Niagara University’s 2019-20 Social Justice Speaker and Discussion Series continued on Tuesday, Nov. 5, with a film screening and panel discussion of “Denying Access: NoDAPL to NoNAPL,” a documentary film that chronicles the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and Seneca Territory working to oppose the Dakota Access and Northern Access Pipelines.
The film’s director, Jason Corwin, Ph.D, was on hand after the screening to talk about the film as part of a panel discussion. Corwin was joined by Native American activists, each with their own stories and connections to the protests, including Niagara University student and citizen of the Seneca Nation Rory Wheeler; activist, legal advisor, and Seneca Nation citizen Joe Hill; and Jill Clause and Peter Sheehan from the Tuscarora Nation.
Although the Speaker Series event had been scheduled last month, the timing of the screening turned out to be particularly prescient. Last week, the Keystone oil pipeline— which began operations in 2010 amidst its own protests from indigenous groups and environmental organizations— spilled roughly 380,000 gallons. It was the pipe’s second spill in two years. Through this lens, the fears shared by Standing Rock protestors and activists seemed all the more ominous, and their actions more dire.
The events of the film began in 2014, when Dallas-based company Energy Transfer Partners applied to build a 1,172-mile-long pipeline that would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois. The plans drew the ire of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. A portion of the pipe was set to run under parts of Lake Oahe, threatening to contaminate their main source of drinking water. To make matters worse, construction plans threatened to destroy acres of sacred ritual and burial sites historically used by the Sioux and other neighboring tribes.
Just before construction began in 2016, members from various nearby tribes organized and established a camp as a symbol of resistance toward the project. The subsequent images of the protests stirred a movement on social media. Within weeks the site was flooded with thousands of activists and sympathizers, most of whom were Native American across hundreds of tribes.
As the occupation grew, so too did clashes with local police and private security firms. While mainstream news outlets at the time largely ignored the conflicts, Corwin’s film documents first-hand accounts of the violent altercations between largely unarmed protesters and a heavily militarized police force--tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired into crowds full of women and children; police using water cannons and sound cannons to intimidate and corral protesters.
One afternoon in early September, the police set dogs loose on the protesters as they tried to stop construction crews from digging up sacred artifacts and bodily remains from the ritual grounds. This horrifying sight turned out to be the first thing NU student Rory Wheeler saw on the day he arrived in Standing Rock.
“I get there and it’s already chaos. Women screaming, children screaming. It was not a pretty sight at all, to say the least,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who currently serves as the Youth Commission co-president for the National Congress of American Indians, and Youth Advisory Board vice chair for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, went on to explain how his heritage had compelled him to be there.
“It was an experience I needed to do as someone who cares about tribes and our sovereignty and our treaty rights, but also as a descendent of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” he said, explaining that members of his family were actually present when the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was signed, which should have ensured that the contested lands would have been owned by the Standing Rock Sioux.
As the violence gained coverage in the press, the project was halted briefly by the Obama administration in late 2016. The victory wouldn’t last, however. In early 2017, President Donald Trump reversed the former administration’s decision and, by April, construction of the pipeline was completed.
In what was already a blow to many in the indigenous community, many Western New York tribes who took part in the protests came home to find a similar project looming in their own backyard.
The Northern Access Pipeline (NAPL), a project first proposed by National Fuel in 2017, would have crossed 192 streams over the course of its 97-mile route through Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Erie counties. The project has since drawn protests from many residents, including many from local indigenous communities.
For now, plans for NAPL have halted. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has twice now ruled that the pipeline poses too great a threat to these waterways. Yet, National Fuel seems unwilling to abandon the project. Until that happens, the members of local indigenous communities remain committed to fighting it.
While the images from the Standing Rock protests no doubt invoke some of the worst moments and actions from our country’s history, Corwin’s film took particular care to showcase the caring community that formed amidst the tragedy. It’s almost surprising to see happy faces in spite of the tragedy, but for those who were there, an everlasting camaraderie was forged through prayer, song, and communal dinners.
After the screening, Joe Hill was moved to tears as he explained what it was like seeing that community he had been a part of again
“There’ve been a lot of films about Standing Rock, some of them focused on the violence. But for me, Jason really captured the beauty, and there was a lot of beauty there.” Later, he added, “When I watch these films, I recognize my family. Because when you go through something like that, you become family.”
With his time to speak, Corwin discussed how filmmaking became his weapon of choice in this fight and encouraged the attending audience to use whatever skills they can to fight for indigenous rights and environmental issues.
“It can be a lot to get discouraged about. But if you get up every day, and you still got breath in you, then you’ve got a gift for the day. And each of you has got a skill and a talent, maybe you’re honing it, maybe you're still discovering, but you’ve got something really powerful and special that you feel good about, that you’re really good at. Some people are just going to raise their kids to be healthy and think for themselves. That right there is a huge revolutionary act,” Corwin said.