There are now thousands of people protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Last weekend, a team of student reporters from the University of Montana made the 12-hour drive to the Sacred Stone Camp to cover the media’s coverage of the protest.
"It's pretty big, that's the first thing that you notice … You turn off the road into the camp and you go through this sort of tunnel of flags."
From a highway rest stop, Matt Roberts, the team’s photographer, describes his first glimpses of the camp.
"There's tents, teepees, Winnebegos, trucks, cars, horses. Some people have brought in horse trailers and mobile fencing and made little horse corrals."
The protesters, who prefer to be called ‘water protectors,’ worry the pipeline will damage sacred and historical sites and that a leak could pollute the Missouri River. The company building Dakota Access, called Energy Transfer, says pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil and that the pipeline will boost local economies. All of Montana’s tribes have issued letters in support of the protest.
The mass gathering at the camp, which started in April, has only recently drawn national media attention following visits from high profile celebrities, looming court decisions and a recent violent outbreak.
But Roberts says the camp is quiet and has a timeless feel to it.
"It always smells like sage or smoke, people are always cooking or smudging."
And there are aspects of this camp that protests don’t usually have.
"Like, you have people bringing their families there. They've literally set up a school because they have so many families living there long-term with kids."
There’s a cook tent, a medical tent, a legal services tent. There’s a central distribution tent to dole out donations people send in from across the country. Roberts says these services make the camp seem more like a community than a protest.
"It's hard to refer to the whole thing in general as a protest or a riot."
Jason Begay, Roberts’ trip leader and a journalism professor at the University of Montana, says local and national media has had a hard time covering this event that’s part protest, part cultural movement.
"They're kind of dealing with ‘American journalism, we have the right to know,’ versus the cultural sensitivity of the people who are there, and the messages they would like to get across. It's very intricate."
Begay says mainstream media has been slow to cover the protest. Part of the problem is a clash of cultures. Tribal leaders have made some areas of the camp off-limits to reporters — some sections are even off-limits to women. And many reporters just aren’t familiar with Native American customs. Some people at the camp feel they’re being misrepresented.
"People at the camps are saying, they aren't necessarily relying on mainstream media to learn about the event. Almost everyone we talked to heard about it initially on social media and they tend to trust what they see on social media more."
That’s how Orlando Avery first learned about the protest, and why he decided to go. Avery is Cheyenne River Lakota; he grew up in South Dakota just south of the Sacred Stone Camp but now lives on the Flathead Reservation. Despite poor cell service, he posts photos and videos daily documenting what he sees in the camp.
"I seen people camping across the river on the river fronts, and people swimming. I seen people playing basketball, volleyball, handgame, and people having meetings."
For Avery, the community of the camp is just as important as the protest of the pipeline.
"Ever since being there it's just harmony, you know, being around your own people or even other people. Cultural exchange, networking, just there for one fight."
Avery says he doesn’t think the protest will end soon. On Friday a federal judge is expected to decide whether to put the pipeline’s construction on hold while the Standing Rock Sioux pursue a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe says the Corps violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to consult with the tribe before issuing permits.
Whatever happens, people at the Sacred Stone Camp aren’t done fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The team of student journalists’ coverage of the protest appears in Montana Journalism Review.