protectors, many young, enjoying living on the land. Young people sledding far too fast down a slope by the camp, a woman powering up cell phones by riding a stationary bike, songs and drumming. Indistinguishable uniformed police officers and Dakota Access Pipeline private security guards skirt the edges of each scene in eerie formation, communicating in rote phrases through loudspeakers: “Your actions are aggressive” they say of unarmed people walking across a bridge; “Can you please move so you do not get pushed into the fire?” it asks of a crowd being pushed backward by police.
People in the film alternate between expressions of concern for the earth, condemnation of the greed and shortsightedness that imperiled the water source for 17 million people and the only source of water for the Dakota of Standing Rock, and glee at the chance to share ceremony, meet with members of the more than 100 tribes who joined together, and immerse themselves in old traditions.
As portrayed, Standing Rock was a generous resistance. Invited again and again to hold themselves up as exceptional or uniquely righteous, the water defenders articulated a universal vision: “Its not just about Standing Rock – its about the planet as a whole and the survival of humanity” and later “It’s the same story as the battle of little Bighorn but its today.” The movement reached up to Northern Ontario to embrace Anishinabe art, gifted to them in person by water defender Isaac Murdoch (Bomgiizhik). His old style image of Thunderbird Woman appears on signs and banners and flags and shirts in almost every scene of the film.
The filmmakers also refused to single out individuals, viewers looked in vain for subtitles with names and credentials that might cue them to hear one voice as more important than another.
In the sanctuary of Emanuel United Church in North Bay the audience joined into the spirit of the Standing Rock community, engaging in a passionate community conversation. One time General Secretary of the United Church of Canada, and signatory to the Indian residential schools agreement, Jim Sinclair opened the conversation
with the suggestion that we were now Awake to “blessed unrest, when people take responsibility right where they live for how the earth can be wounded.”
Commentary was also offered by Alderville First Nation citizen and Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Maurice Switzer who picked up on the theme from the film’s opening, saying that there’s “little point in leaving our children money or property in our wills if there is no water for them to drink or air to breathe.” He called for the older generation to stand up and support the young people in the struggle to transition away from fossil fuels.
Grandmother Elder Lorraine Whiteduck Liberty shared some teachings about a prophecy of a time when the water would not be fit to drink and the trees would be gone and the children will be wearing masks. She said these prophecies were shared with the non-indigenous people as well but for some reason they were ignored. At the beginning of the evening she had talked about how all people must learn how to work for the water and that she hopes the spirit of the water is strong enough to overcome what is being done to it.