“Decolonization Starts Inside of You”
Photographer Josué Rivas spent seven months living at Standing Rock, documenting the gathering force of Native Americans and their allies. He says it wasn’t just a protest; it was an awakening.
Colonization, at its core, is about creating separation—separation among people and separation from spirit and our connection to the Earth. Humans have been taking more than we need, and we haven’t been giving enough back.
Decolonization starts inside of you. It is a lot about finding compassion and kindness, and less about anger and fear. We should remember that it begins with an internal process of healing and reconciliation. Once we find that peace, then we will be able to move forward and unify as peoples. We must remember that we are all related.
At Standing Rock, we saw a new vision of what it means to be human. The fire and the water were our tools for healing. It was not just a protest; it was an awakening for all of us to return home, back to where our spirit lives in harmony with our past and present. In that way, we can have a healthy future.
The real front lines are within.
Photographer Josué Rivas, Mexica/Otomi, spent seven months living at Standing Rock, documenting the spiritual awakening and gathering force of Native Americans and their allies who were opposing construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on ancestral lands of the Great Sioux Nation. From this experience, he created the first chapter of the Standing Strong Project, which aims to explore contemporary Indigenous identity, sovereignty, and resilience. His unique black and white images from Standing Rock will soon be the subject of a book, published by FotoEvidence as part of the 2018 FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo.
YES! Media’s Bailey Williams spoke with Rivas about his experience there. The interview has been lightly edited.
Bailey Williams: How did you end up at Standing Rock? What was it like living there and documenting it?
Josue Rivas: I ended up at Standing Rock, I think, out of destiny. There was a call from my uncle, who’s my spiritual uncle. He’s the medicine person that I’ve been working with for quite a while, and he’s from Standing Rock. In August 2016, he made a call for me to come and document, because he knew that it was gonna be a big, big thing. But a year before that, he told me about this pipeline. And he told me to get ready, he was getting me ready basically through ceremony, through Lakota ceremonies. And once things went down, he told me to come and document it. I basically ended up staying there for several months, about seven months total. And then I came back in September to do a little bit more work with the healing process and healing ceremonies.
Williams: How did all of that lead to Standing Strong project that you’re involved in now?
Rivas: The Standing Strong project is a four-year project. The reason it’s a four-chapter project is because it’s similar to the structure of a lot of Lakota ceremonies. And not just Lakota, but a lot of indigenous tribes use the number four as a way to represent a lot of sacredness in a lot of things like the four directions, the four elements, just things that are kind of connected to that. There is a ceremony called the vision quest in Lakota ceremonies, and it’s to get a vision basically at the end of the ceremony. And for me this project is kind of like that. I don’t really know what’s gonna come out of it in, you know, a concrete way, but I do have an idea of what my intention is going into it.
“Sacred connection” August 2016 Cannon Ball North Dakota.
The ultimate intention is to come back after the four years and show the world a new vision of Native America, a complete holistic vision of what contemporary Native Americans are. Just really to be used as a tool for Native folks and non-Native folks to kind of understand a little bit better what the current state of Indigenous peoples here in the United States and throughout the continent and in eventually throughout the world. That’s my intention, and it’s going to incorporate a photographs, videography, and I’m actually really interested in starting to do a virtual reality and augmented reality.
One huge aspect is community engagement. I want to make sure that the people in the photographs are also participating in the creation process of creating this project, not just me, as an outsider coming into these communities, but more of a collaborative process. And I want to be able to paste some of these images in cities, like portraits of Indigenous folks from the reservation.
“Winter at Oceti Sakowin Camp” November 2016 Cannon Ball North Dakota.
Williams: Can you talk more about the virtual reality aspect of the project?
Rivas: Virtual reality is something that I think is going to be more used throughout storytelling. For me it’s really about bringing the very diverse experience of being Indigenous to the outer world. For example, in Europe there’s a huge interest in Indigenous culture. So bring them virtually into these communities so they can get a more accurate sense of what these communities are like. We’ve seen Indigenous folks through the lens of Western males throughout history. And I want people to understand throughout the world that Indigenous folks are much more complex. They’re living in two worlds basically.
Williams: Why is it important that Indigenous people tell their own story? It seems like this is something that hit home for you when you were at Standing Rock.
