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Awake: Truth, race, resistance, and the extractive industries

Published onMar 17, 2022
Awake: Truth, race, resistance, and the extractive industries


by the spirit inside that

demanded I open my eyes

and see the world around me.

Seeing that my children's future

was in peril. See that my life couldn't

wait and slumber anymore. See that I was

honored to be among those who are awake.

To be alive at this point in time is to see the rising

of the Oceti Sakowin. To see the gathering of nations

and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths.

Will you wake up and dream with us?

Will you join our dream. Will you join us?”


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“Standing Rock was—and is—so much more than a protest. What began in North Dakota has become a worldwide rallying cry of resistance to corporate power and its relentless drive for profit at the expense of human needs, rights and dignity. If we are to survive this century, it is the indigenous people who will lead the way forward.”


Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock is a film, made collaboratively by indigenous filmmakers, about the native-led defiance and support for the peaceful movement of the water protectors against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). DAPL is a 1,172 mile long underground oil pipeline spanning 4 states in the US. Oil pipelines such as this often leak with thousands of spills reported in the last 6 years causing irreparable damage to surrounding water and ecosystems. Native peoples and those in solidarity with them came from all over the world to block the construction of the DAPL.1 Despite the protests the pipeline was constructed through the Standing Rock reservation, sacred burial grounds and under the Missouri river that provides water to over 17 million Americans and the only source of water for the Standing Rock Nation. As the creators of Awake state:

“This film not only shows a very brutal police repression of a peaceful protest, it is also a compilation of emotional interviews with members of the camp responding to having their civil liberties trampled on. In addition, this film is a cautionary tale, as these kinds of battles against the oil industry are becoming more prevalent in the United States and the World.”2

Awake came at a time when racism directed at Native Americans was becoming a more visible part of US cultural and political life after Trump announced that he would run for president in 2015. Trump's denial of native sovereignty and racial slurs during public appearances normalised racist behaviour and encouraged hate towards Native Americans.3 The words “will you join us?” at the start and at the end of the film, are a call to join the fight against the destruction of our habitats and for the rights of native people to their land and water to be placed above the greed of corporations. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and was screened at many world-renowned film and anthropological institutes, such as the Royal Anthropological Institute in London with great reception from critics and audiences.4 In the spirit of sharing, it is also freely available to download on their website.5


On a comparative note, In the Image: Palestinian Women Capture the Occupation is another example of a film made in collaboration with the subjects to take peaceful action against those restricting their rights. It offers a platform for marginalised women living in occupied Palestine to voice their side of the story and to fight against a powerful narrative of Palestinian aggression against Israel, supported by the US.6 Nuhe Nenë Boghílníh (Protecting our Homeland) is a film that “wants to inspire the young generation to start caring about our lands and culture while raising awareness about the ravages of uranium mining in Patterson Lake, SK.”7 To similar ends, the filmmakers of Awake, In the Image and Nuhe Nenë Boghílníh (Protecting our Homeland) use media to contradict hegemonic interpretations through the presentation of alternative truthful narratives and to resist industrial extractive destruction, degradation and dispossession. Adversity based around race and cultural differences where Islam too is racialised within the current world order and western paradigms of development are being felt by communities all over the world and experienced differently by individuals. Within those communities, films like these help others better understand racial adversity.

In this paper, I explore the relationship between truth and race and the fight for accurate representations in a world of elite state-corporate interests surrounding the extractive industries. Using insights from post-colonial theorists on discourse, I illustrate how certain ideas dominate due to the hegemonic nature of Eurocentric epistemologies. The prevailing discourse is a function of power and not an inherent universal truth.8 Exposing and exploring the history and origins of hegemonic discourses presents an understanding of how the power imbalances based on race are not biological but are controlled by knowledge and its ascribed value. Racialised truths justified colonialism and still maintain unequal power relations; corporations use these hegemonic narratives to rationalise neo-colonial extractive practices and normalise racialized discourse on the management and political ecology of resource extraction.9 The extraction of resources is locked into large global systems that have developed ways and means of maintaining the status quo to promote sustained growth in the industry.10 Case studies from different regions and their prevailing politics with varied resources being extracted – Standing Rock US with an oil pipeline: Democratic Republic of Congo with metal extraction: Mexico with wind farms; Canada with crude oil extraction, and Germany with coal mining – reflect the pattern of counterinsurgency tactics being used across the world to undermine social movements against transnational extractive corporations, as well as the visual resistance that is turn mobilised by communities through empowering self-representations and media activism.

