ART AS AGENCY IN STANDING ROCK, NORTH DAKOTA PART II: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SOLNIT

by Til Will

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Solnit organized the printing of 300 muslin flags last weekend. This is a design by Isaac Murdoch, screen printed at a warehouse in the Bay Area. Image courtesy of David Solnit.

Last weekend, David Solnit organized the printing of 300 flags with the help of students in the Bay Area to be taken to Standing Rock this week in an effort to replenish the lost artwork from a police raid on one of the camps last week.

I got a chance to speak with Solnit, a California based arts organizer who led the printing, painting and rigging of the signs, banners, and flags held by activists at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Solnit has been organizing for social change for the past 15 years. He brought the ‘Art Tent’ and a truck full of art supplies to make art at Standing Rock. Here the Sioux Nation has been joined by allies around the world in their peaceful resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been permitted to be built under the Missouri River, just beyond the border of the northern tip of the Standing Rock Reservation near Cannonball, ND. 

It is difficult to determine the legality of the Energy Transfer Partners, L.P  project—here’s why. The construction zone (which has already resulted in the upheaval of sacred Sioux burial sites) was legally considered Sioux territory by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.

“The aforesaid Indian nations [Sioux] do hereby recognize and acknowledge the following tracts of country, included within the metes and boundaries hereinafter designated, as their respective territories.”

But in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, this boundary was re-determined, just south of the proposed construction zone. Back in July 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completely disregarded the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Lawsuit against them claiming the cultural importance of sites on the proposed route, which was land that the Sioux legally ruled between 1851-1868. They went ahead and approved the permits for Energy Transfer to begin construction before the case had time to even be processed. The suit claimed that the DAPL violates the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), long before the sites were dozed.

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Water Protectors prepare for an action, photograph by Nanette Phillips

So, before we begin, It must be understood that the American legal system has failed the Standing Rock Sioux; their religious, cultural, and human rights have been blatantly violated. The following are the words I had with David Solnit.

listen to the full interview: 

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David Solnit ‘Keep’ 11×17″ screen print on muslin

Til Will: Do you have time for a quick interview over the phone?

David Solnit: I’m a little bit scrambling to get a big bundle of artwork off to Standing Rock so I’m driving for the next few hours. But I’m happy to talk and drive If that’s cool with you.

TW: Well yeah. If it’s safe for you. That’s fine with me.

DS: Yeah, you’re on speaker phone. I’ve got both hands free.

Can I ask a couple of questions first?

TW: Sure, Sure thing.

DS: Would you be able to tell me a little bit about about your magazine and what its story is and who reads it and then I can be able to be much smarter about what I say to who?

TW: Sure thing. So it started as an art gallery in Bellingham, Washington. And it was a gallery in my living room. And we basically did DIY house shows, we featured all sorts of artists that were local in the area and the region, and we would just have open invitation, exhibitions in the living room. They would be one night events. And so then I moved out to New York and I wanted to keep this project rolling. So since then, I’ve been interviewing artists, going to all kinds of exhibitions, writing reviews…and, yeah so it’s a pretty low key project. At the moment we’re just trying to keep the blog rolling along so that eventually the project can become a gallery again. And, yeah, so it’s kind of our goal is to expose artists that are emerging, maybe artists that don’t get the attention but deserve it. I’m an artist myself, I’m actually in my studio right now.

DS: What do you make? Flat things or 3D things?

TW: I’ve made 3D things, I’ve made flat things, all sorts of things. But I do collage right now, and painting.

DS: Oh cool.

TW: Yeah…So do you have any other questions about that?

DS: Uh, No.

TW: Okay great. So I’ve got a few questions for you then. Can you tell me a little bit about your art background and where you are from?

