Beacon Hill Photojournalist Returns From Standing Rock With Tales of Steadfast Resistance

by Kelsey Hamlin

Alex Garland is a freelance photojournalist in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and frequently publishes his photos in the South Seattle Emerald. He recently returned from his second trip to Standing Rock, North Dakota where the struggle against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline has galvanized sustained resistance among Native American tribes. Many of the water protectors have had pepper spray and water hoses deployed on them. Garland, who usually lets his photos to do the talking, agreed to a Q&A about his time interviewing over fifty protectors at the Standing Rock encampment.

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

Contrast your first and second trip to the encampment?

Well, I have a better idea of what the camp is like and what people are doing and how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it. That was kind of my goal this time, to really figure out what the next steps were. What people were going to do. I asked three interview questions, and I think that kind of will help give people an idea of the spirit and how determined people are to stop the pipeline. But that’s kind of the smaller side impact. I think exposing people to this indigenous struggle that’s been going on for four- or five-hundred years, that’s kind of the bigger impact. Showing that these treaties are supposed to be between two sovereign nations and they’ve been completely disrespected and tribal land is being disrespected, and it’s…I think it’s going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people.

So what was the talk of the camp when you got there this time?

Winterizing, that was pretty much the number one concern on everyone’s minds, was how to stay warm.

I’m assuming they have little campfires to keep them warm. I mean, I know they do in tents.

Yeah, there is a constant smell of campfires. There is a constant buzz of chainsaws and the sound of wood being split, and that kind of thing. I mean, that’s one of the more normal noises that you hear throughout the day in addition to drumbeats and people speaking over the P.A.

Did you experience planes flying overhead a lot?

Yeah, I mean there are constant helicopters and small planes.

Do you think they’re media or do you think—

No. One is yellow, that’s the one that is probably the most regular, a yellow helicopter. And I’ve got flight numbers, I took photos of it flying around, and I’m going to put that information out there just to let people know who it is. Because you can look that information up through FAA and see who that’s registered to. I saw some airplanes flying by – they were small. They didn’t have tanks for crop dusting. I did not see any of that when I was out there, and I looked pretty closely at the planes that were flying overhead.

Okay, but you said people had brought up that planes were spraying things on the encampment?

Yeah, and some of the conversations that I’ve had with people, they talked about seeing the video, or having respiratory problems, or seeing airplanes flying at night or hearing them without seeing their lights. I don’t — I didn’t talk to anyone who saw anyone spraying anything, but there were people who had heard that rumor and there was a woman who said she had worked with herbicides and pesticides in the past and she knows how they make her react, and she was kind of reacting the same way.

I mean if there aren’t any photos, I don’t know how…honestly, there’s an EPA air and water test, because those things tend to stick around for a while. It’s not the time of year one would find a crop duster dusting any crops, we’re way past that point.

So there are definitely healers and medics that go around taking care of everybody. What was the most frequent sickness, or irritation, or injury around the camp?

I saw a lot of people who had the coughs, which was pretty common at the camp. There were a lot of runny noses, just typical things from people living outside for an extended period of time without having a way to stay warm. Being exposed to the elements — it’s extremely windy.

So that place is pretty much just dirt at this point. You’ve got dirt clouds with who knows what being kicked up and thrown in your face. I mean, you’re breathing this stuff all day long and there’s animals all over the place, and dogs. So there’s a potential I think for there to be some health concerns. If someone brought the flu into that camp, it’s such a communal environment that I think it would spread pretty quickly. I think that’s something they need to be concerned about.

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Photo: Alex Garland

I also want to get a read of how everyone at the camp felt. Were they kind of demoralized or amped up by the situation?

I think it changed. It’s hard to say really because it’s very different from person to person and depends on how long people have been there. Those who were there for maybe 60 days or more were feeling a little exhausted. Those who were fresh to camp were high on energy and had a lot of hopeful things to say. People talked about how they felt – a different kind of spiritual energy just by being there. I think it genuinely had a real effect on people, just by seeing others live so communally.

There are some rules that they ask you to abide by like, no alcohol, no drugs, no weapons. And I think people are being fairly respectful of that. You would see people walking around picking up cigarette butts, because that’s one of the most common things there, and that has to do with passing the time. And there’s also a spiritual aspect to the tobacco.

So you left right before law enforcement sprayed water hoses on the protectors, right?

Yeah, I left about four hours before that happened. I had gone kind of with a plan of taking photos and doing interviews with people in the camp. I wanted to ask them the same three questions and kind of get as big of a variety of voices as possible.

So the night officers doused protestors with water hoses, you can clearly see barbed wire acting as a barricade between police and protectors. Is that always there?