I explore how media is used by powerful global actors to ‘manufacture consent’11 and how indigenous filmmakers and activists have used media to take control of their narrative, resist hegemonic interpretations and present their truths. I consider how indigenous media can offer a greater insight into different cultures than other forms of ethnographic media and why it is a more powerful tool for resistance. This paper establishes the subjective nature of truth and how it is influenced by the power structures behind it; it relates these power structures to social constructions of race, resulting in hegemonic racialised narratives. It introduces counterinsurgency, which developed alongside notions of race in the 19th century, and applies it to an examination of counter reactions through audio-visual media. It goes on to explore how transnational extractive corporations have incorporated certain counterinsurgency tactics into their operations to prevent resistance and to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local populations through manipulation and criminalisation and how racialisation tactics deployed by elites create a sense of otherness and justification for their actions.

Looking at cases of resistance against extractive industries illustrates how corporations use counterinsurgency techniques against indigenous and local communities around the world, from a wind farm in Mexico to the Hambach mine in Germany.12 A look into the US protests for equality for black lives in reaction to police shootings of innocent black people in both 2014 and 2020 exposes the racial bias of police and security reactions and how military tactics heighten violence and justify hate towards protesters and their causes.13 Case studies from different geographies, different prevailing politics, and different resources being extracted present the pattern of counterinsurgency tactics being used to undermine social movements against transnational extractive corporations.14 Furthermore, a detailed look into how the filmmakers and subjects of Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock and other indigenous made films use media to mitigate hegemonic narratives and expose the use of suppression tactics and military techniques such as counterinsurgency.



Race and Counterinsurgency

In the colonial era, race as a concept was established. It was concretised in the era of high imperialism from the nineteenth century in alliance with Social Darwinist theories. It became a relation of difference through which power was expressed, a social construction that assumed whiteness as the norm and other races as deviation. Exposing and exploring the history and origins of hegemonic discourses presents an understanding of how the power imbalances based on race are not biological but are controlled by knowledge and its imputed value; this process also exposes how the dominant western perspective has dictated the issues surrounding the subordination of certain races, such as what their capabilities and inherent behaviours are.

Despite decolonizing movements, the racist ideologies that upheld colonialism and colonial pursuits still hold their ground within institutions that have developed alongside the racialised world order.15 The extractive industry presents a clear evolution into neo-colonial pursuits and shows the persistence of unequal power relations.16 Corporations use racist ideologies to justify their operations, just as colonisers did, to ensure profit regardless of the environment where they operate.17 By referring to the corporate extractive practice in Congo, Jemima Pierre argues that the racial vernaculars surrounding development and the resource extraction industry ‘sustain racial thought, index particular racial meanings, and prescribe social practices.’18 They illustrate how racialisation is systemically embedded in the management and political ecology of resource extraction and places African sovereignty below western corporations. In the US

“the Court has created the colonial-imposed Plenary Power Doctrine to allow the perpetual and continuous theft of natural resources protected by treaties which are binding by the U.S. Constitution.”19

In Canada, the appropriation of public and First Nation lands for ‘ethical oil’ extraction is steeped in development language that greenwashes resource colonialism and presents the theft and degradation of land as a public service that will enhance the economy.20