DS: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was a teenager I loved art and I wanted to be an artist. And I took lots of art classes in community college and wanted to go to art school but then I also saw a lot wrong in the world: injustice, US wars in Central America, and the threat of nuclear war—and I didn’t see what good being a successful artist—having a gallery show and selling a painting to a well-off person to hang over the couch, would do. So I pretty much shelved that path and became an activist and an organizer and supported myself as a carpenter for the last 35 years mostly. But then after organizing for social change for about 10-15 years I realized, wow, we’re really not inspiring people. We’re not telling our stories. And I think maybe the people that can do that better are people who have some art skills. So I started to hit up a friend who had learned how to make street puppetry, and performers and musicians and say, “hey, you need to help us with our demonstrations so we can make positive change in the world.” So that’s sort of put me back on the path. That was 20 years ago and since then I’ve just been sort of working with both artists and performers and also a lot of non-artists, trying to figure out how to make what we can with our hands and our voices and our bodies to change the world. And so that meant visual art, street theatre—and seeing even demonstrations as a performance using art and theatre to educate and engage people about the things that matter to our communities. So I call myself an arts organizer now, in that I facilitate organizations and communities making art about things that matter to them, to try and make positive change.

TW: Cool. That’s a really great answer. So I want to ask you now a little bit about Standing Rock, because Nanette told me that you’ve been there organizing printing. So how long were you there?

DS: I was there for about a month, with a little side trip to Iowa.

TW: Okay so what was your role in the art tent?

DS: I drove out with a big donated tent that was a 20 foot by 30 foot tent, and we set it up next to the Non-violent Direct Action Training Camp. And I also … one of my friends, an Indigenous organizer from the Bay Area, had come back and said, “you know, we could use some more art. We’re spray painting banners the night before and action”—there wasn’t a lot of art. And so I started talking to people and we decided that in the Bay Area, that would be something that we can do—we can actually do an art party, print up a bunch of art… and then I decided I would just bring it there to help out.

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Hand coloring prints at the art tent in Standing Rock, ND. Courtesy of David Solnit.

So we printed probably 300 screen printed flags on white muslin and we painted about 30 or 40 banners and threw them in my truck with a big tent and a bunch of art supplies and showed up and started assembling all the things we had made. We hand-colored them all. We painted a lot of new banners. And then I started bringing the banners out to each action so that we could hand them out to people who wanted to hold them. So that there was a whole bunch of visual art at every action.

TW: Cool.

DS: And I should say that most of the messages of what we wrote came from my friend who was working closely with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council. So they gave us messages of ‘mni wiconi which means ‘water is life’ and ‘defend the sacred’ and ‘we’re protectors not protesters’. So we took the message that they gave us, made lots of art—we collaborated with a couple of different indigenous artists to make a lot of the flags. A lot of the images actually came from other indigenous artists—Particularly Isaac Murdoch up in Manitoba, and Sadie Red Wing somewhere in the states.

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Sadie Red Wing ‘Mni Wichoni’, graphic design, image courtesy of Melanie Cervantes

TW: Okay cool. That kind of answers part of my next questions which is: how do you decide which images you’re going to print? Because I imagine you go for kind of a large run of prints when you make them?

DS: Yeah. I mean there’s a couple different levels. One is making art that makes sense to the people whose struggle it is. So I was there humbly supporting and following the Standing Rock Sioux and other indigenous patients who, to benefit all of us, had decided to really draw the line against big oil wrecking the Missouri River, and, you know, everyone’s future…

So I took my message from them. I made an effort to primarily use the images from Indigenous artists and ask them to collaborate with us. And then the things I’ve learned over the years—you need to have big simple clear images if you want them to show up in photographs and be visible from a distance. So we have worked with the artists to draw text that’s really big and simple and bold. And the other criteria is trying to use ways of making things so that a lot of hands can get…a lot of people can help. So we screen printed, simple black images on white muslins and then each image has a lot of hand painting so that basically, the making of the art is a participatory process with a lot of hands.

TW: Okay.

DS: Yeah, and then rigging it also, so that it’s visible. So the flat muslin screen printed flags are on eight-foot sticks that we painted a color to make them all durable, waterproof and pretty… a lot of big flapping flags, that kind of thing. And then we also did additional banners with some visiting Indigenous artists while we were there.  

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An action in Winnepeg, Manitoba, featuring designs by Isaac Murdoch. Image courtesy of Clayton Thomas-Muller

TW: So another question I have that kind of comes out of that last question that you answered so well is: What role do you think that the imagery of the prints plays in the peaceful protests?

