“Awake”: powerful portrait of Indigenous activism

 On Wednesday, Apr. 17, Lawrence University Native Alliance (LUNA) and the Sustainable RLA team offered a screening of the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” as part of Lawrence’s Earth Week events. The film follows a variety of native activists as they risk their lives to defend their sacred lands from being exploited by the encroachment of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). 

The film’s audience was witness to firsthand accounts of human rights abuses being committed against these activists, who never lost their resolve or hope in the face of insurmountable odds. There were police forces in riot gear deployed against unarmed protesters on what is technically not their jurisdiction in the first place. They used water hoses and pepper spray and the video recordings of these events serve to be what look like modern day updates on the tactics used against peaceful protesters in the Jim Crow South. 

Why are these lands so important? The film explained that the pipeline would run through the Missouri River, which itself is under sacred Sioux land and is the only source of clean water for those on the Reservation. Tens of thousands of activists joined the member of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the multibillion-dollar oil pipeline. The native activists were deemed “water protectors” or “water warriors” for their courageous commitment to water as a binder of nature and humanity. 

While the film doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of the police forces as they tried to contain the protests, it also offers moments of beauty and gentle reminders that there is still plenty to be hopeful for. The protesters set up a tent city that is almost utopic, were it not for the terrifyingly life-altering reasons that it was established. There are images of the city in the morning when everything was calm and there is a real sense of community amongst people from near and far who have come to protect the land and the water that flows underneath it. 

The second half of the documentary focused on one of the directors of the film, Myron Dewey, from the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Agui Diccutta Band (Trout Eaters) and Temoke Shoshone. He considers himself an activist filmmaker and shares credit with two other directors, Josh Fox and James Spione. It was at this point that “Awake” turned into a somewhat different film, as Dewey reflected on the ethics of documenting this conflict and called into question documentary filmmaking as a whole. He kept it relatively specific to the #NODAPL protests, though, as he was able to justify recording these pretty awful things that he sees happening given his allegiance to the cause and the fact that journalists and filmmakers like himself are being surveilled and targeted by the both the local and national law enforcement. There was a terrifying sequence in which Dewey and his team were driving along a road in South Dakota and a police vehicle pulled up next to them and the officers immediately identified Dewey and threatened him with their knowledge of his life and livelihood. 

It is hard to give a thorough account of this 90-minute film because the filmmakers pack so much into it, including testimonies from multiple native sources, the rare instances of kindness between the law and the protesters and the protests that took place on the river bank itself. There are also moments of poetry and grace provided by a voice-over narrator, Floris White Bull, who brought these rather grand conflicts back down to earth. The film is a powerful portrait of the struggle and endurance of indigenous peoples in the face of threats to their lives and culture, as well as to the earth itself.