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Indigenous Storytelling at Standing Rock

A conversation with Myron Dewey, co-director of Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock

Myron Dewey is a Paiute-Temoke Shoshone filmmaker who co-directed Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock with Academy Award and Emmy nominee James Spione and Oscar nominee Josh Fox. Awake documents the struggle of Indigenous water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota as they gathered for much of last year to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from being constructed beneath the Missouri River.

photo of Shenandoah SalamanderPhoto courtesy of Awakethefilm.org Awake tells the story of Native-led resistence to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the ways in which it changed the fight for clean water and the environment.

Dewey brought an Indigenous sensibility to his segment of Awake, as he has to his previous groundbreaking body of work, which includes Mni Wiconi, which is also about Standing Rock. According to Fox, Dewey’s production company, Digital Smoke Signals, was “livestreaming from Standing Rock every day, flying their drones over the pipeline and protests.”

“They got lots of followers on Facebook because they outperformed the mass media,” he adds. “Where CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News failed to bring you the stories, Digital Smoke Signals succeeded. The Indigenous Environmental Network succeeded. The outfits that were on the ground, we were bringing things independently that the mass media wasn’t reporting.”

In October of last year, Dewey was charged with a misdemeanor for live streaming drone footage of security forces hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. His case goes to trial July 12.

When I spoke with Dewey by phone, he was somewhere in the mid-West. Asked about his location, the activist-director replied: “I’m en route. I usually don’t let people know where I am due to safety reasons.” In this candid conversation Dewey discusses everything from Hollywood’s depiction of Indigenous people, to the Standing Rock struggle, to his pending court case.

How did you get into filmmaking?

It was an epiphany. Our [Indigenous] stories weren’t accurately being told. I went for my undergraduate at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, that’s where I became awakened in many different forms — not just consciousness, but emotional, historical trauma, education, and history. There was so much I needed to learn — for example, why I was angry at the things I could not articulate at that time. I try to articulate that anger and help our youth do the same... so they can move forward and help the community around them heal.

When I was a kid, I remember the Indians were always getting killed on TV. I didn’t see Indigenous people in media. I knew that was a problem — [but] I didn’t know how to articulate it. As I grew older I started to understand the reasons why. We really [have to] Indigenize media and communications.

Are there any particular “ah-ha” moments you can point to watching the depiction of North America’s Native peoples on the screen, where you said “that’s completely wrong” or “they finally got it right”?

I think watching [Kevin Costner’s 1990] Dancing With Wolves, where the white guy [Costner] becomes a “better Indian.” Or [Arthur Penn’s 1970] Little Big Man [starring Dustin Hoffman]. Both really bothered me how Hollywood would really romanticize the Indigenous people. And I said, “Wow, this is not how we live. I don’t see that happening today.”

Who has influenced you as a mass communicator?

That’s the challenge. I started Digital Smoke Signals because I didn’t see [what I was looking for.] When I asked our tribal leaders about wireless communications and technology… they would tell me, “We’re not there yet.” Some would tell me, “You’re gonna have to do this.”

Within our communities there is a traditional way of living. Fast-forwarding into colonization and globalization, it’s become a different way of thinking. Initially, I actually put my technology down … I was trying to protect our traditions and sacred sites. It took me a while to realize I had to get back into it; somebody had to do it. And the fact is that I was sworn to articulate technology through Indigenous eyes.

What is Digital Smoke Signals?

When I started Digital Smoke Signals I was thinking about what I was going to call my business. I was watching some fires and I thought, “Wow, my background is technology and I’m watching two pillars of smoke come together.” And it just hit me to call my company Digital Smoke Signals.

Before you co-directed Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock, what other documentaries had you directed?

I did a lot of consulting. [I consulted on] Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock, about the water. I never submitted my films. I made about 75 documentaries you can see on the Digital Smoke Signals TV. Contracting as an entrepreneur, I’ve done lots of documentaries for tribes.

Tell us about your participation in Standing Rock?

When I started really paying attention and thought, “Wow, this is somewhere I need to go.” As I got there I saw the history was not being told through Indigenous eyes. [I realized] I needed to be able to articulate that. Through all the schools, all the teachings I’ve been doing with the youth, the work I’ve been doing — [I’ve seen that] our story isn’t accurately told. When it’s told by non-Natives, it’s not accurately told, even if it’s told with the best of intentions.