DS: Well, I think it’s part of how you tell a story. I mean the primary story is being told by people’s bodies and voices. But I think art and words, visual words along with performance and song—my experience working in a native led struggle is very different than struggles led by a lot of us from particularly secular and European-American backgrounds. They’re already very strong on understanding the importance of narrative and weaving in a lot of culture of prayer and song and dance. Their struggle is already so rich. So the thing that I help do, because everyone’s so busy, is get the art supplies and facilitate making some visual images too, which is such a rich tradition in native history.

TW: Okay. So do you consider yourself an ally?

DS: Yeah, I guess. I mean I’m an ally but I’m also—I think for those of us that are non-native it’s important to also identify that we have struggled—I live near a bunch of oil refineries, I live in a town where oil trains run through, so I don’t see myself supporting their struggle but I see us as having common struggles and they’ve drawn a heavy duty line against big oil for all of us. So, I see myself as a comrade or ally but also, not that my role is to only support other people’s struggles—I’ve spent most of my time organizing in my own communities, which most of them are majority white communities, and then work graciously with those communities to try and collaborate with other communities, communities of color and Indigenous communities. So I think it’s important that non-native and especially white folks don’t lose their agency and just see themselves as supporters, but actually that we need to be aggressively organizing in our own communities, especially white communities, to make sure that racism—like Trump and other forces—and corporate power, don’t sway our communities who are also being screwed. I mostly organize where I live, which is often majority white. Sometimes it’s mixed folks of color and white.

TW: Right. Right. Ok, thanks. So how many artist would you estimate are participating in the printing or the art efforts in Standing Rock?

DS: We’ve had a few handfuls of people who have stepped up and shown up regularly and help make stuff like Nanette or like her friend Francisco, who introduced me… and then there’s also—I mean a lot of people come for the time periods they can and when we have art going and people see it, a lot of people will step up. Like, this one thing we’ve been doing is taking the flag designs and making patches, putting safety pins on the corners and then people are able to—you know, we pass them out to people going out and taking a risk with an action…and people like that.

TW: So it’s sort of like an ebb and flow kind of help with that …

DS: And when we have the flags all over the table and they need to be hand painted, people just sort of magically show up and start painting.

TW: So are there other types of artwork being made there or is it just screen printing or have you heard of any other art efforts elsewhere in the country?

DS: Yeah. There’s a huge outpouring of graphic design supporting Standing Rock. Melanie Cervantes, who with her partner Jesus, is part of a group called Dignidad Rebelde. She hosts an online Facebook gallery of probably 60 different images made by over 50 artists. And she hasn’t hunted it down but it’s just that there’s a huge outpouring of amazing art coming out and there’s other artists who’ve been there screen printing, painting stuff, doing a lot of different forms.

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Detail of a design by Ernesto Yerena Montejano, image courtesy of Melanie Cervantes

TW: So do you know of one of the painters off the top of your head?

DS: A few of them are Isaac Murdoch, Christi Belcourt, Sadie Red Wing—and Jesus and Melanie themselves have made probably the most best known: it’s a solidarity with Standing Rock with some of the Standing Rock youth in the image.

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Design by Christi Belcourt, image courtesy of Melanie Cervantes

TW: Okay. Great. So just a couple more questions if you’re okay with it…

DS: Yeah.

TW: Okay. So I want to hear a little bit about your perspective of censorship and what you’re up against in terms of North Dakota’s oppression against freedom of speech and how you’re combatting it?

DS: There’s a few levels in which, partly, the law enforcement has very little experience or respect for basic constitutional rights to express yourself and to descent, and they have absolutely no awareness of the rich American tradition of disobedience and nonviolent direct action. So the people who’ve been doing sit-ins have been charged with rioting, and they regularly refer to—one of the Sheriffs referred to—any gathering of more than five people as a potential riot. And so a lot of the political space we’ve won in other places is not there in North Dakota. And layered on what anti-Indian racism and our horrible history there. And then also as in many places, the state wide media has taken the side of big oil, so not really given much of a balance into non-native North Dakotans.

TW: So do you think that social media is ‘holding its own’ against larger media corporations?

