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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Indigenous artwork focuses on the largest pipeline protest in recent history

BY Julie McIntosh Dec 20, 2019

A crowd gathered at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on December 1 to bid the Beyond Standing Rock exhibit farewell.

As a salute to the long-standing protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the art that ensued, the exhibit, which opened in February 2019, featured artwork that portray a poignant and timely look at the DAPL protest and similar encroachments on treaty violation and Indigenous sovereignty over the centuries.

“Standing Rock was eye-opening because you saw how aggressive the situation became,” noted Antonio Chavarria, Curator of Ethnology at MIAC and assistant curator of the Beyond Standing Rock exhibit. “There was a lot of destruction of the encampments. It harkened back to footage of people being hosed down and bitten by police dogs in the civil rights movement over 50 years ago.”

“Standing Rock was a wake-up call for many people. It honoured traditional lands, honoured treaties, water sources, and the sacredness of Native land. It brought these issues to the forefront.”

Antonio Chavarria, Curator of Ethnology at MIAC

The exhibit presented a time to reflect on the state of North Dakota since the protests first began. After months of arrests, signs and social media support, thousands began showing their support on the ground when the Obama administration denied a key permit for DAPL construction in December 2016. However, months later, the Trump administration approved the permit.

There are still many active civil lawsuits being processed in North Dakota. One of them from a protester against the police who sprayed people with cold water during freezing temperatures, and another for the closure of the highway near the protest sites that continued for five months. Energy Transfer – the construction company behind the building of the pipeline – launched a lawsuit against Greenpeace for encouraging the DAPL protest.

During the closing ceremony at the MIAC, a panel of speakers discussed the global impact of the protest, and warned of similar threats to Indigenous sovereignty close to home. 

“These struggles continue in the region today,” explained Chavarria. “Different people and different tribes need to come together and bring attention to this, just like at Standing Rock.

“Standing Rock was a wake-up call for many people. It honoured traditional lands, honoured treaties, water sources, and the sacredness of Native land. It brought these issues to the forefront.”

The panel was comprised of Brian Vallo (Acoma Pueblo Governor), Arden Kucate (Zuni Pueblo Tribal Councilman), and Mark Mitchell (former governor and co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors’ Natural Resources Committee). MIAC director Della Warrior was present to moderate and take questions.

“It was very intense,” said Chavarria, as he reflected on the time and effort that went into the protest which garnered global attention. “People were there for a good purpose and an inherent work.” 

New coalitions and alliances were formed, in particular, with the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology (Albuquerque, New Mexico), tribal groups and nations, and private lenders for the exhibit. Youth groups also showed a keen interest to create coalitions in support of the movement that focused on acts of environmental degradation. 

The exhibit, like the DAPL protest, attracted visitors from all walks of life. From school-aged children to the elderly, there was no shortage of interested parties. “Because of the nature of the subject,” said Chavarria. “It’s not just art, it’s protest art.”

He also noted that the exhibit appealed to visitors because of the accessibility to art that fought against a government entity for the good of the people. “When they see it, they realize you can do that, you can do protest art. Sometimes it’s spur of the moment, sometimes it’s something they can participate in.”

In the future, Chavarria said the MIAC hopes to curate an exhibit similar to Beyond Standing Rock about sacred site protection in the US but through the lens of climate change.

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Julie is a Metis journalist who's Cree ancestry stems from the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. Her coverage of local, political, indigenous and environmental news has been printed in publications across the country. She is currently based in Montreal.