So when I went in September with another photographer, there was a National Guard post set up with concrete blocks, but no barbed wire, just armed troops. You drive up, and they stop you, and you roll down the window or they just wave you on. First time, when we drove in in mid September, we rolled up to the barricade and they were like, “we just want to make sure you know what’s going on down the road. There are people walking on the road so we want to make sure you drive safe” and “please slow down” and that kind of stuff. That’s what I got, but that’s also me as a white man driving up to a National Guard barricade with a white woman passenger in a mini van so I think that might be a different situation for different people.

But when I was there this time, there were two burnt-out trucks sitting there that were kind of, almost intentionally, parked across the road. I don’t know if they were intentionally set on fire, I couldn’t get a clear answer on that from anyone. Someone told me it was an accident and that those weren’t meant to be burnt, they were just meant to be a barricade.

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Actor Mark Ruffalo (left) greets a water protector at the Standing Rock campsite. [Photo: Alex Garland]
Did the trucks belong to the protectors?

Honestly, I’m not sure. They were fairly large trucks. I’ve got some photos of the barricade. But just beyond those trucks were K-bar barricades, or K barricades — that you see dividing interstates and highways and that kind of thing. But there was razor wire strung along that barricade, and just beyond that were police vehicles, and very powerful lights.

Would you say that the police or the National Guard were hostile?

I did not experience that when I was there. There were two small direct actions that I went to. I didn’t see any hostility. But I had heard that the day I got there, there was an action where the police stopped a caravan of vehicles as they were heading out to an action, and pulled eight people out of different cars to arrest them. So that seems pretty hostile.

Did you experience moments where you could kind of discern — if there were any — groups that were hired by the company versus typical police?

No, no. They all seemed to be wearing the same brown shirts…But when I talk about hostility, I guess I’m talking about direct hostility. Because, generally, it seems fairly hostile to have police vehicles on a hill, overlooking camp, constantly watching. So, I don’t know, there’s that aspect of just having the feeling of being watched all the time. It couldn’t be very relaxing.

And did you hear any of the helicopters at night either?

Yes, I definitely heard helicopters flying around a couple times early in the morning. I feel like it was, like, four o’clock in the morning one time when I heard them.

 

Weird, did you see them with lights off?

I was sleeping in my car, which by four o’clock in the morning had a tendency to freeze-over the windows because of the condensation so I couldn’t really see anything except a glow. And I wasn’t about to open that car door for even half a second.

 

Was there anything that went on that just struck you as out of the ordinary?

I think being watched like that was pretty out of the ordinary. It’s a pretty open camp. I mean, I spent some time hanging out with the security guards up at the front and watched how they let people into camp. They were pretty friendly and welcoming to just about everybody that came in. I think if somebody wanted to be there, they could be there.

 

That seems weird because watching the videos of what transpired after you left the camp leaves you with the impression the security guards aren’t really supportive of the movement. I can’t imagine being so nice one moment and then switching over into hosing people down.

I mean there were times where protectors were having those small actions when people would approach the bridge, out of nowhere you would see a line of 15, 20 SUVs and cop cars come screaming from behind the hill. So they’re staged pretty close. Maybe no more than 15 minutes away. So if the call goes out that there are people approaching the bridge, they always send cops down, and they send the MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected ] … The big army trucks, the black one and the tan one. They’ll send them every time. And they have the LRADs [Long Range Acoustic Devices] on them.

You said law enforcement used them the last time you visited the encampment. Do they use them frequently?

They didn’t use them for any of the actions I was present at.

And you were at the bridge action, then?

I was at two bridge actions.

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Photo: Alex Garland

Okay, because I read that people were getting hit by rubber bullets a heck of a lot at those actions. Did you see that?

None of the ones that I went to had any kind of conflict whatsoever. I guess the one that had the most conflict was where a group of white women marched to the trucks and sat down with their hands up. They sat down in prayer for like twenty minutes. And then a group of indigenous women came up behind them and stood in prayer for a few minutes longer. At that point, someone had spoken with a representative from the police side and I guess they had agreed to an amount of time that they would be allowed to sit there and do that action. And when their time was up, they were told that their time was up.

Did you see anybody within the camp that had injuries as a result of conflict from when you weren’t there?

A few people told me about being maced and tear-gassed. No one that I talked to mentioned being shot with a rubber bullet. I don’t know if that’s something that they just don’t talk about or if I managed to not talk to any of those folks.

How many people would you say are at the camp?

I had a hard time estimating. I was looking at photos and trying to count just generalized areas, but I want to say there are maybe a thousand structures out there, and I would conservatively put four people per structure. That seemed like a lot more than when I was there [earlier]. I don’t know if that’s because when I was there, it was more pre-season tent camping, like REI tent camping, and less of the bigger structures. But now there are a lot of yurts, a lot of army tents, four season tents, and winterized teepees. There are a few campers and RVs and buses and that kind of thing. And then some temporary structures out of plywood and two-by-fours.

