I should have been asleep, but instead I yanked the sheets over my head and tried, for the tenth time, to record a clean take.
“For NPR News, I’m Amy Sisk on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation,” I finally managed without coughing.
A bad cold lingered after weeks of little rest, and the only quiet place to record was my smoky room at the tribe’s casino. I fashioned a studio of pillows and blankets for better audio quality.
Satisfied with this take, I filed my piece on yet another announcement by the federal government that it would delay a decision on the permit needed to complete the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
That day, like many covering this controversy, took several turns.
A videographer and I pulled into the protesters’ camp just north of the Standing Rock border at sunrise. We soon got a tip that protesters planned a demonstration. I strapped a GoPro to my head, held another video camera in my hands and began documenting the caravan of vehicles leaving for Bismarck, an hour north.
We followed, and a few hours later I watched hundreds of protesters march past the very street where I live. Though my main mission that day was to capture footage for a documentary, I picked up the phone when I recognized a call from NPR. It was a producer wanting an update from the scene.
“Hold on,” I interrupted her. “I’m running backwards right now filming, about to get trampled. Let me get out of the way.”
By the top of the next hour, my interview aired across the nation.
Six months ago, I was working my first job out of college writing about school board meetings for the Bismarck paper. I switched in June to this new gig covering energy, and I was still trying to figure out how my broadcast gear worked when the pipeline protest hit the national spotlight.
I’m a reporter for Inside Energy, a group of public media outlets with journalists digging deep into topics like methane leaks and oil worker safety. I’m the only one based in North Dakota, where I work for Prairie Public Broadcasting, a statewide public radio and TV network. Before this job I had virtually no experience with radio and even less with TV. It was baptism by Dakota Access fire.
Never until this pipeline dispute had a news event so challenged what I thought I knew about my profession. It’s thrown me into bizarre situations and forced me to make tough calls testing my journalistic ethics.
Covering A Changing Camp
Oceti Sakowin Camp is a stunning place on what was once a grassy expanse next to the Standing Rock reservation.
I first drove down mid-August to talk to folks camping there in solidarity with the tribe fighting the pipeline. Colorful flags from visiting tribal nations flapped in the wind, and tents and teepees dotted the banks along the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers.
I wandered around soaking in the unusual sight. I kept asking the hundred or so people there who was in charge — I wanted an interview with a leader — but I didn’t have any luck tracking one down. A protester later remarked to me, “The anarchy is beautiful.”
Each time I returned, I encountered a new set of rules to access camp. As thousands of protesters arrived, so did hundreds of reporters. And the camp began to organize, with coordinators designated to handle the media.
Security stationed at the camp entrance directed incoming journalists to a tent to obtain a press pass. Often, we needed to show ID and sit through a briefing on policies: essentially, ask permission before recording anyone, and avoid certain areas like camp kitchens or the sacred fire.
I knew, from previous experiences reporting on reservations, that not all Native American cultures let people to record ceremonies or prayer. I did my best to respect those spiritual practices when I recognized them at camp.
I once had to prove to a camp press handler that I was the reporter on my business card by Googling myself on my phone (this took a few minutes, given the spotty cell service in this remote part of the state). The press handler then read through a story I produced on the protest to ensure I was “fair.”
Camp security accused some reporters of violating various rules and kicked them out. I sought to gain protesters’ trust to tell their side of the story.
With my press pass around my neck, I found that many — though not all — protesters were eager to talk about what inspired them to come to Standing Rock and the experiences they encountered here.
Many showed me great kindness, offering to hold my gear and introducing me to their friends and families. One afternoon as I faced a mile walk back to camp, three vehicles stopped to offer me a ride. I finally opted to hop in the back of a pickup. After all, I faced a deadline later that day.
But not every experience was positive. Late one night, I parked off a nearby highway to take a photo. A vehicle pulled up next to me with three security guards from camp. The men started yelling, demanding I roll down my window. I did and faced an interrogation:
“What are you doing here? You’re not allowed to park here. Who are you? A reporter? Prove it. Now show us your state ID. You might be a DAPL infiltrator.”
