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Redhawk, Documenting Standing Rock

Ryan Vizzions: Photography Raising Consciousness, Dakota Access Pipeline—  

A lot has been happening in North Dakota since the Standing Rock Sioux tribe first stood up against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that threatens the 174,00 sq mile Ogallala Aquifer.  

At least 76 law enforcement agencies have been called in to protect corporate interests, against the peaceful water protectors who oppose them. Representatives from an estimated 280 groups of indigenous peoples (a first in U.S. history) as well as 5,000 veterans have showed up in solidarity with the tribe. Peaceful water protectors have been charged with rioting and attempted murder, while laws are being proposed that would make it legal to run over and kill protestors. Water protectors have lost toes and fingers to the brutal cold. One protector nearly lost an eye to so-called non-lethal police another may lose an arm. Camps have been set up and torn down for “trespassing” on land that was ceded to the native people in 1851.

And photography stars have risen. One of them is Ryan Vizzions, an independent journalist who doesn’t use real name but goes by either Vizzions or “Redhawk,” the name they gave him at camp. When I asked him the reason, he told me that when he first started the FB page, journalists were being targeted. Vizzions has been more committed to the Standing Rock cause than to making a name for himself since he first arrived at camp in September, returning permanently in October. He has given up his apartment to spend all of his time on site photographing the conflict and its surrounds. His photographs delve profoundly into the both the conflict and setting, exposing official lies in the process. To press time garnering 279,413 Facebook likes (to Bismarck Tribune’s 41,050). I met him in early September at Standing Rock when the grass was still jewel box green with occasional purple flowers. It is a beautiful piece of land that hosts this epic, environmental battle.

When you see these low rolling prairie hills, like swirls left by passing water, cut by the dull blue-green vastness of the Missouri river and pocketed with dark and gleaming puddles, you can understand how the native people would feel a deep attachment to this land. The bright blue sky, trees turning yellow, little whirlwinds that the native people told us were friendly spirits, eagles soaring above them, flaming orange and purple sunsets, deep blue skies spangled with stars. North Dakota could not be more beautiful or sad. Vizzions clearly sees this too, the beauty of this place where the battle between oil and water is playing out its life-and-death cage fight. Oil, is represented by law enforcement, water by the natives and their allies. The contrast between sides is strong: dull uniformity vs. vibrant individuality, kevlar against feathers, armed robots vs. vulnerable bodies, violence vs. prayer, weapons vs. flags and banners, State vs. Citizen.

As the pale pastels of winter took over: eggshell peach, gray clouds and pale purple fogs, so did the cold. Wood smoke rises up from almost every tent even before the snow hits. Vizzions deep in it, victim of hypothermia after falling in a stream, at camp, recovering to capture human spirits, daily life, horses having their hay, on the front lines, shooting against cement block backgrounds, guns gleaming dully from hands and thighs, menacing antennas protruding from helicopters, boxlike hummers with camo left over from desert storms, robot-like black body armor, razor wire dripping with shining icicles against the black dullness of tear-gassed skies. His photograph of a Native American on a horse, facing a line of militarized police sends the message with unambiguous clarity.

Some of his less beautiful but most important photographs, taken with a long lens, unlike his other work, grainy and crude, document serious lies about incidents, like the one where a DAPL guard was run off of the road on his way to camp with an AR-15 style rifle and a 9mm pistol, proving that he was the only person with a weapon out, contrary to police claims that someone had been “shot in the hand.” The visual story is important. In a time of demonizing the other, Standing Rock helps those of us who are willing, to see the glaring flaws in our own culture and how much native wisdom has to offer us.

Nothing was more exciting for me, than being in the minority among the true and just heirs and stewards of this land. No longer can I sing: “this land is my land,” because it’s not. “As long as the grass grows and the waters flow.” said U.S. Grant in1851. When the land, now home to an ugly and dangerous environmental threat was ceded in yet another broken treaty with the indigenous people. Perhaps it’s time to shed our Western beliefs that allow us to violate both our word and our natural resources, and turn towards the native beliefs based on ritual and respect for the earth as our mother.

Time Magazine recently ran a spot on photos that changed the world. Alan Kurdi the Syrian toddler lying dead on a Mediterranean beach by Nilüfer Demir, Charles Moore’s photograph of Bull Connor’s police dogs lunching at marchers in Birmingham, Chinese Tank Man by Jeff Widener, these photographs made a difference. The truth must out. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” said Keats. It is a battle for hearts and minds first and foremost. The conflict began in summer, grew through autumn and survived winter. All that’s left is springtime for Standing Rock. When the Blue-eyed Grass, Prairie Violets, Purple Locoweed, Crocus, and Columbines, poke out from the ground, what will left of the movement? As I write, things are looking bad for Standing Rock. Which prophecy will come true?

 “If the Black Snake comes across our land our world will end…” — Sioux Prophecy

When the earth is sick and dying,
There will come a tribe of people
From all races…
Who will put their faith in deeds,
Not words, and make the planet
Green again… — Cree Prophecy

With water protectors, as they call themselves, being prosecuted with outrageous felonies, with free press being stifled, with a president who is personally, financially invested in this pipeline, with 4 more pipelines on the way, with over 300 pipelines that have already caused environmental emergencies in this country alone, what’s next? The water from the Missouri river sustains over 14 million people downstream. There is no way to believe that the financial rewards here outweigh the risk. This is why we need the Ryans of this world. They may be our last chance to preserve our mother, earth.

“From civil and human rights violations from the hands of militarized police, to fires set by infiltrators in an attempt to burn the camps out, I have witnessed so much in my months here documenting Standing Rock. If there is anything I have learned, its that the hearts of these Water Protectors are in the right place. A fight for mother nature, human, civil, and cultural rights is always a battle worth fighting for. I am honored.” —Redhawk

#ProtectOurWater, #WaterIsLife #LeaveItInTheGround #MiniWaconi





  1. dennis roberts says:

    Incredible photographs. Naomi you write so beautifully. Have you ever seen the photographs of Danny Lyon, first SNCC photographer. I have 5 at home. Next time you/re in the Bay Area.

  2. Sarah Longstaff says:

    These photographs are gorgeous! A picture speaks 1,000 words.

  3. Dana Hallman says:

    Wow. The amazing photos and this article let all of us who were not there understand the truth of what did and is taking place in Standing Rock. This is what the so called journalists in our society failed to convey. We must Resist with the first caretakers of our land. If after reading this article you are not prepared to Stand, you have lost your way. Thank You Vizzion and Naomi, I am grateful to you and all of the brave souls who stood and are standing in and for Standing Rick.

  4. Anna Jordan says:

    Thank you for this article Naomi. You have made it possible through your beautifully written words to understand the essence of this place and why we cannot allow corporate powers to continue the destruction. Thank you too for the images and introduction to the photographic work of Redhawk. Truly moving and enlightening images that are sure to be iconic.

  5. Thank you Redhawk. The truth of the camps lives on in your beautiful work. I always see your heart in your work. I know you will always be where the truth needs to be seen

  6. Wonderful photographs!

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