The Historical Symbolism of the Dakota Access Pipeline Construction

Published: 2021-09-10 06:45:09
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In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile long underground pipeline stretching from North Dakota to Illinois, was authorized to be constructed despite ongoing protest from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota. While supporters of the pipeline argue that it would be the most cost-efficient method of transporting crude oil, they also ignore the drawbacks that many environmentalists and indigenous rights activists continue to highlight in their protests: the pipeline would also contaminate local drinking water and ultimately damage the Standing Rock tribe’s cultural sites. One of these indigenous rights activists, freelance photographer Ryan Redhawk, has captured the political conflict of this issue in his photo “Standing Rock Rising.” This photo illustrates the strong tension between the government and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe through usage of composition, color, and symbolism. Targeted at a younger to middle-aged audience that is informed about national news, Redhawk intends to spread awareness about this ongoing Native American rights issue through his photography and media. In this paper, I intend to analyze the various rhetorical methods that Redhawk utilizes in his photography to ultimately uncover his message that despite the government wrongfully crossing Standing Rock territory with the intent to harmfully construct the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe will continue to stand for their rights and not back down from protesting.
There are many details of symbolism in Redhawk’s photo that depict the message that he is trying to send to his audience. For example, one of the significant details of the photo is the policemen in the horizon. We can see that these policemen are arranged in a horizontal straight line behind the Native American woman, wielding batons in their hands and accompanied by large tanks. Because of their large numbers, they take up a substantial amount of space in the background. Typically, police are associated with government power, authority, militarization, and even oppression. When we see the police in any situation, we expect them to serve the law and carry out government orders without questioning the consequences of these orders. This is evident in this photo—here we can clearly see that the intentions of the police are to execute orders using their authority and power to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline regardless of the grim consequences. However, when we see the police with tanks, our expectations of their actions grow more dire—we then expect them to enact violence and act more like the military than local police, and we are often scared. They have been outfitted with helmets, tanks, and other military accessories. Redhawk has deliberately chosen to capture the policemen particularly wielding self-defense military equipment, proving a part of his message that these police have a strong will to enact violence, if necessary, to physically go through the Standing Rock Native Americans to continue DAPL construction.Perhaps the most significant detail in the photo is the Native American woman on the horse. She is not only the subject of the photo, but also the first item you see when looking at the photo. This is because she is in the foreground, closest to Redhawk’s camera lens, and is the main focus of the photo. We can see that the sunlight is shining most strongly on her, even though her back side is facing towards the audience. The fact that she is the subject of the photo and one of the brightest objects in the photo forces us to view the police from her point of view, or the point of view of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Seeing this, the audience is pressured to feel how the woman possibly felt: outnumbered by the police, threatened by their militarized defense, enraged by their trespassing, yet confident and hopeful of her victory in this political battle. In addition, her straight posture is an indicator of strength and confidence. The photo depicts her standing strongly before the police, despite their militarization and weaponry, and will not back down from protesting. Although there is only one Native American in the photo, I believe that Redhawk meant to portray her as a symbol of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as a whole. This reinforces Redhawk’s message that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe does not intend to allow DAPL construction and will continue peacefully protesting even though they are outnumbered and face an obstacle.
Another object that is distinctive in the foreground is the horse. While the subject of the photo is clearly the Native American woman, it is important to note that the horse is also a key symbol even though it is not the main subject. In the photo we can see the Native American woman mounted on the horse. The horse is also facing away from the audience and towards the police. While the modern car and tanks are the policemen’s primary choice of transportation, the women’s choice of transportation is the horse. Here, there is a contrast in culture. The government has supplied the policemen with military equipment because it intends to shape these policemen to embody the military. On the other hand, the woman is riding the horse because she chooses to embrace her Native American culture. She chose to bring her horse even knowing that it is no match for a tank because she values her culture above all and will not allow the government, even if it appears before her with weaponry, sway her beliefs. It can also be argued that Redhawk is implying in his photo that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe will ultimately win the political battle given that in many Native American cultures, the horse is symbolic of victory. This highlights Redhawk’s message that although the Native Americans are continuously receiving mounting pressure to give in to allowing the government to construct the DAPL, they will not give in.
There is another symbol in the photo that creates a divide between the two parties: the line of objects on the ground. At a first glance, these objects may appear to be mere junk that has been carelessly tossed on the floor, or perhaps the remnants of a junk yard on the side of the road—after all, they are items that anyone would typically dismiss when merely glancing at the photo: worn tires, old wooden pieces, and metal scrapings. While it is true that they typically do not hold much value in the economical world, the symbolism of these objects are more than what it may seem. Redhawk intentionally angled his camera to make the objects more obscure behind the woman and the horse; in addition, he angled it so that the audience could see that they were formed more in a straight line rather than randomly scattered on the ground. I believe that he did this so that the audience could focus more on the woman and so that they could see a physical divide between the woman and the police. This allows the audience to see that there is an opposition and that they are not on the same hierarchal level. On the bottom of the photo in front of the line of objects, the woman symbolizing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe remains standing strong. We can see that Redhawk has chosen to portray the government on the top half of the photo in order to establish a hierarchy. Clearly, the police are on the top of the power structure and have the ability to establish dominance over the Native Americans, and the woman is on the bottom of the power structure and have much less power in their hands. This shows Redhawk’s message that the government intends to use their authority to establish dominance over the tribe. In addition, it appears that the woman is using these objects as a line of defense. Essentially, she is weaponless. In contrast, the policemen’s line of defense is tanks and weaponry. As mentioned before, this is reminiscent of the militarization of the police and shows their use of excessive force on this unarmed woman.
There are many symbols in this image that Redhawk creatively and thoughtfully integrated into his photograph, however I believed that the policemen and tanks, Native American woman, horse, and objects on the floor were the most significant symbols that embodied the central message of his photograph. The policemen and tanks symbolized the militarization of the police and strong authority of the government, the woman symbolized the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their confidence in their protest and unwillingness to give up, the horse symbolized seeking freedom from oppression from the government, and the objects symbolized a physical line of divide between the government and the Standing Rock tribe and the hierarchy with the police on top and Native Americans on the bottom. Even the way the photo was angled and captured bore importance in capturing the story—we could see that the angle showed us the divide of power between the woman and the police without losing perspective of the situation from the Native American woman’s point of view. Her point of view showed the audience that she was unarmed, outnumbered, and threatened with weapons, yet she still remained confident in the strength of her tribe and that she could not be overpowered by the constitutional hierarchy. Overall, Ryan Redhawk’s photo perfectly captures the constant struggle and the oppression from the militarized police during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe had to face in defense of their land and water.

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