Drone Warriors: The Art of Surveillance and Resistance at Standing Rock
This is the second piece in a series on Indigenous lands and waters in the Americas, inspired in part by the 2019 place-based workshop Changing Landscapes of Indigeneity organized by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment in Wisconsin. The series shares work that addresses Indigenous movements for sovereignty and self-determination as well as issues of environmental and social justice.
Driving into the Oceti Sakowin Camp just north of Cannonball, North Dakota, was breathtaking. Fifteen minutes south of a National Guard staffed military-style roadblock, cars turned off the main highway onto a packed dirt path, lined with the flags of hundreds of tribal nations who stood in solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Off this main camp road, as far as the eye could see were tents, tipis, and people. The result was a small city on the plains, with thousands of protectors—Native and non-Native—coming together to support Standing Rock and to protect water and sacred sites. Above these camps, there was near constant noise—circling unmarked planes, police helicopters, and other signs of surveillance by Morton County and the federal government. But there was also a small distinctive hum that came to be associated with resistance: the buzz of photographic drones. These drones originated from the side of the protectors, and produced incredible footage of the movement that was shared widely on social media to update, resist, and encourage others to join the fight.
From April 2016 through February 2017, thousands of Native and non-Native people, together known as Water Protectors, made the Plains of North Dakota their home, standing in opposition to the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). They knew that the pipeline would bring more than 500,000 barrels of oil under Lake Oahe, the only source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and millions of others downstream. Its construction threatened Lakota cultural and sacred sites, and Standing Rock’s sovereignty as a Native nation.
As the Water Protectors faced militarized police, National Guard roadblocks, and heavy surveillance from local, state, and federal forces, a group of photographic drone operators emerged within their ranks. These Drone Warriors used technology to document the militarized force and police brutality the Water Protectors faced. By sending their drones up and over barricades, they illuminated spaces hidden from the public, unmasked the face of force, and showed the world the beauty of the landscape that was threatened by pipeline construction and potential contamination.
These images motivated Water Protectors to join the movement in person, through donations, or by spreading word on Facebook and with hashtags like #NoDAPL. We can view the use of drones by the Drone Warriors as an indigenization of neocolonial military and corporate surveillance technology. However, we also see in these images forms of aesthetic protest in which the beauty of the water, land, and the movement itself are on full display.
Drones as Aerial Agents of Resistance
The Drone Warriors used drones to document human rights and constitutional violations. But drones also proved instrumental in providing a counter-narrative to the deceiving stories told by Energy Transfer Partners and their political allies. Although the Drone Warriors did not stop the police from using violent tactics of control and suppression, drone videos had an impact on what story was told, and by whom. As depicted in the photo above, the police routinely shot down their drones. However, the Drone Warriors continued receiving new ones funded by people donating online. The relative inexpensiveness of commercial drones and social media’s ability to connect a multitude of supporters enabled the Water Protectors to engage in this type of reverse surveillance, which would have been impossible in the past. By engaging in technologically sophisticated resistance, the Drone Warriors dispelled racist myths of Indigenous people as technologically “backwards.” Instead, they provided a positive example of activism for Indigenous youth.
Who Are the Drone Warriors?
The Drone Warriors included many individuals, ranging from supporters who came to Standing Rock for a few days to those who remained until the police evicted them from the camps. The Drone Warriors faced constant opposition to their “Non-Violent Direct Drone Actions” in the air. Police actions against the Drone Warriors took the form of police bullets and signal interrupters directed at the drones, as well as on the ground interference including law enforcement harassment, no-fly zones, arrests, and detainments of the pilots.
Two pilots, Myron Dewey and Sean Turgent, faced multiple charges for their drone work, ranging from misdemeanor to felony charges, and had their drones confiscated by police. There is no record of exactly how many photographic drone operators came through the camps at Standing Rock, but their presence was constant. Here we honor some of the Drone Warriors who dedicated their time, energy, and heart to this movement:
Owner of Digital Smoke Signals, Drone Trainer
Musician, Drone Pilot
Dean Dedman Jr.
Standing Rock Lakota, Navajo
Owner of Dr0ne2BWild Photography, Drone Pilot
Brooke Johnson Waukau
Community Journalist, Founder of Indigenous Women’s Media, Drone Pilot
In addition to these, dozens more unnamed Native and non-Native drone pilots came to North Dakota to support and assist the Protectors, including help from unexpected places, such as ex-military drone pilots willing to use their skills for nonviolent purposes.
Although images of police violence received the most attention by the news media, the Drone Warriors also streamed videos and posted photos of Lakota land and the Missouri River at risk from destructive pipeline operations. Drone footage exhibited spiritual and ecological aesthetics by providing a view of Lakota ancestral lands, herds of bison grazing on the prairie, and the linkages of waterways. The drones’ aerial perspective affords the viewer an ability to see the interconnectedness of this ecosystem, and the life-sustaining qualities of water at work, moving through the plants and animals, sustaining life and Lakota lifeways.
