Standing Rock: The Documentary

Black Snake Killaz: a No #DAPL Story

Unicorn Riot (2017)

Film Review

The main significance of Black Snake* Killaz is the continuous historical record it provides of the 2016 Standing Rock occupation and blockade of the Dakota Access  Pipeline (DAPL). The occupation drew participation from indigenous supporters all over the world, as well as environmental activists and veterans. It also inspired dozens of support protests in cities around the US.

By engaging in continuous direct action, either placing their bodies in the path of construction equipment, vandalizing it or locking themselves down to it, the Water Protectors succeeded in bring pipeline construction to a total halt.

The Full Scale Military Campaign Launched Against Standing Rock

The film also brought home for the first time the full scale military campaign launched against the occupation by federal, state and private security personnel. The basic counterinsurgency strategy employed was drawn up by TigerSwan, a private security company operating illegally in North Dakota. Their battle plan was virtually identical to the military operations launched against jihadists in Afghanistan.

Black Snake Killaz also helped me understand that the DAPL (which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe challenged in Federal Court) was illegal from the outset. Although the private land used for pipeline construction was just north of the Standing Rock reservation, it was routed through sacred land ceded to the Sioux in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Moreover the Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for pipeline construction to start (across this private land) in August 2016 without the legally required comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

At the point Energy Transfer Partners commenced pipeline construction, the Army Corp had yet to grant a permit for the pipeline to cross federal land. In fact, they granted permission for Water Protectors to set up camp (which they named Ocetic Sakowin) on federal land.

Trump Approves Pipeline Via Executive Order

Shortly following Trump’s election in November the Army Corp announced their intention to shut down Oceti Sakowin. They had finally ordered a comprehensive environmental impact assessment (as a condition for granting the easement for the pipeline to cross federal land). However Trump scuppered it four days after taking office, when he signed an executive order directing the Army Corp to immediately approve the easement.

Although the Water Protectors ultimately failed in their efforts to halt DAPL, the massive publicity generated by the nationwide Standing Rock campaign would lead US Bank and a Norwegian bank to withdraw funding for the pipeline. It would also lead numerous cities to divest from Energy Transfer Partners and the banks that fund them.

The pipeline has already caused three oil spills since it began operations in May 2017.


*The Water Protectors refer to DAPL as the Black Snake based on an old Sioux prophecy that a black snake would come out of the North and poison their water.

Inside the Standing Rock Protest

Killing the Black Snake

sub.Media (2017)

Film Review

The following short documentary focuses on some of the direct action tactics protestors engaged in to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Approximately 20,000 indigenous Americans from hundreds of tribes and their supporters occupied contested land near the Standing Rock reservation in during 2016-17 in their efforts to block DAPL construction. Although the US government claims the land the DAPL runs through, the1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie cedes it to the Lakota Nation.

Referring to themselves as “water protectors,” specific tactics Standing Rock protestors employed to halt pipeline construction included locking themselves down to heavy construction equipment, dismantling and sabotaging equipment and confronting construction workers to run them off their land.

When protestors were confronted by a highly militarized police force, they were forced to change tactics, with more focus on property damage and setting fire to vehicles of intruders.

Individuals the filmmakers refer to as “peace police,” played a much bigger role in undermining the protests than uniformed police in riot gear. In addition to police and government undercover agents that are common to all resistance movements, the water protectors had to deal with interference from paid tribal leaders (who draw a salary from the US government and have little connection with traditional tribal governance) and with non-indigenous non-profit organization such as Greenpeace and Forest Ethics. Both organizations are notorious for advancing their own campaigns by cutting secret deals with fossil fuel companies. Such agreements typically include a requirement for the non-profit groups to coopt and limit direct action by more militant activists.

My favorite scene is the one in which Chevron officials try to make a deal with Lakota activists to enter their land in return for a peace offering of bottled water and tobacco.