They finally drove off, leaving me trembling in my car.
“We’re just trying to protect our village,” one of the men said.
Navigating Checkpoints, Roadblocks, Blizzards
Getting to camp used to be a quick, 45-minute jaunt down a highway that parallels the Missouri River. Then law enforcement set up a checkpoint, alerting drivers to slow for protesters on the road further south.
Today, that highway’s closed to all but local traffic. Even if you could get past the police and National Guardsmen monitoring the road, you’d run into cement barricades and razor wire preventing you from accessing camp.
Protesters criticize this roadblock, and it’s become the site of clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement. Police say it’s there to prevent a much a worse confrontation between those at camp and pipeline security forces protecting the construction area on the other side.
Now, local journalists must navigate a maze of highways to make it to camp. The trip’s likely to take hours due to a recent blizzard that sent temperatures plunging while turning the roads into sheets of ice.
I know journalists who’ve gotten into car accidents trying to get in and out of the frozen camp and others who were stranded, forced to seek shelter in the casino or the home of a hospitable tribal member.
The weather continues to pose a challenge. By mid-December, the temperature had not climbed above 5 degrees in two weeks. The weekend before Christmas, the high was forecasted to be 10 degrees below zero. Yes, that’s the high.
While many protesters have left, several hundred remain camped in yurts and winterized teepees. I plan to return next week and am praying that my radio gear will function in the bitter cold.
And, I’m hoping the extra-warm parka I just ordered arrives in time.
Staying Out Of Jail
Demonstrations have slowed down the past few weeks. At their peak, I couldn’t make it to every so-called “direct action.”
When I did, I tried to avoid getting arrested or pepper sprayed by police.
Early on in the protest, Amy Goodman, a high-profile journalist with the activist “Democracy Now!” program, faced criminal charges after documenting protesters who crossed onto private property to interrupt pipeline construction. Private security hired by the pipeline company unleashed guard dogs on the demonstrators. Both sides reported injuries.
Goodman followed the protesters. As a result, she was charged with trespassing and, later, faced a riot charge.
I realized I needed a better understanding of my rights covering this protest. The Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press has helpful information on its website. After reviewing it, and talking with my college media law professor and my editor, I decided I wouldn’t trespass. I accepted that I could get arrested anyway if I happened to be caught in a crowd of protesters disobeying police orders on public property. But I had to draw the line somewhere.
That line became problematic. One morning, I watched my story run away from me as protesters took to another construction site on a rancher’s land. I recorded from a distance, behind the fence. One protester stuck his phone in my face — he was live-streaming on Facebook — and asked why, as a journalist documenting the event, I didn’t follow the crowd.
“I don’t want to get arrested,” was all I could muster. I felt pretty lame.
My logic is this: I’m not an activist journalist. This fight against the pipeline isn’t my cause. I’m still going to report this story to the best of my ability, but I’m going to report on it legally.
Committing To The Story
To tell the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline requires a careful balancing act. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to present multiple perspectives in the breadth of their reports. This gives the public an opportunity to weigh competing arguments and receive crucial information to inform their views.
That’s why I interview protesters, tribal officials, local residents, law enforcement officers, government regulators, representatives from the oil industry and pipeline experts. My stories, and those produced by my Inside Energy and Prairie Public colleagues, cover developments on the ground and deeper dives into related topics, like the risks posed by pipelines.
Long after this pipeline controversy ends, I hope journalists who have come to Standing Rock from around the world report on their local indigenous communities. Far too often Native American news is overlooked in the mainstream media. Reservations tend to be far from urban centers and many journalists lack a knowledge of indigenous history, culture and current events.
Time and time again covering the pipeline saga, I’ve heard this mantra: Native Americans are finding their voice. And when the protesters leave, they’re hoping to carry the momentum from Standing Rock to influence change back home.
Here in Bismarck, journalists will continue to carrying out coverage of this particular pipeline and the many issues it raises.
A local resident who supports the protest recently told me she basks in quiet, reflective moments.
“I am sitting smack in the middle of history,” she said. “And I love it.”
I can’t help but feel the same.