But I’ve been working on Indigenous storytelling and Indigenous language preservation for years. And I’ve been working on how to shoot ceremonies, and I just took that concept and used it at Standing Rock.

I was there eight months. I went home for a few weeks to be with my son, and then I went back to document again. I just finally got back home [in June]. But I’m really not even stopping — I was up this morning working. They haven’t stopped at Standing Rock and neither am I until we get everything resolved.

Tell us about your work on Awake with Academy Award-nominated director Josh Fox?

That took me a little while because the truth is, I didn’t know Josh Fox. [Co-director] James Spione was all over the place, and I realized they were doing a documentary and they really did understand that this was an Indigenous movement. And they’re allies, they’ve got tools and a lot of interest. So I thought there were allies to help share the story.

What do you see as an appropriate way for non-Native allies to support Indigenous peoples in their struggles?

The problem we’re seeing with the Dakota Access Pipeline is the disconnect people have from Mother Earth and the spirit. So when all the relatives and allies come in we can remind them that they are Indigenous from somewhere — they just forgot. If they can figure this out and find out their link to their homeland and get reconnected, they’ll understand what we feel like, what we’re fighting for.

But that connection is gone. So when you ask them where they’re from, they say, “California, New York, New Jersey” — those are not their original homelands. And so, reminding our visitors, this is what we’re fighting for because we’re still here, [the connection to the land and water is] still a part of our way of life, our songs, our dances, our trails, and our ceremonies. This is why we fight: To protect and defend.

Do you feel there’s an Indigenous aesthetic, a different way to create?

Oh yeah. There is — through Indigenous eyes. I mean, just the form is different.

How?

The beauty of Standing Rock was that it had all the different nations bringing their element — their spirituality, their culture, their way of life. It was the place Standing Rock and people became. So if you’re telling the story through Indigenous eyes it’s completely different from than anywhere else.

Having the tools, too, [for digital storytelling] — our people never had the tools for the last 150 years of media. That was the big issue — things weren’t interpreted the way we’d tell it. Even the songs were excluded … because the guys recording the music didn’t like them, they didn’t sound right. Or take photography in the last century — a lot of it was inaccurate because it was romanticizing the Indians. And you look at Hollywood, as well — one of the films recently put out was a comedy by Adam Sandler. He was making fun of Indigenous norms [in 2015’s The Ridiculous 6]. He’d lighten up the mood and maybe break that down with comedy.

If you have access to the teachings, if you have access to people who can articulate what happened to the land, about the poverty, the systematic racism, the systematic education, about how Indian children are stolen through the foster care, that’s when you become aware and can be idle no more and get up and do something about it.

Do you have any upcoming documentaries?

I’m putting together a documentary of the second half of Standing Rock. The first half, with Josh Fox, that was only 3 percent of the footage I have. It shows continued violations, sharing from an Indigenous perspective what we went through. I’m thinking of calling it Numaga,  a Paiute word that means “all the people.”

Have you ever thought about making fictional feature films?

Yes! I did. Kind of like [Michael Apted’s 1992] movie Thunderheart, which was inspired by the American Indian Movement. I saw a lot documenting the Dakota Access Pipeline — I’ve been thinking a lot about writing a script and the characters and showing what happened… I actually thought about doing it while I was there.

Were you charged with any so-called “crimes” at Standing Rock?

Yes. I was charged with stalking. I actually spoke with an officer about how there was stalking happening at the camp, and we documented it. Later on … they issued a charge. I was charged with stalking the Dakota Access security, which we now know was [the private security firm] TigerSwan.

We got some charges dropped by providing our own evidence showing they had fabricated their claims. I go to court July 12. It looks pretty good, but I’m willing to go to jail if I have to. Eight-hundred-fifty water protectors have been arrested for practicing, as American citizens, the First Amendment.

Anything you’d like to add?

I’d just like to thank everybody that helped, all of the water protectors, the media, and the lawyers that stood beside everybody. It felt lonely out there — standing against a billion dollar corporation that had all of the resources they needed, as well as officers, National Guard, homeland security, the FBI, and militarized security forces. I want to thank everybody for taking that chance and standing up for Indigenous people. 

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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