DS: I think that it’s hugely important, but I don’t think it altogether replaces other forms of media. I also think it’s worth engaging and fighting—what I often call the ‘battle of stories’—it’s worth fighting over what that media tells and pushing back on it for those people who have the stomach to do that. But, I think one thing with social media is that there’s some people who actually do journalism and actually tell the story and research and try and be accurate and what not—but a lot of it doesn’t quite have the depth or the accuracy so, you know, around Standing Rock there’s been a lot of things that haven’t been altogether accurate or just subjective impressions that could be powerful. And then simultaneously there’s other people who actually say, ‘ok, I’m going to write a clear description of what happened and share it’, I mean, I’ve tried to do that a little bit with a series of photo essays of the actions that I’ve been part of.

TW: Right, Right. I did see some of those and they’re very clear. So I wanted to ask you, was the artwork in the police raid confiscated?

DS: I mean the art space wasn’t affected. The police raid was of the new encampment that had been set up on the pipeline route. And so really, we just lost a lot of the art that was attached to the fences, to people’s tents. And then when people are attacked with chemical weapons like pepper spray or different types of projectile type rubber bullets or bean bags—potentially lethal bean bags, then they tend to drop their art to protect themselves. I wasn’t there last Thursday but I heard folks say that we lost a lot of the art.

TW: Do you think you’ll ever be able to get it back?

DS: No. We’ll just keep making more.

TW: Yeah! (chuckles)

DS: And so we just did an art party with a lot of local students in the Bay Area and we made 300 hundred flags over the weekend—and I’m actually on my way to drop them off to a caravan that’s bringing them up tonight.

TW: Cool. Great. So I guess I’ll–lets see, did I miss anything here…

DS: One other thing and maybe I can point you to it, or if you email me I can send it to you, I’ve put together a little bit of images and tips—sort of a google doc—that’s encouraging people to use the art out there but also gives people tips on how to make signs and other stuff in solidarity of Standing Rock.

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NTVS clothing design, image courtesy of Melanie Cervantes

TW: Yes, I think I saw this and I think I’ve already shared that. Yeah so it’s out there.

DS: I’m working on improving it if you have any suggestions or know of other images.

TW: Okay yeah that’s already a wonderful document that you put together there. People can print it at their own homes, right? and put it up in their own communities? That’s kind of the idea?

DS: Yeah, just trying to get people to—as one of the things they do is to make art themselves or even just print stuff out and colorize it. Getting people—I mean that’s a big mission for me is to get people to use their hands to make stuff.

TW: Okay, yeah. I just have to ask you one question because I’m curious—What a typical day looks like in an art tent?

DS: If there’s an action a lot of us will load up a truck full of art and go out and sort of as our small contribution, we can bring out a ton of flags and signs, pass them out, collect them, and try and keep them together so that for the next action they’re there intact. It’s a particular role for any kind of a public movement. It’s like—what are your visual images and who’s going to take care of them, and fix them when they break and that kind of stuff?

TW: So they’re very well organized.

DS: Well, we try…but it’s—we’re really following the organization of Standing Rock Sioux and all of the Indigenous Nations who are all very well organized in many ways.

TW: Alright, one last question before I leave you. And thanks again, so much, for talking to me about this. I’m really excited to have you. What keeps you motivated?

DS: I’ve organized in social movements for a long time and one of the things that keeps me motivated is actually making things together with people with our hands and that I feel like, you know—it’s an added benefit that I actually believe is one of the most strategic things you can be doing to change the world—I actually just like making stuff for people. I think we’re happiest when we do that together.

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Drawing by Joey Delgato, image courtesy of Melanie Cervantes

TW: Okay great. So what’s a way besides… I know you’d mentioned the document already– but what’s a way that you would suggest if somebody wants to help, what should they do?

DS: I just came from an action this morning. I painted a bunch of signs for it last night. That was at that Citi Bank. It’s one of the funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I mean, big picture—I hope that people will be inspired to get involved in the fights in their own community both around indigenous rights but also standing up to big oil and protecting our water, protecting our climates. In Pennsylvania, people took inspiration from Standing Rock and decided to sort of replicate that and they did an encampment on the pipeline route of the fracked natural gas pipeline running through Pennsylvania. So I’d love to see if all these—you know, learn what we can and take that inspiration but then apply it so that there’s a dozen or a hundred or a thousand Standing Rocks, drawing the line against big oil all over the country.

ART AS AGENCY IN STANDING ROCK, NORTH DAKOTA PART II: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SOLNIT

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