Indigenous·Reporter's Notebook

Kim Wheeler on covering the story of Standing Rock

One of biggest stories of 2016 happened on a small strip of land where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people came together to fight a big oil company. Indigenous journalists from both CBC Indigenous and CBC Radio’s Unreserved travelled down in two separate trips.

CBC Unreserved producer among the first mainstream journalists to cover demonstrations in North Dakota

Unreserved's Kim Wheeler (centre) and Erica Daniels (right) interview LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. The Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock sits on her land. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

One of biggest stories of 2016 took place on a small strip of land where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people came together to fight a big oil company.

A portion of the contentious Dakota Access Pipeline was slated to be built under the Missouri River at the top of Lake Oahe in North Dakota. The lake is the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

For months, people gathered both on the reservation land and on the land claimed by the Department of the Army and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A community emerged. Donations of clothing, food and money poured in. People cared for one another and prayed for the protection of the land.

From left to right: Tiar Wilson, Erica Daniels, Stephanie Cram and Kim Wheeler on Facebook Hill at Standing Rock. (Tiar Wilson)
Indigenous journalists from both CBC Indigenous and CBC Radio's Unreserved travelled down in two separate trips. As a producer for Unreserved, I travelled down on the second trip.

To get the best stories and to get a real feel for what was happening at the camps, I decided that we should stay in the main camp, called Oceti Sakowin. I didn't know if we would be welcome — but being Indigenous, I couldn't see why we wouldn't be.

We were welcomed with open arms.

We went down at the beginning of November before the people who call themselves "water protectors" were sprayed down with water cannons, before more mass media showed up and before thousands more people descended on the camps.

Indigenous perspective

I am Mohawk and Anishinabe, and as an Indigenous journalist, I bring a different perspective to how I broach stories. And as a producer on a show that focuses on storytelling, I believe I bring a different perspective than news reporters do.

The stories we wanted to tell were the stories of the people in the camp. Why were they there? What compelled them to stay? Why do they still stay and what keeps them coming back?

We met a lot of Indigenous people from across the U.S. Down there, they are called Native Americans but for the most part self-identify by their tribal affiliation. In Canada, we call tribes nations.

Harmony Lauritzen, one of many people the Unreserved team interviewed while at Standing Rock. (Erica Daniels/CBC)
In sharing stories, I meet a lot of people. Some of them come and go from my life in the 30 minutes it takes to interview them. Others — well, they stick around longer and a personal connection is developed. 

The Indigenous community can seem relatively small at times, and it is. So it can be tricky when covering a story and drawing a line between friendship and journalistic integrity. I've lost friends because of this, but also gained some.

Ray Lowery is Paiute from Nevada. Although his teepee has remained at Standing Rock, he is currently back home. 

Harmony Lauritzen, who is non-Indigenous, is still at Standing Rock. She recently wrote on Facebook about how the feel of the camp has changed. She said it now feels like it's every man for himself.

This comes after the chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, David Archambault, asked the water protectors to leave now that the Obama administration has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look for alternate routes for the pipeline.

Returning to Standing Rock

At the beginning of December, I travelled back on my own with my husband and his daughter because they wanted to experience Standing Rock for themselves. So I went with them, to guide them.

The feel of the camp had changed from when I had been there the month before. It was serene and calm in November with about 700 to 800 people in the camp.  In December, those numbers had swelled to 13,000.

The Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock on Dec. 4, 2016. (Jordan Wheeler)
While snow blanketed the area, it didn't stop people from arriving in droves.  But even then, there was something magical about seeing bumper-to-bumper cars lined up on the highway waiting to get into the camp. They kept arriving all day long and into the night.

Through all this calm chaos, it was clear that the people who had remained in the camp for weeks and months still made it Indigenous first, asking for an Indigenous person to pray over the breakfast food for the camp and listening to the elders speak.

Every community has its politics and when something like Standing Rock grows out of one woman's backyard — literally — not everyone will see eye-to-eye or come away with the same experience.

But coming over the rise in the highway that opened up to a camp of teepees, tents, burning fires and people on horseback will stay with me forever. I imagine that it is similar to what encampments looked like for my ancestors.


Kim Wheeler is an Anishinabe/Mohawk. She is a writer and an award-winning producer living in Winnipeg. Her work on the CBC radio series ReVision Quest garnered a New York Festival silver medal and two ImagineNative awards. Wheeler currently works as an associate producer for the CBC Aboriginal Digital Unit and Unreserved on CBC Radio One.