Counterinsurgency is a form of militarised pacification that emerged from the colonial wars. As Patricia Owens21 succinctly puts it, ‘Counterinsurgency is defined by its attempt to pacify and domesticate, to seek to negate political agency through violence and control over life.’ In the aftermath of the Cold War - with foreign assistance being withdrawn from countries that hosted proxy wars - governments, militaries and militant groups became more dependent on accessing finance from private sources.22 Private sources of income such as multinational corporations (MNCs) and transnational corporations (TNCs) were largely interested in the resource extraction opportunities available in these countries.23 The general acceptance of companies involved in large-scale mining and other resource extraction activities began normalising the use of counterinsurgency techniques to stabilise and mitigate violence in areas of interest and to engineer consent from local, national and global communities.24

The British East India Company (BEIC) was a corporation that was tasked with overseeing the economic assets of Britain in India, using counterinsurgency to control the region. The BEIC was started by financial elites in the 1600s and was given political, economic and military freedom by the British government due to its financial influence.25 Modern TNCs and MNCs have assumed the position once occupied by the BEIC and colonising forces, mirroring the tactics developed by colonisers.26 Corporations such as the partners of the DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners, Phillips 66, Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum are mirroring the counterinsurgency tactics developed by colonisers to pacify and control local communities for the extraction of wealth, promising local development. They use contemporary private military and security companies such as TigerSwan whose ultimate objective is social control of a given area, allowing the corporation to operate in the area successfully.27

“Indigenous people’s authority over their lands has been interrupted by the United States Supreme Court to be the same as the wildlife – the right to the landscape for “occupancy and use.” Awake

This gives the partners behind the DAPL legal access to the land.28


Modern corporate counterinsurgency techniques can be divided into two sections, hard tactics, and soft tactics. Granovsky-Larsen and Santos29 split these tactics into four categories: political, economic, information and security. These categories can clearly see their roots in the US counterinsurgency field manual in their chapters on direct and indirect methods for countering insurgencies.30 Soft tactics consist of the political and economic categories such as colluding with, and co-opting local elites, governments and NGOs who hold power and influence over local communities. This also extends to private-public partnerships that serve to legitimise the corporate presence and their activities. Psychological tactics are used to undermine opposition, such as co-opting local individuals through the provision of jobs or the use of providing funds for local projects and coercing them to provide intelligence on the resistant actors and general insights into the local environment. Psychological aspects can also form part of the hard tactics. Hard tactics consist of the information and security categories including the stigmatisation and criminalisation of resistance through media representation, defamation and prosecution under the law. They also include police and private security harassment, excessive surveillance, verbal intimidation and frequent personal physical violence, online intimidation, police raids, racism and investigation without charge.31 Both hard and soft tactics can be observed in some form in every case study cited in this paper.

The cultural and social divisions in the area of the Bíí Hioxo Wind Park and Standing Rock were purposely aggravated through counterinsurgency techniques to strengthen the trajectories of industrial expansion in the regions.32 In the Hambach mine in Germany, private security were witnessed using xenophobic language and using racial difference to justify their aggression.33 In countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bolivia and Canada, companies have used property and land rights to appropriate land from local communities ‘legally’, suggesting that local economies will thrive because sacred and communal land can now be used productively.34 These actions undermine local knowledge, practices and values; they cause extreme environmental damage that cannot be reversed no matter the amount of money and development the project brings to the area.35 Colonisers justified their actions by placing themselves at the pinnacle of development and placing other societies below them in a position of need.