I mean obviously you have a very large desire to pretty much constantly be at Standing Rock. Could you explain a little bit of why that is?

Personally, I just have experience being around police actions like this. I feel like I know how to take care of myself in these roles.  I feel like I’m able to get clearer information out efficiently, and rely a lot on the photos I take to tell the story, to help kind of keep my opinion free and to just provide information so people can decide for themselves.

I feel like there’s no significant constant media presence other than a few indigenous outlets. I don’t know if Unicorn Riot is an indigenous outlet, but there is someone who is constantly on the ground and reporting and just showing you what’s happening, giving you an idea of what’s actually going on. There are a few folks with drones that are providing really useful footage. The Indigenous Environmental Network have pretty much a permanent spot set up, and that’s run by Tom Goldtooth. They’re doing an excellent job of informing people of what’s happening.

I actually read somewhere that the land protectors are on isn’t technically their tribal land, but their protesting because if the pipeline breaks, it immediately impacts their land. What are the facts on that?

I’ve heard that where they are is unceded tribal land. They never ceded it to the government, so when the tribal land was drawn, it was drawn to the other side of the river. But some folks are saying that they never ceded that land in the first place. When you get down to it, regardless, it was always their land to begin with.

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Photo: Alex Garland

What were the best moments for you, and what were the worst?

The best moments were just having conversations. Really letting people just talk, and say what they needed to say, and get their voices out. That was really rewarding. Meeting John Trudell’s oldest daughter and being able to interview her was pretty great.

And I guess the worst moments were, I don’t know, there’s always the trepidation of being around police knowing their complete lack of regard for first amendment rights, and the fact that I could be arrested at any point for doing what’s protected by the constitution.

How are people handling all of the legal fees that they’re dealing with, like with bail or arrests or getting their cars towed?

I’m not 100 percent sure. I know that there’s a legal collective there on the ground with a legal tent where you can go in — they suggested that if you’re going to be in an action at all, that you fill out this paperwork. Just give them information on who you are and what things you might need taken care of, like if you have a rental car or something like that.

There were people of all age ranges?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I saw babies being carried around all the way up to very old elders sitting around the campfire.

How are the elders treated in this community?

It is a very respectful community when it comes to the elders. People are constantly checking on them to make sure they have firewood, that they’re warm, that they have food to eat, and that their clothes are clean. People are doing laundry runs. They’re looked after really well because that is part of their culture.

What were some of your emotions throughout, and why did they change if they did?

That’s a tough one. I mean. There were a lot of times that I was just really frustrated to see people having to struggle so hard to protect water, and their treaty rights. This shouldn’t be a very hard decision for a lot of people to make to get behind those who were indigenous to this land before the settlers got here and colonized everything, and tried to take away their culture and their livelihood.

Yeah, it’s going to have a direct impact on their reservation, but it’s also going to have a direct impact on seventeen million people downstream. And as this river runs through some of the breadbasket of this country, it would have an effect on a lot of people’s food if it were to have a break of significant size.

Which, if you look at the history of pipelines in general, they break! Often. And it’s pretty much just bound to happen. And why are we, why are we so focused on this short-term financial gain when in the long term, we know that fossil fuels are not the way we’re going to go? We know it’s not sustainable. I don’t understand why we keep throwing money at this infrastructure when it could be just as financially beneficial to the companies to invest in long-term strategies.

I talked to a reporter two weeks ago, and she mentioned that DAPL had stopped building underneath one of the lakes in response to me saying “Oh, well, they’re clearly still building the pipeline.” But from what I understand, and from the pictures I’ve seen from the campsite itself, they are still building, correct?

Oh yeah, they’re still building. They haven’t stopped. I have a feeling that the majority — like one of the places that I drove by in September had pipeline laid out and when I drove by it this time, the pipeline was in the ground. They’re still laying pipe. They’re still working on the drill pad. There’s drone footage of them bringing in parts for the drill pad itself. They’re not going to stop because they have money invested in the project. They assume they’re just going to get the permission to continue going, so why waste time? I read an article talking about if they don’t have the project finished and oil moving through the pipes on Jan. 1, they have to renegotiate their contract with the companies they’re going to ship the oil for. But  oil prices are down, because we have surplus right now. And if they have to renegotiate in 2017, then there’s a chance they might not even make a profit. So all they have to do is delay until the end of the year.

Were most of the protectors there Native American or did you see a lot of people all over deciding to join in solidarity?

I met people from all over the world. There are significant numbers of indigenous people there from around the United States. California, New Mexico, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota. It is really a sight to see. It’s probably one of the most, I mean counting tribes and sovereign places, it’s one of the most international places I’ve ever been in my life.

I met a guy that was the vice chairman of the Maori party from New Zealand, and had a fascinating conversation. I met someone from Japan…There was a Buddhist monk there from Tibet. I met a couple from England. There was a guy from Germany that’s been there since I first visited in September.

