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via @laurab1tch / Instagram

Documenting the beauty & brutality of life at Standing Rock

Laura Hinman’s eerie, intimate Instagram films capture an unseen side of the North Dakota Pipeline protest

On Wednesday, February 22, the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered an evacuation for the residents of Oceti Sakowin Camp, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Ten people were arrested and one was severely injured, continuing a highly disturbing pattern of excessive force against those at the camp. Some things never change.

Standing Rock has been classified as a protest, but it’s truly rooted in religious practice and ceremony. It’s a non-violent movement from Native Americans, dedicated to protecting sacred and treaty lands that will be destroyed by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Any breach in the pipeline would contaminate both the Sioux’s water supply and the Missouri River at large, which is a water source for at least 10 million people –  hence the rallying cry “Mni Wiconi,” which means “water is life,” and the term “water protectors” for protesters.

One of these water protectors is Laura Hinman, a 24-year-old New Yorker who makes unique video art showing what life is really like at Standing Rock. Hinman, a descendant of the Kumeyaay tribe, was raised in San Diego, California, by adoptive parents. We became friends in high school, where we met by being the suckiest players on the tennis team, and we both moved to New York City for college – she attended art school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and went on to work as a graphic designer and a producer for the likes of Vogue and CR Fashion Book. For the past few years, she’s been making funny, creepy clips, which I could best describe as the lovechild of Marilyn Manson and Amy Sedaris. She’s made films for downtown designers like Vaquera and Shan Huq – and now she’s using her platform to provide a singular window into the culture of the camp.

“We're here peacefully, singing, praying, practising our traditions, and we've been met with a horrifying force of militarised police. They treat us like they're exterminating bugs” – Laura Hinman

“I'm a bit better at visual vs. verbal storytelling, and the experiences I've had are stories I want to share,” she says. “Pictures and videos aren't really a traditional part of Native life. So it's interesting to be here, learning and practising those customs, but also wanting to capture this story.”

And she does. Since Hinman first arrived at Standing Rock in September, her videos have provided an intimate, humanising view of a place and culture that are often painted in broad strokes. She shows morning walks in the freezing cold, frying dough for breakfast, riding horses, praying, and singing. As someone who wasn’t raised around Native Americans, with only recent contact with her biological family, simply being at Standing Rock has been a profoundly emotional experience. “When I first got to camp, I broke down crying because I've never seen anyone who looks like me,” she explains. “Suddenly I was in the midst of thousands of Native women and men. It was just overwhelming. I've never had this before. Native Americans in general have never had this before.”

The various camps at Standing Rock – Oceti Oyate (formerly known as Oceti Sakowin), Sacred Stone, and Rosebud – used to be populated by thousands of people from hundreds of tribes. But since the December announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers would be re-routing the pipeline, many have left the camps, and media attention has slowed to a trickle. After yesterday’s evacuation, a few remaining protesters are working on setting up another camp.

On January 24, Donald Trump decided to ignore the engineers’ original easement, and signed an executive order calling for completion of the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines. It’s far from a shocker that our sentient Cheeto president doesn’t care about a potential environmental disaster, let alone the destruction of religiously sacred Native lands. But Hinman, and others at the camp, don’t think that the election truly had too much of an effect on the pipeline’s construction.

“Honestly, I think this pipeline was set to finish regardless of who won the election,” she says. “The US government works hand in hand with the fossil fuel industry, it seems like it doesn't matter which party is in control (oil lobbyists also raised money for Hillary Clinton). But things have escalated. They started drilling last week, North Dakota passed a law making it illegal to protest with a face covering. They're still arresting people, and the charges are getting more and more serious.”

The charges against those arrested at Standing Rock have become increasingly extreme. Those at the camps are consistently surrounded by various forms of law enforcement: DAPL security, the National Guard, the Morton County Police Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The FBI is even investigating certain cases as domestic terrorism. Protesters are frequently hit with rubber bullets, tear gas, and unknown chemical agents, and they were famously sprayed with water in below-freezing temperatures. The Daily Beast’s Sandy Tolan called the situation “the Selma of the North.”

“We're here peacefully, singing, praying, practising our traditions, and we've been met with a horrifying force of militarised police,” says Hinman. “They treat us like they're exterminating bugs.”

“This pipeline was set to finish regardless of who won the election. The US government works hand in hand with the fossil fuel industry, it seems like it doesn't matter which party is in control” – Laura Hinman

She has several stories of aggressive police brutality. “Some of my brothers were driving from camp to the gas station one night and they were pulled over by Morton County PD. The officers got out of their car and started bashing the windows in with their batons. My brothers were arrested and all of their belongings were placed into evidence.”

“The other week when some people were setting up a new camp on the hill across from Oceti, 76 people were arrested,” she continues. “They were put on buses with either the windows down or air conditioner blasting (the weather in North Dakota has been hovering well below freezing). Men were stripped to their underwear and women to their base layers.”

The response to law enforcement has generally been completely non-violent. A few months ago, Hinman shot a jaw-dropping video of Native Americans peacefully thanking uniformed police.

The details she gives, along with hundreds of other news stories, are horrifying. And I am obviously far from objective – when I read the news about Standing Rock every day I’m aghast, and when the stories are applied to my friend of a decade I want to puke. But something beautiful about the art that Laura makes is that, in addition to giving outsiders a genuine, personal view of what’s happening at Standing Rock, she shows that life in the camps is peaceful, and often joyful.

“I get to sit by the fire at night listening to my elders speak fluently in Lakota,” she says. “I am learning more in these past few months than I have in my whole life. I get to learn songs, take part in ceremonies and practice traditional ways of life. I'm the luckiest girl in the world. Whenever I feel the heaviness of it all, that's how I choose to look at this experience.” 

Laura’s videos and general online presence have helped to promote awareness for Standing Rock in New York – communities like 8 Ball Zines have attempted to pitch in and help, and many have been inspired to donate. And as far as what the general public can do to assist, Laura says that donation is difficult due to the evacuation, and that if you want to give money, it’s best to give to someone who is actually on the ground at Standing Rock, or wherever the new camp may be. She said that awareness and legal assistance are the biggest concerns right now.

“Through this experience, I'm learning things have to escalate in order for people to actually take notice and get moving,” she said. “Standing Rock is just one example of the US illegally overpowering Native Americans. This kind of injustice happens all the time, on all reservations. So I think this movement took off because people are sick of living this way. It's oppression. People are going to keep rising and uniting now, because of this escalation. And I think that goes for any group whose voices have been silenced.”