Hard tactics were used extensively at the Hambach mine and at Standing Rock by private security forces and local police, including cases of beatings, intimidation, use of pepper spray, throwing rocks, the use of vehicles for intimidation, sexual harassment, refusal of medical treatment and xenophobic encouragement.36 In part 2 of Awake, a protester can be seen with rubber bullet injury to the head while another shouts “who are you protecting?”. “The Great Sioux Nations have had the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties continuously violated by the U.S., with the most recent attack being the Dakota Access Pipeline project”.37

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“The ability to concentrate power in the event of an emergency (e.g. a riot) has been shown to require a shift towards military operations”.38 In the preface to Kristian William’s book, Our Enemies in Blue, he describes the tragic incidents that occurred in the summer of 2014. An unarmed black teenage boy was murdered by a white police officer Darren Wilson, the murder of another unarmed black man who died on his way to hospital after four officers pulled him to the ground with an arm around his neck while he repeatedly gasps “I can’t breathe”.39 Rioting began in a midwestern suburb that spread to protest being led across the country and the slogan that arose in connection to the protests was “Black Lives Matter”.40 The recent global Black Lives Matter protests were a continuation of the call for the same things; to decriminalise black lives, to defund the police and a renewed call for justice and equality for black lives. The reaction of the police following the fallout of police murders in 2014 and 2020 escalated violence through the use of extreme military reactions and an attitude of protecting the badge over the public. The use of counterinsurgency tactics was recorded in many police forces across the US. These police forces use both hard and soft tactics to prevent disorder and repress it once it occurs, just as seen at Standing Rock in 2016.41


Truth and Media Manipulation

Using insights from post-colonial theorists on discourse illustrates why specific ideas dominate due to the hegemonic nature of the Eurocentric epistemological order. Discourse creates acceptable ways of being and thinking whilst simultaneously, often through simple omission, produces impossible or unacceptable ways of being and thinking.42 Through controlling the development of discourse surrounding race, knowledge producers historically have made it impossible to conceptualise social reality in alternative ways. Narratives emanating from centres of power are a form of hegemonic truth as opposed to individual truths experienced by those within and without the central power structures. Accepting the subjective, historically, and culturally bound nature of truth allows us to consider it as a narrative which is a function of power. Narratives are not fictitious or opposed to facts but rather truths that are bound up in temporal, spatial and personal contexts. The polarisation of fact and fiction obfuscates the complexity of the definition of the terms and therefore oversimplifies the conditions under which truths are assumed. Hegemonic narratives are instituted and sustained by a matrix of power relations rather than being formed of facts that predate the determining ‘I’ or ‘we’ (society).43 Whoever holds significant power has the ability to dictate and spread their preferred narrative.

Another key feature of corporate counterinsurgency is media manipulation. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky illustrate in their book Manufacturing Consent, the media ‘serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity, and that their choices, emphases, and omissions can often be understood best, and sometimes with striking clarity and insight, by analysing them in such terms.’44 They recognise that propaganda is not the sole function of mass media; however, they do demonstrate how it is a very important aspect of their overall service.45 In today's age of post-truth media and information overload, Herman and Chomsky’s insights into mass media remain relevant even in the world of social media. Filmmakers and activists, such as those depicted in Awake and in Chad Elias’ article for Film Quarterly on ‘cell phone activism’ in Syria, demonstrate how the age of mobile phone cameras and near-global Internet access has allowed for a space to be opened up in which they can share their own narratives to expose biases, omissions and manipulations and a space to give context to their stories.46


In the current age, power comes with the ability to not only manipulate narratives but to present personal beliefs as facts to pursue private gains.47 Donald Trump exemplifies this post-truth power, using different forms of passive ignorance, wilful ignorance and active concealment as ways to exploit his position and present his beliefs as truth at the expense of other narratives.48 Oliver Milman wrote an article in 2016 revealing how “Trump’s financial disclosure forms show he invested in Energy Transfer Partners, operators of the controversial pipeline, and its CEO donated to his campaign”.49 And in 2017 Trump signed a memorandum ordering the Secretary of the Army to expedite approval of DAPL saying “it's not fair” to stop the pipeline’s progress. And once they had approval he said “It's up, it’s running, it's beautiful, it's great, everybody’s happy, the sun is still shining, the water is clean”.50

Taking action against hegemonic narratives, such as those that protect the extractive industry, is a dangerous pursuit: As Plato says at the end of his classic cave allegory, ‘if they lay hands on such a man (that reveals the truth), they would surely kill him’.51 The extractive industry is becoming increasingly militarised as a result of continued resistance against it, leading to the widespread use of corporate counterinsurgency through media control.