Rivas: There’s a lot of power in having control of your narrative as a human being in general. Then when it comes to Indigenous folks, especially Indigenous folks in the Western Hemisphere, folks were naturally the storytellers. We have tribes that recorded their stories, their creation stories, told stories through either oral history or even, you know, on walls. That was their way of telling stories. And then there’s this gap where colonization happened. Then all of a sudden, when these tools like photography, for example, started coming into the picture, you had folks like Edward S. Curtis coming into communities and basically saying: All these folks are going to be gone so I’m going to record and document these dying tribes.
Years passed and this work is kind of like the reference point for what Indigenous peoples are like. You as somebody in Europe, what does a Native American look like? They’ll point out one of his photos. He’s the standard, I guess.
When you look at the contemporary Native Americans and Indigenous peoples overall, I think there’s so much power in understanding how they see themselves and also giving them the tools to be able to tell their stories. When you do that, you’re able to empower them in a way. A lot of folks on reservations don’t have a lot of resources, and they didn’t have a lot of ways to tell their stories in a way that it spread throughout the world, in a way that they really reached a lot of people.
When I met folks, especially at Standing Rock, I came to realize as a photographer, as a storyteller, you’re basically a messenger. People talk about amplifying other people’s voices or giving voice to the voiceless. I think we’re in a paradigm shift where, as storytellers we can no longer think that we are the ones giving those people voices or amplifying their voices. It’s more of a collaboration. As an Indigenous person, I understand that. When I see folks being photographed or put in a documentary, it’s always from the perspective of the director or the photographer and is rarely from the perspective of the person, the so-called subject.
I want to break those rules. I think by doing that we’re going to reclaim our narrative. That’s useful, especially right now in the time that we’re in. After Standing Rock, Indigenous folks were put on the map, and people started talking more about Indigenous stories and really putting emphasis on that. I think is a great time to do it.
Williams: I was reading about the Standing Strong Project, and it said that many storytellers focused on the clash between police and water protectors, but you turned your lens to another piece. What was the story you were trying to tell?
Rivas: To be completely honest, I didn’t have an agenda. It was almost like I was witnessing the movie, and they were so many characters in this movie. I’m at camp, and there’s like thousands of characters, and then all the sudden you come to realize that the movie has many layers to it. And everybody was focusing on like the more attractive layers, where it was people chaining themselves to pipelines and folks getting arrested and stuff like that, which is extremely important. I don’t disregard that at all. I think that my intuition and my gut was telling me, hey, turn your lens toward the things that nobody’s looking at. Or pay attention to the quiet moments because there’s a lot in that.
“Last prayer at the sacred fire” February 2017 Cannon Ball North Dakota.
It was very much like an organic process of self-realization. Like whoa, this is not the whole picture. There’s so much more. And I think when I started looking at and really tapping into that intuition, that’s when those images were made. A lot of the images are very much like that, they’re very quiet. It was really about intuition to be honest. And I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew that I had to look where nobody else was looking. Also, a huge part of it was about respect and about understanding that this work wasn’t just for me or for my generation, but it was really about our leaders in the future who are going to be looking at this work as a reference. And especially as a reference for how to bring back those Indigenous ways and Indigenous knowledge back to the Earth.
Williams: What can readers expect from the book?
Rivas: It’s less of a historical compilation of the movement and more of a reflection. I basically created diptychs with my editor. We work back and forth about how the images speak to each other and how do they tell something. What are they saying? For me was really about a vortex. When you open the book, instead of flipping from left to right or from right to left, you opened the book and you flip two images at the same time. It’s almost like you’re peeling these layers, you know, and then you get to the end and you can come back to it, and you might actually see something completely different if you put two together that we’re not together before.
It’s really like a playful interactive, and there’s like messages in there that I left behind for people to reflect on. I left a lot of those, a lot of the spirit of what I felt at Standing Rock and what I feel for humanity overall. That’s kinda like the statement that I’m trying to make with that, something that I think it’s going to be hopefully helpful for people to find some form of healing. I think that’s what Standing Rock was for me, a huge transformation and awakening for me too to see my body of work and my purpose on this Earth as a storyteller. That’s kind of what I want to share with that book.
Williams: Did you have anything else you’d like to add?
Rivas: After almost two years since Sacred Stone Camp was established, there’s still a lot of things going on. And I think what Standing Rock did was empower and almost kind of start a bigger movement to protect this Earth. That’s really what it comes down to, to realize our connection to our mother and our connection to the sacred feminine energy. It’s our mother, the Earth, which gives us everything.
And I think that this awakening happened with folks sacrificing a lot. There’s still people right now facing charges. I don’t want people to forget that the movement is still going. And the movement really comes down to us as individuals. What are we sacrificing for this next chapter of humanity?