Note: I'm writing this on behalf of photographer Eileen Counihan. She's at the Standing Rock Camp in North Dakota - and due to the limited cell service in the area, and that she's busy 24/7, I'm covering for her to get the word out NOW. She traveled to North Dakota from Cape Cod to try to do what she could, with her photographs, to support the intense efforts by the Water Protectors to defend their land - and ALL of our water - against the threat posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline, referred to as DAPL. If you don't know about #NoDAPL and the issues surrounding it, then find out now. And follow Eileen's journey. (I'll add links to the referenced sites as soon as possible; in the meantime, you can easily find them.)
Eileen left home in Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, on Wednesday, November 2nd. She brought two large bags packed with items specifically requested by the Standing Rock Tribal Council, along with 4 brand new gas masks to help keep the Water Protectors safe from the National Guard and Militarized Police.
After a day-long trip, she arrived at Standing Rock on Thursday, November 3rd. She brought the supplies into the Standing Rock Camp and introduced herself and why she was there.
Eileen arrived with no introductions or contacts. Just wanted to get there to do what she can to "spread the word" through her photographs and "witness" these actions.
When she called me for the first time, I was relieved to hear that she had gotten there safely. She spent the first day getting the lay of the land, making contacts with people, and reassuring people that she was there to help.
That last point was the most difficult to accomplish on Day 1: reassuring people that she is there to help. To support them. Not to cause them harm.
Imagine arriving in what IS actually a war zone, and trying to convince people of this: you're not out to infiltrate their group, you're not trying to profit from them, you're not with the police - you're just there because you just couldn't stay home and do nothing.
The Water Protectors are under attack because some people care more about oil - aka money - than water.
Okay, that's it. I had my say now and I'll get on with Eileen's story.
She met some of the older Native American women in the cooking tent and started to help them. She did the laundry.
When Eileen started photographing the camp, she noticed the looks that she was getting with her "real" Nikon camera hanging around her neck. She felt the distrust and anger. She checked in at the press tent but was - and is - hesitant to wear a press pass. There's no clarity about whether it will help or hurt her efforts. The Military Police have shot people with press passes (with rubber bullets so far) and arrested them. Protections of the press seem non-existent.
Actually, forget about the word "protection" for a minute. This is really about respect for each other as humans. There is little to no respect for the Native Americans, their land, their rights, their sovereignty. This has been going on for centuries.
That brings us to today's situation: in combination with the lack of respect or recognition of the rights of Native Americans, there is little to no respect for water rights of ALL of us in the US. From Flint, Michigan across the country and beyond, once again, greed is taking over. Oil trumps water. (But as we say, we can't drink oil.)
The whole experience doesn't reflect what I grew up believing our country to be about. It is a travesty overall.
Back to Eileen.
She put away her Nikon camera and started using her iPhone so as not to be so obtrusive.
I didn't hear from Eileen until early afternoon on Friday, November 5.
"Erin, I was just on the Front Line. Oh my God. It's unbelievable. It really is a war zone. I can't believe this is the United States."
My adrenalin shot through the roof of my head.
"WTF! I thought you weren't going to the front line! You need to be okay. Remember why you're there, to take pictures. You're a photographer, not a warrior. You're there to support..."
She cut me off.
"I had to. How else can I take picture's of what is REALLY GOING ON?"
She had to hang up quickly. Something was going on. An action? Getting arrested? I had no idea.
I called her back repeatedly. And texted. No reply. For hours.
Finally she called me back. I exhaled a sigh of relief.
"I met one of the leaders. See the video from the Front Line. He's a marine. I'm seeing him again tomorrow. He gets why I'm here. Most people do." (I'll post video ASAP.)
I get why she's there.
Yet, it's difficult being the "support person" while someone that you love is in harm's way. It's taking me time to adjust to her new life as a "photographer-activist".
Even so, I was rocked when I looked at the new series of photographs and videos she shot out at the front line. I was brought to tears.
I was overwhelmed. How is this the United States? What century is this?
And, I'm increasingly concerned about Eileen's well-being.
She called me late at night to assure me that she's still okay. I guess "okay" is a relative term. You be the judge.