Standing Rock Through The Lens And Heart Of Amber Hockeborne
By Dana Lee
John Trudell once said, “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.” Finding truth in a “post-truth” world makes Amber Hockeborne's photography especially important. The sharp arrow of her lens rides true on winds of consciousness that cry out to “find the pain and go there.” Her journey to document the Water Protectors gathering near the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline is a story of trust, generosity and a communion of women and men who answered the call of the heart. This is not an article about thepolitical, economic and social underpinnings leading up to the courageous and well-organized peaceful action at Standing Rock. Rather, it is a celebration of the unlimited potential for courage and empathy that is catalyst for peaceful transformative change, embodied by four women who answered the call of the heart.
Amber first got the urge to go and help the Standing Rock Water Protectors when she learned about the situation over social media. She called her mom to discuss the difficult decision to go, knowing that her mom could sometimes say things that can be difficult to hear. Her mother was her truth-teller, her confidant, always guiding Amber towards her best possible outcome. She could always be trusted for selfless guidance and truth. Her mom immediately said, “What do we need to do to get you there?” She felt Amber's deep need to bear witness through the passion of her photography, and edified Amber's quest to make the long 22 hour journey to Standing Rock. Having her mom's blessing upon her work was like the warm sun on Amber's crown, illuminating her creative spark and lighting up her heart to help others. Amber began packing for the trip, a California girl anticipating bone-chilling cold, and began to do what she is good at: gathering sources and making connections.
Amber decided that the best way to help was to offer rides to help others get there too, so she took a bold chance and extended a warm hand through the internet ethers to offer rides to Standing Rock. By offering to help others, the pathway forward began to unfold. An old friend Tate and her mother, Leta, wanted to go along, and offered to let Amber stay with them on the reservation before making the last leg to Standing Rock together. Tate was a strong mother, a warrior goddess, and wise matriarch. A few steps on the road to Standing Rock were illuminated, and Amber began to pack with fire in her heart.
Staying on the reservation was a deeply moving experience. She met people who reaffirmed her purpose to be there and was honored to be welcomed by Tate's family, who exhibited deep abiding respect and love for each other. Life on the reservation is intense and extremely challenging, yet decidedly beautiful in ways that truly matter. Elders are revered, never ignored. Their legacies are spoken and heard. Amber felt humbled and thankful to have been welcomed to stay. She is careful to assure that her photography is not about her, but she is often indelibly marked by the experience of it. She says that when she thinks about her time on the reservation, she can't help but smile. She doesn't want to talk about how challenging the situation is for some of the people living on the reservations. She only wants to talk about their love. She smiles warmly with soft eyes that hold them in deep respect when she talks about being in their presence.
It was deep into nighttime when they descended into the valley where the action was buttressed against the last mile of pipeline construction. The valley was ablaze with glaring construction lights as thousands of people who had, like them, followed their heart to stand at Standing Rock. Big stadium lights kept the insatiable progress of greed illuminated for pipeline construction workers.
We Hear what you say
One Earth, one Mother
One does not sell the Earth
The people walk upon
We are the land
How do we sell our Mother?
How do we sell the stars?
How do we sell the air?
We hear what you say
Too many people
Standing their ground
Standing the wrong ground
Predators face he possessed a race
Possession a war that doesn't end
Children of God feed on children of Earth
Days people don't care for people
These days are the hardest
Material fields, material harvest
Decoration on chains that binds
Mirrors gold, the people lose their minds
We Hear what you say
~ John Trudell, Crazy Horse
Upon the dawn, Amber and her friends would be called to action. At Standing Rock, action meant prayer, but as she would later learn, it was a courageously venerable form of prayer. The Water Protectors were unarmed, well organized, and faithful. Amber made the decision to join the front lines. She prepared to jump into the first empty seat in the caravan to be transported to an unnamed destination by people she had never met towards armed police, herself armed only with a camera and a couple pairs of goggles. She recalled the experience of riding in the one hundred car caravan as one of the most moving experiences of her life. She was in total surrender to peaceful action and prayer. She met a man from Holland and noticed he did not have any eye protection, so she gave him her extra pair of goggles to protect him against the tear gas. She had heard about horrific injuries that other Water Protectors had suffered at the hands of law enforcement. Tear gas was a favorite tactic and was extremely caustic and injurious. She tried to focus on taking one calm step at a time. Organizers with pens wrote rescue phone numbers on their arms in case they were denied a call to a lawyer. Some Native Americans had allegedly been denied calls, so the number written on her arm was to be an indelible lifeline to freedom, just in case. The reality of the situation kept sinking deeper and deeper into her brain as the ink with the emergency telephone number sank into her skin. Later, when people were being arrested in such large numbers, the police also had numbers to write on their skins: the consecutive numbers of order, to keep track of the arrested multitude of Water Protectors.
