Frontline victim at Standing Rock. By Tracy Rector

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Few civil rights battles in recent memory hit with as much poignancy as the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota. What began as Sioux tribal members working to protect their local water sources from potentially becoming polluted by a proposed pipeline intended to deliver oil from North Dakota to Illinois morphed into a large-scale fight that attracted thousands of people and captivated the country.

Late last year Native and non-Native activists flocked to Standing Rock to protest—fighting against local law enforcement on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, in the middle of all that was Tracy Rector. As a longstanding artist, filmmaker and educator, Rector traveled to Standing Rock reservation twice toward the end of 2016 carrying supplies to those on the front lines and of course, her camera to help document what was really happening through her nonprofit, Longhouse Media.

On Thursday, Jan. 19, Rector launches the new season at the Re:definition gallery inside the Paramount Theatre’s lobby bar, where she’s curated an exhibition that exclusively features work from Native American visual artists who deserve more exposure. We caught up with Rector to talk about the show, her curatorial plans and her experiences at Standing Rock.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been asked to curate the Re:definition gallery for the 2017 season with a focus on elevating work by Indigenous artists. That’s so near and dear to your heart. What excites you most about this opportunity? 
It’s important to me to indigenize the Paramount Theatre on many levels—as part of the exhibits, but also to decolonize thought processes and the mind. This winter we’ll be showing two Indigenous silent films. This spring we’ll be providing a series of coffee talks for Indigenous artists that are essentially skill-building workshops led by local curator and gallery owner Sharon Arnold. It’s my plan for 2017 to curate rich multi-medium experiential exhibits that allow for continued dialogue in between shows.

I noticed that two of the three artists featured for January don’t live here. Do you plan to showcase indigenous art from around the country during your time curating the space?
Well, I was thinking about the idea of “local” artists. In my opinion it’s different for Indigenous people since the borders crossed us. I certainly want to present Coast Salish creatives as the primary inspiration for Re:definition but also recognize that NDN Country is small and in many ways a very tight knit community across boundaries and borders.

Why was going out to Standing Rock something that you felt you had to do?
It’s interesting in terms of why I felt that I “had to go” to Standing Rock. Essentially I couldn’t quite comprehend not going if I had the opportunity to go. Maybe it was a call to duty or following the heart or a sense of responsibility—or that’s just what people do who are in community: support one another. As a mom I also felt as if it was my responsibility as a role model to set an example of taking action, for my sons.

Your 15-year-old son, Solomon, was with you. What was it like parenting on the front lines? 
When I made the last minute decision to go to Standing Rock I absolutely knew that I had to include Solomon, my youngest son, on the journey. He was given the choice to make up his own mind about participating or not. His first response was, “Absolutely!” Next I knew that I needed his school’s sign-off and they amazed me with their complete support.

Just prior to going, someone asked how I felt about bringing my child into an illegal situation. For me that was not a question at all; I feel what is sanctioned as legal or not depends on the values of those in power. For example it was illegal for my parents to be dating, it was illegal for women to vote, it was illegal for LGBTQ persons to be married, and so on. I felt that as an Indigenous person heading to sovereign Indigenous lands to protect the water, land and treaty rights, I was well within what should be deemed acceptable. 

While there, I was very clear about us needing to follow camp protocol, about us going through the necessary trainings and meetings before taking part in any actions and I did set a clear line that we would not be going on the front lines. I did not want to put his physical, emotional or spiritual body at risk.

You shared an image of a comrade with blood pouring down his head. What happened? 
So the bloody man is from California. His name is Israel and was at Standing Rock with his wife—she’s Native and he’s not. They were walking with the water protectors on that Sunday night and he was in the role of being a medic with a Red Cross on his clothing. He was pulling people off the frontline and was shot at point blank range by one of the military personnel who used what is called a beanbag gun that shoots out small tennis ball sized burlap bags filled with “shot”—small metal ball bearings. He reached up to touch his skull where he was shot and discovered that his skull was fractured and he was able to slip his fingers under his skin. He had large dark bruising on his body from the rubber bullets, too.

It’s no secret that tribal politics often hinder Indigenous groups from working together. What it was like to be in a space where various Indigenous tribes from all across the country were working together?
Tribal politics are forever present in any action that involves Native people. There is so much to work through in terms of addressing historical trauma and the resulting symptoms but also the impacts of structural racism and its very engineered results on Indigenous people.

What this means is some important work that many tribal people are taking on in order to have the best outcomes for this movement has to be done. This includes the inclusion of traditional decision-making practices, collective counsels in place for decision-making, emphases placed on protocol and respect, discussion, sweats, listening, witnesses and community sharing. 

The main issues that I saw were the impacts of non-Native people trying to displace Indigenous people and decisions. Many non-native organizers from around the country arrived to Standing Rock wanting to help and contribute to the movement but were unable to see how their actions, behaviors, thought processes and assumptions negatively impacted the Indigenous-centered goals at camp. For example, renaming roads, choosing to take direct action against the will of the elders, taking up space so that there was no longer room for Native people, not acknowledging whose land we were on, etc.

