Art as Agency in Standing Rock, North Dakota Part 1: An Interview with a NYC Activist Artist

by Debbi Kenote 

Photo of action in Standing Rock, by David Solnit
This week Open House interviewed Dolly, from a social organization based in New York City. Dolly and her organization have been affiliated with the recent actions at Standing Rock in North Dakota. In our interview, Dolly shares her perspective on the role of art at Standing Rock in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with her aspirations to grow the art community in the base camp on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion dollar project that would carry 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois.

Dolly has asked that her last name be kept private, along with the name of the organization she is affiliated with.

Dolly was interviewed by Debbi Kenote from Open House on October 30th, 2016. 


Let’s start with how you got involved in the fight at Standing Rock in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I got involved through friends knowing what I do as an artist and they were connected to events happening there. They knew that I was an artist living here [in New York City] who worked for different social organizations and that is what got us together. They wanted to be able to bring that to North Dakota, but having the funds to be able to sponsor it, to sustain it, is what is currently being worked on at the moment.

While abstaining from naming your organization, can you tell me what it is currently involved in?

It is an organization for the people that helps aid in social causes. We provided the banner and tipi for the action on Thursday at the Hillary Clinton headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. Demonstrators placed the tipi outside of her office and attempted to hand out letters to the security guards there, asking her to support the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Do you feel that the Hillary Clinton protest was effective?

Yes and No. Yes, because it got good coverage, but no because I don’t have faith in it altering her decisions. In comparison to Occupy, the DAPL has received minimal coverage. She supports a lot of different things, it feels like her and others don’t want to see a black or brown person go past the middle class, it is intimidating to them. It is too much power. Our best leaders have been assassinated: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. So many individuals who were leaders to us or inspired the community… are gone. It is not by coincidence, you can also look at John F Kennedy, it is not just about black and brown, JFK was an amazing individual who wanted change and it was too much.

To your knowledge, what does the community of artists look like right now at the camp in Standing Rock?

Outside of screen printing for posters and banners, I don’t think there is much art happening there. That is definitely something that I would like to start when I do go. I definitely see the need for families and children, I would be able to have small art classes for the kids, just to keep them occupied and give their parents a break. But also, make some radical art work for them. My vision is to have more visual presence of the tribes there. Yes there are tipis, but there could be larger sculptures, maybe large heads in traditional garments to represent the tribes, put in the corners of the camp to show that this is who this land belongs to.

What are the tipis made out of?

Real wood and canvas.

Would that be part of the art project potentially?

It would be part of a project, especially because the winters are cold there. They need to make them warmer, fur and such and they can be painted on.

Would this project also function as art therapy?

Oh yea, definitely. The stress that the organizers and everyone involved is going through is a lot, they are probably not even sleeping because they have to keep one eye open. When you are a leader, you have a responsibility, and you know that eventually they will come to shut down the camp, there is too much influence happening and those that are in charge of it are targeted first. People don’t sleep, they don’t eat, when they are stressed. Having art therapy where the community can be a part of something that belongs to them to make them feel more at home.

So this would be more than just large scale art making?

It is important that large scale artwork has a strong meaning behind it. Anyone can make a banner. Banners are a great thing to make, but I would like to include more art therapy for the community.

How are you planning on getting materials there?

I would like to get sponsors. Not corporations but raise funds to be able to take a road trip and get a truck with as much supplies as I can pack. And spend a solid month out there, build it up and pass it on to who comes next or someone who is there and is able to maintain it.

Do you know if the disruption this week extended into the base camp?

It was just the blockage of the roads. The way it is set up there are two parts to Standing Rock. There is the entry which is basically the government, but when you enter the land itself, they have their own security. But it is different than a military base, it is more like they have Indigenous people who make sure there is no photography or video. And it’s not because they don’t want media coverage, it’s because it is who they are. They don’t want to be a trend, they want it to be understood that this is their life. Seeing the buffaloes, the stampede that came through, that was a symbol of this. The universe, the land, a calling of ancestors, solidarity with our planet.

We live in NYC, where galleries are in abundance. Should there be artists here making work about this? If so, is this something that should be shown in galleries?

I feel that if it is going to be in galleries then it should be curated by Indigenous people and showcase Indigenous work and act as a fundraiser for the cause, to send funds to them. They are in need of hand-warmers, socks, water… the essentials. Making sure they have huge quantities of rice and beans, to send. If that could happen in NYC that is great, and it could create more exposure. The challenge is the curating: getting work here, organizing it.   

Logistically, as the winter is approaching how will the camp be shifting to accommodate the weather?

I think people think it will have more of an effect than it will. Occupy took place during some of the coldest months and people were out there camping.They expect people to give up, but it is an established community and they take care of one another. It is very hard being there in the cold, but it is a supportive community and they are there uplifting each other. Having to feel like you are constantly under surveillance is hard, being in an environment with uncertainty of what comes next, not knowing when or if police will show up and arrest you.  

How do you see the trajectory of this movement? Will it continue to gain momentum in the face of opposition?

Well, nothing lasts forever, unfortunately. However it is definitely going to make history and make a statement. As far as will things change? I really want it to change, but going into any kind of organizing campaign or drive, you have to go into it understanding that you probably will not get what you are hoping to get. In the back of the mind it is there. You can’t be too hopeful. If we win and succeed in stopping the pipeline then that is awesome, but, if we don’t, we are still going to make history regardless. It was a fight, and we may have won or lost but those that were apart of that fight will not stop there, this will continue on into history.

As an artist, do you think that this experience with extreme censorship and disregard for freedom of speech will continue to be seen in your artistic practice?

I think we all will need to take much needed breaks in between this and what comes next. When individuals are so passionate, it is important to take time to recover and have self-care before the next project begins. Whether you won or lost, process that, learn from it, build another movement, and keep going. If you hold onto it you will be stuck in the past. Winning is change. Change for the community, for people, that’s all we are asking for.

Final question, What are the top 5 changes you would like to see as a result of the efforts to resist the DAPL?

Wow, top 5, Let’s see. Definitely stricter laws against police brutality and increased transparency. Also, reduction of arrests and incarcerations of people of color. You have to ask yourself: why is it that people of color will receive a harsher penalty for the same crime?

Also restructuring of funding in our military budget. I have a friend who has a son and has been deployed three times, and when people get out, it is hard to adjust. Financially, there are a lot of homeless veterans, yet so much money going into military, why is this? Hmm what else. It’s challenging to pick just five.

It’s interesting because in your first and third you tackled both sides of oppression in government funded policing/military actions.


Are there specific changes that you would want to see in North Dakota?

This is what I was trying to find a way to say, basically how do we protect sacred land, or make sure treaty agreements are honored? How do we find a way to protect people against oppression, corruption, money.

That’s four. Five? Stricter gun laws. In many states you can get a gun so easily, and it is scary. Why do we allow people to walk into gun shops and buy a gun, and hardly question the individual. Stricter gun laws for sure. Prevent things like what happened in Orlando. Gun laws. Gun laws. Gun laws. Change for the community is all we are asking for.

Thank you Dolly for your time and insight. Let’s end on that note.

Art as Agency in Standing Rock, North Dakota Part 1: An Interview with a NYC Activist Artist

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