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Photo: Alex Garland

When it comes to this movement — because you’ve covered so many- is there any particular note or feeling that isn’t like everything else?

This is something that I’ve never been a part of or covered before. I can’t compare it to Occupy, because Occupy was so…just so much different than this is. This brings a lot of different groups of people together, which I guess is similar to what Occupy did but this has a sense of spirituality to it. There’s so much prayer. There’s so much more of a community feel. People really helping each other out: “if you’re cold,” you know, “come warm yourself by my fire. If you’re hungry, I can find you some food. If you need some clothes, I know where to get it. If you’re not feeling well, I can help you get there.” People are constantly looking out for each other. And you can sense that just walking around and having conversations with folks.

Sure, there are some individuals who don’t want to be photographed and they keep their faces covered because they’re threatened by law enforcement for protecting this water. They’ve been arrested and they’re still determined to be there and do this work.

When water protectors talk about being targeted when they leave the campsite, do they mean they’re targeted by the community at large in the North Dakota town or something, or is it by police?

I think they were talking about law enforcement. I think that’s where they feel like they’re subject to arrest just by being water protectors. I feel like that’s something they’re pretty concerned about. There were reports of police in Bismarck looking for anyone holding signs. It’s yet to be confirmed, but those are things that people are talking about.

I’m literally baffled by Morton County Sherriff’s Office spokesperson [Rob Keller’s] statement that the hoses were to put out fires and not hurt protestors. He openly admitted to me about the stingray. And so I expected him to be pretty open about why water hoses were used on the protesters and that’s just not happening.

I mean, obviously, he’s being fed that information, he’s just a PIO? I still doubt, very seriously, that he would be honest. I mean there’s been so much mistruth coming out of the local authorities…I really feel like you can only trust the people who are on the ground, witnessing this stuff first hand, and recording it. That’s why independent journalism is so vital. Because otherwise, where else are you going to get your news?

I mean, one of the guys I interviewed had gotten arrested, he was one of the people pulled out of the vehicle and arrested. And he said that while he was in jail, he got to listen to some news. They actually took him up to Fargo, a two hour drive away, because their jails are so full. That’s a pretty big drive to go put him in jail.

Do they drive them back, by the way?

Nope! There are jail support teams that will pile in vehicles and go get them.

But he was telling me that he was listening to this report coming out of Fargo’s main TV news station and they were citing an ad that was in a local newspaper.

What?

Saying that protesters were being paid and that, you know, that if you wanted to be paid, to contact this information and they’d pay you a thousand dollars, or something like that. And I was like, They based their entire news story off an anonymous ad in the newspaper? Anybody could put a f***in ad in the newspaper.

Most of these folks out here never f***in heard of Unicorn Riot — and they’d be like, “why the f*** do I want to listen to someone called Unicorn Riot?”

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Photo: Alex Garland

I’ve been wondering if there’s a media bubble surrounding the community at large in North Dakota and what news they’re getting versus the type of news we’re getting up here in Seattle.

They’re watching cable TV news out of Bismarck, or they’re listening to Mandan radio, or they’re reading their Mandan newspaper. What I was surprised at was how few reporters that I ran into from Mandan or Bismarck. I didn’t run into a single one of them. And I spent a lot of time talking to reporters and photographers. It was like, This is an hour away from you, like, why would you not be out here every single day? How is this not vital to you? I was listening to the radio, and they were talking about how vital the oil boom was to North Dakota, to their economy. And I was like, why would you not be out here talking about this every single f***ing day?

If there’s no one there to document it, it makes it easier to dismiss right?

Or to say that it was super violent! I mean, this is one of the least violent things I have ever been to in my life.

This was just so peaceful. And I just can’t express that feeling enough. Being around the people that were at that camp, I just never once got the sense of any kind of violence. I got the sense of fierce determination. And, there are definitely warriors out there, but I’m not going to say that they’re violent warriors because I didn’t see any of that. When I think of a warrior, I think of someone who is determined enough to lay their life down on the line in a peaceful way. As peaceful as laying your life on the line can be. Walking out on the front lines, and putting your hands up in the air as you’re getting doused with water in 23 degree weather, that’s putting yourself on the line, to protect the water that you’re being sprayed with.

Is there any rhetoric going around that you want to alert readers to, or just outright claim is false…?

Well, I heard that there’s a bill going around in Washington by some senator to ban protesting by Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen.

For f***’s sake that’s how we became a country. It could not be any more clearly labeled in the constitution. And these folks claim to be labeled, like, defenders of the constitution. Maybe they should read it.

Kelsey Hamlin is a reporter with South Seattle Emerald, and interned with the publication this summer. She has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is a University of Washington student, and the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists. Hamlin is a journalism major at the University of Washington with interdisciplinary Honors, and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice. See her other work on her website, or find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.


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