It was at times clear that there were distinct cultural clashes between Native and non-Native peoples. An example would include the refusal of some young anarchists to stand in the prayer circle before a meal, or while in the prayer circle acting disrespectfully by talking, going in and out, not holding hands, etc. I did see that some white allies decided to run a “white people training” every day to review cultural protocol and to help people better understand whose land we were on and the significance of this to the movement. They also did some Native History 101 and reviewed Indigenous genocide with people who had no clue or understanding.

What Northwest Tribes were present that you saw?
To my knowledge, every tribal group from Washington state represented at Standing Rock. Every single one signed a compact of support too. The Coast Salish Tribes were especially generous in terms of physical bodies, financial generosity, in-kind support, food and lumber. There is a beautiful tradition of the Sioux people supporting the Coast Salish peoples and now that energy is being reciprocated. Also, the Lummi Nation’s [recent] fight at Cherry Point in many ways inspired the initial actions and continued resistance.

Did you sense that what you were participating in was history in the making while you were there?
I loved the feeling that this is an Indigenous-led movement that is grounded in the leadership of youth, women and elders. Every moment—from making the decision to go to this present day—I distinctly experience every thought and action I’ve had in relationship to this movement as part of history, as part of a collective energy much larger than anything that I’ve ever known, as an awakening. It’s as if I broke out of a maze of confusion to taste reality. It’s so grounding to be in service to a greater cause, to take action, to be part of a solution.

You were there when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that DAPL was officially blocked. What was that like?
Well, the camp was absolutely jammed with tons of people, maybe 11,000 or so including 4,000 veterans. The big news outlets only came down in the last two days before the announcement to cover the story of the big potential battle of wills with the veterans and DAPL. So there were a lot of reporters, media-makers, bloggers and filmmakers on hand that night. To note: I’m glad they finally came out but it was independent media and individuals using social media that rallied the many of thousands of people who arrived to Standing Rock.

Speaking to some veterans there that night, many expressed the feeling that the statement by the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] only served to diffuse and de-escalate the situation that was beginning to feel very tense on the ground. And at the same time the youth council was actively reminding everyone clearly that in two months there may be a very different outcome and that this fight will most likely reignite when Trump gets into office. He’s been very transparent and clear about his support for the pipeline and his tested financial interest is in it succeeding.

Either later that night or the following night the DAPL CEO said that they would continue drilling regardless of any fines or outcomes. 

What does the term “water is life” mean to you?
For me, “water is life” means existence, creation and our bodies themselves. It all begins with our mothers.  Nothing can ever replace water as a resource. We are all made of water and we can only survive with adequate access to water this includes growing food, the land being able to nurture and sustain food, the movement of energy, replenishing water that our body looses, Mother Earth’s balance.

What did you learn about yourself during your time in Standing Rock?
I realized how productive I could be if focused on one task at a time. We really didn’t have much access to email or wi-fi and so my energy was directed toward storytelling only. My camera partner, Steve Hyde, and I shot and edited 31 short stories in a month. We also have footage for another 10–15 more personal interviews and on the ground coverage. Steve and I worked amazingly well as a team, but what really stood out was how much we were able to accomplish without any other life distractions. This brought to mind for me how absolutely spread out my time and energy are in just trying to create and survive in the city. I said a silent prayer to myself that maybe a benefactor will step up one day to just pay me for a year or two to do my community activism and collaborative media projects for change and awareness.

Growing up as the odd kid with pop-bottle glasses and pigtails, I found myself silent for most of my childhood. I watched others quite a bit and read a ton of books. People watching and life stories captivate me. Having the chance to talk with so many diverse people at Standing Rock and sharing their stories with the world was just dreamy and made me aware that I was right where I was meant to be in life.

What lessons from Standing Rock apply to life here in Seattle?
It was funny, during our stay at Standing Rock I began to feel more distance from what I thought was so important and urgent in Seattle. I’m still trying to understand this feeling. I guess in a way it was a clear sense of waking up or removing some heavy layers. I came back with some impatience about not dealing with people’s bullshit. Also, I came back even more confused about how people can allow our planet to be overrun by greed and corporate interests. I don’t get how people think we will survive if we don’t take a stand for the environment and human rights. It’s essential that we practice being in community, are actively generous toward others and recognize that our true strength is in maintaining diversity. We cannot survive without working together toward our collective future.

Re:definition opens Thursday, Jan. 19 at the Paramount Theatre and you can RSVP here. During the opening, participating artist John Feodorov is also raising funds for the Water Protector Legal Collective at Standing Rock to provide legal representation for the more than 600 activists who’ve been arrested as part of the movement. The exhibition opening is free and donations are optional. 

Tracy Rector is also among the 10 commissioned artists for Genre Bender 2017, where she’ll premiere a new work in collaboration with Ben Hunter March 3–5.