Between April of 2016 and March of 2017, one of the largest social justice movements in American history combusted on the North Dakota plains at the Standing Rock Reservation.
Atlanta-based photographer Ryan Vizzions spent six months at the site documenting the protest, the police and the security to stand in solidarity with the movement. Vizzions will be at Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery to sign “No Spiritual Surrender: A Dedication to the Standing Rock Movement” on Friday, April 12. The exhibition runs through April 21.
With the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux and 17 million people downstream on the Missouri River, thousands of people flocked to the resistance camps to support the Lakota Sioux. From early spring of 2016 to the late winter of 2017, more than 15,000 people camped in tepees, army tents and vehicles without electricity to draw attention to and block the potential contamination of Lake Oahe, the reservation’s drinking water source. Members of more than 300 tribes and indigenous communities traveled to the camps, as well as nearly 4,000 veterans and 500 clergy members.
Vizzions arrived in September 2016, using social media to reach more than half a billion people with his documentation of the events as they unfolded with more than 50 law enforcement agencies from 10 states.
Hailing from Atlanta, Vizzions was keenly aware of the civil rights movement and was involved in local social justice issues. As news reports emerged from Standing Rock, he turned to the internet because he couldn’t afford to fly there. A stranger bought him a plane ticket. He put his personal belongings in storage, expecting to stay a month.
At first, there was no conflict between protesters and law enforcement.
“I noticed it was something powerful,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody. But you would see the community kitchens and 100 fires at night.
“It was a culture I had never experienced. It was powerful and prayerful. I would go to sleep to drums and songs.”
“Defend the Sacred,” his photo of a woman on horseback facing a line of police officers abutted by trucks, went viral.
“The night before, we kept hearing the police were going to come in,” he said. “I stayed up all night with the (Native American) security.”
Twenty minutes into a nap, someone woke him up and told him the police had arrived.
“I could see this big police line forming,” he said. “She rode in and just looked at the police.”
Someone lit a roadblock on fire, turning the confrontation into an eight-hour ordeal.
“The police arrested about 137 people,” Vizzions said.
Similarly, someone set some army trucks parked on a bridge on fire. Some thought it was the work of security details dressed as protesters.
“There’s this huge issue of who set those trucks on fire,” Vizzions said. Security “wanted to keep their jobs; they were making $1 million a month.”
Vizzions never saw himself as a news source. The indigenous people trusted him enough to ask him to head the media tent.
“I was working 18-20 hours a day signing in new journalists who showed up,” he said. “The protocol was no photos of prayer, no photos of children; no photos of the school. The children were being taught by professors.
“Everything’s been taken away from them. All they have is their prayers and their culture.”
He waited an hour to capture an image of the protesters facing off the police, their tepees sprouting from a hill. An night shot features a tepee against the shimmering Milky Way.
“I woke up at 2 in the morning for a long exposure,” Vizzions said. “That blue light in the tepee was actually a blue tarp. It’s a 100 percent natural shot.”
People magazine, ABC News and The Guardian chose Vizzions’ “Defend the Sacred” as photo of the year.
Two years ago, pipeline opponents celebrated when the Obama administration denied a key permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
A few months later, the Trump administration reversed that decision and approved construction.