The time came to jump into one of the first cars in the caravan as an empty spot in the back of a freezing camper shell offered itself to her. She jumped in along with 5 other guys. Every car was illuminated by emergency blinking lights, pulsing like expectant beating hearts, one hundred cars filled with brave souls armed only with prayer. The long line was visually moving. Amber felt it was one of the most important moments of her life. One man warned: it's really disturbing, the police brutality. It can be really upsetting. Prepare yourself. Kevin Gilbertt, the man who popularized the human and ecological drama of Standing Rock using Facebook Live broadcasts, stood near Amber as he broadcasted exhaustively to a fickle world hoping to garner attention for the cause. At one point, Amber thought she heard gunshots being fired by the police, perhaps fired into the air, though she could not be sure. She recalled the story of a law enforcement truck that aggressively ran through the crowd and ran over a woman's feet. As they passed through the valley about 50 police in riot gear appeared with several school buses ready to transport the people that they would perhaps later arrest.
Arrests would most likely happen to the outside ring of protectors first. A human trinity comprised of three circular lines cocooned the central core concentrated in deep prayer as all stood together not moving. The people creating the ripples of prayer at Standing Rock were a rainbow mix of Native Americans from all tribes, peace loving hippies, older men and women who looked like librarians from Marin County, and an overall patchwork quilt of highly organized and peaceful people. Everyone linked arms and looked on as an ominous dust cloud signaled the approaching police. Ironically, the Water Protectors removed their goggles initially so that they would not appear intimidating to the approaching heavily armed police. One person had a red flag, and the Water Protectors were encouraged to leave with the red flag. The red flag symbolized their last chance to leave before the police advanced upon them. Amber wondered if she should leave. She was scared. For a moment she felt like leaving with the red flag. Some of the elderly left with the flag, along with those that were ill, vulnerable or could not afford to be arrested again.
Amber realized at that moment she was willing to be arrested. She was willing to give up her freedom to stand up for the Water Protectors, for the Native Americans who for generations have suffered the loss of their sacred lands and lives by greedy hands, and for the safety of life-giving water for all generations to come. The Water Protectors were fiercely focused on this purpose; it was no festival. Everyone was organized, peaceful, and committed to the cause. The police began to advance towards the rings of humanity in prayer and then, they suddenly and inexplicably stopped, and it was time to go. When the prayer was over and the police did not advance too far, they left. She felt relived and happy that the police suddenly decided to leave and construction for that day had was halted. The Water Protectors began to leave in an orderly fashion; there was more work to be done to prepare for bitter snowfall to come. People set about chopping wood, organizing for the next round of peaceful resistance and prayers. There were no arrests on this courageously prayerful day.
Amber and her friends headed off to find the actual Standing Rock Memorial on the way back home to the reservation. Like a prayer, it was much smaller than they expected, but more powerful than imagined. Amber's journey to Standing Rock clarified her vocation. Amber Hockeborne is a photographer. She finds the pain and goes there, offering the world images ofthe redemptive power of love. When she got back to the reservation, she gave five women on the reservation a free haircut. It felt like a female tribal bonding. They were relaxed and happy with whatever Amber wanted to give, but it was really Amber who received the gifts. Larger than the action at Standing Rock was the organic gift of female bonding with Leta and Tate, imbued with her mother's blessing to risk herself for a just cause. The laughs and stories they shared as the road rushed under their wheels to Standing Rock tell us all we need to know about truth.
Find more on Amber's work on her website: www.amberhockeborne.com.
Photography by Amber Hockeborne