Mni Sose, or the Missouri river, has sustained the Lakota people for generations. Etched in the landscape, we see the present and former courses of the river, indicating that the river moves itself, and takes its own course. The centering phrase of the Water is Life movement, Mni Wiconi, or Water is Life, focuses on the Lakota understanding of water as an animate relative that must be protected and allowed to move unfettered.
The Water Protectors populated four camps deep into the winter. At the center of this image, we see the main Oceti Sakowin camp, established as an overflow camp after more space was needed than the original, smaller Sacred Stone Camp could provide. Bottom left, we see the Backwater Bridge, where on the night of November 20th, 2016, police fired water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades at Protectors in subfreezing temperatures. The setting sun on the horizon sets the scene aglow. In February 2017, the police forcibly evicted the Protectors from their camps.
Turtle Island is a geographic feature located in the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, and was the site of several stand-offs with police. It is known to be sacred ground for Lakota peoples, and several elders asked protectors to stay off of the island out of respect. In this image, we see Morton County police officers standing atop the sacred island, in direct disrespect of Lakota beliefs, surveilling the Protectors below. The police positioning themselves above the Protectors reflects the inherent power imbalance that permeated the Water is Life movement, putting into sharp relief the modern face of colonialism.
Myron Dewey’s drone footage shows police standing on sacred burial mounds:
Surveillance was constant during the Water is Life movement. The Morton County police and a private firm called TigerSwan engaged in sophisticated surveillance of the Water Protectors. According to leaked documents published by The Intercept, TigerSwan coordinated with the police in aerial surveillance, radio eavesdropping, infiltration of the camps and activist circles, as well as scouring the Protectors’ social media accounts.
However, the Drone Warriors’ photographs and videos offered the Protectors an opportunity to surveil the police, documenting instances of police violence and ecologically destructive pipeline operations. In this way, the Drone Warriors subjected the police and pipeline workers to public scrutiny, while pushing back at the surveillance dominance of state and corporate actors.
Energy Transfer Partners fortified the drill pad site, where they housed a horizontal drill to bore underneath Lake Oahe, building razor-wire-topped concrete walls to mask their movements and construction from view. Drones allowed the water protectors to watch their actions, and to expose them when the company began to violate the Army Corps of Engineers’ requests to pause construction pending further environmental review.
After a confrontation left burned out vehicles on Highway 1806, the Morton County police fully barricaded the road to stop the Water Protectors from engaging in additional actions at construction sites. The barricade, which had been partially in place since the summer, also served as an economic embargo on the Standing Rock community. Motorists who had previously traveled through the reservation to make purchases or spend time at the tribal casino were now detoured by the police.
The blockade on Highway 1806 made physical the ideological lines that had been drawn. The highly militarized presence, collusion between an extractive industry and the state government, and the restriction of Indigenous movement crystallized the reality that colonization is not only historical, but very much ongoing.
Myron Dewey’s drone footage shows DAPL’s work at night on the pipeline:
The Water Protectors resisted the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through ceremony and non-violent direct action. But resistance spread beyond physical blockades, and included lawsuits, social media actions, and divestment campaigns aimed at the banks and other firms associated with Energy Transfer Partners.
All the while, drones proved critical in providing video and photographic evidence of police violence and environmental degradation. Aesthetic resistance emerged as central to opposing DAPL, while Indigenous artists depicted the movement in striking photographs, paintings, and songs. Artists also used materials like razor wire from the front lines to make objects such as dream catchers, thus transforming and indigenizing fixtures of oppression into art.
On the frigid night of November 20, 2016, an altercation at the Backwater Bridge barricade on Highway 1806 resulted in the police shooting water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades at the Water Protectors in subfreezing temperatures, injuring hundreds. Taken in retreat from a barrage of tear gas, this photo captures both the distress of the moment as well as the solidity of the Protectors in the face of an oppressive force. The silhouetted figures gesture at the need for anonymity, while the Protector with arms raised signals the optimism of a righteous cause.
Myron Dewey’s drone footage shows the Water Protectors Camp in 2016:
Featured image: Stand-off with police on Turtle Island. Photograph courtesy of Myron Dewey, 2017.
Adrienne Keene is a Citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University. Her research interests include Indigenous college student experiences, representations of Indigenous peoples in the media and popular culture, cultural appropriation, and the ways Native people are using social and new media to create new pathways and futures. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Gregory Hitch is an environmental historian and Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Brown University, working at the intersection of Indigenous Studies, Critical Environmental Justice, and Science and Technology Studies. His dissertation, tentatively titled, “The Forest Keepers: An Environmental History of the Menominee Nation from Colonization to Climate Change,” investigates how European and American settler colonialism and capitalism disrupted Menominee relationships with the land, waterways, and ecosystems of the western Great Lakes region. Website. Twitter. Contact.