Drone Warriors: The Art of Surveillance and Resistance at Standing Rock

Exhibition at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Co-Curated with Gregory Hitch (Brown PhD student)

As a faculty fellow at Brown University’s Haffenreffer museum I worked with American Studies doctoral student Gregory Hitch to develop an exhibition on the drone photography and video produced during the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota. This project combined our interests in Native representations, activism, resistance, environmental movements, and sous-survelliance , and provided an opportunity to show the Brown and Providence community a new perspective—quite literally—of the #NoDAPL movement.

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, the camps at Standing Rock stood in opposition to the proposed 1100 mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would bring over 500,000 barrels of oil under the Lake Oahe, the only source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and millions of others downstream. The construction of the pipeline also threatened Lakota cultural and sacred sites, and threatened Standing Rock’s sovereignty as a Native nation. As protectors faced militarized police, increasing construction, national guard manned roadblocks, and heavy surveillance from local, state, and federal forces, a group of photographic drone operators emerged. The Drone Warriors used this technology to document a militarized police force and police brutality by having the ability to go up and over barricades, illuminating spaces hidden from the public. They also showed the world the beauty of the landscape that was threatened by the construction and potential contamination. We can view the use of drones by the Drone Warriors as an indigenization of neocolonial military and corporate surveillance technology. These images motivated Water Protectors to join the movement in multiple ways, in person, through donations, or spreading word over the internet through Facebook and hashtags like #NoDAPL. However, we also see in these images forms of aesthetic protest, in which the beauty of the water, land, and the movement are on full display. We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to showcase these incredible images and video, as well as continue to draw attention to and support the ongoing environmental movements across Indian Country through this exhibition.

The exhibition features three themes: Landscape, Surveillance, and Resistance, offering drone photography and video by Myron Dewey and Dean Dedman, as well as a large scale photo by Elizabeth Hoover. We also feature one of Dewey’s drones, complete with prayer ties, a sharpie message declaring “the world is watching,” and bullet holes from Morton County police.

The exhibition will run from May 2018-May 2020 and is the main exhibit in the museum galleries.

Information on visiting the museum and the exhibition can be found here.