Techniques of stigmatisation, criminalisation and the media's representation of power and truth undermine oppositional direct-action and non-violent protests. Media manipulation controls the public perception of both the corporation’s operations and the resisting communities. These communities and individuals are rebranded as rogue or radical elements, vandals, and terrorists: for example, Fox News reported that the “North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s office said a “rogue group of some of the more aggressive elements of the protest camp” clashed with law enforcement”.52

Private security forces such as Range have psychological operations specialists, that have worked in the US army operating in the Middle East, who help develop media relations strategies for extractive companies.53 Techniques to stigmatise can include ‘Association of activists with external criminal groups, accusations that the activists are anti-development, lazy and paid to create divisions’.54 They also include ‘racism against indigenous people and accusations of eco terrorism’.55 Police have given statements that accuse peaceful protesters at the Standing Rock Reservation of being very aggressive and attempting to flank and attack law enforcement.56 The use of extreme militarised language reduces activists to enemies of the public. The media is used to instil a sense of fear and Otherness to suppress progressive movements. It is used to silence journalists and activists through defamation.57 Although the media is used as a tactic against activists, it can also be a tool to empower and strengthen resistance. The resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline in the US is a useful example of the manipulation of mass media by extraction corporations but also an example of indigenous communities retaking the narrative and using media as activism.


Film and Visual Resistance

Awake demonstrates an alternative approach to ethnographic filmmaking through self-representation, subject sovereignty and activism to confront personal and global adversities. Dewey, one of the directors of Awake, actively talks about needing to teach non-natives involved in the process about respectful filming and filmmaking.

‘[M]y job was to educate and empower, to teach our non-native relatives digital protocol, when and when not to film, […]participate in the ceremonies before you film, connect your spirit to know why you're there[…]To learn why we are all here together, why your spirit drew you here, that is important to share’.58

This offers us some insight into where the filmmakers are coming from in terms of motive. Indigenous sovereignty over films allows alternative narratives to be explored and observed. Leaving behind Eurocentric constructs through self-representation can lead to a more in-depth understanding of other cultures, as it means the unique realities of cultures can be represented without forced narratives and the false dichotomy of western and ‘deviation’.59

Exploring who has the power in the filmmaking process exposes whose truth is being represented and where that narrative is developed. Indigenous film presents ethnographic information with the bias of the indigenous rather than the bias of outside filmmakers. This allows for the indigenous filmmaker and subjects to tell their cine-truth as Jean Rouch would phrase it.60 The filmmaker/subjects have complete sovereignty over the film and can represent themselves in the way they feel is truest. The problem of subjectivity is highly debated in ethnographic and documentary filmmaking;61 Rouch’s acceptance of the subjective nature of filmmaking offers a framework to explore a new truth using the cine-eye and cine-trance to incorporate the camera as another subject of the films. The inclusion of the filmmakers and other postmodernist approaches celebrate the subjective truth and allow for a deeper understanding of the subjects and filmmakers.62

The influences on the film Awake come from within, any context given is decided by someone within or in solidarity with the indigenous communities and therefore gives a better understanding by being able to observe not only the edited footage but also the choices behind each shot and effect. For example, there is a voice-over in Awake from Floris White Bull, who is one of the main subjects of the film; it allows for the presentation of native art and history as it is often handed down within the Sioux Tribe through storytelling. All elements of Awake are produced by members of the indigenous community: the music, filming, activities, production, editing and distribution are all controlled by indigenous people. In this way they have complete power over the film’s content.63 Indigenous media, thus, adds a further dimension to the cine-truth explored by Rouch, just as any art represents the artist’s truth and not necessarily the subject’s. There are beautiful shots of the river and of protesters that help convey the peaceful message of the Sioux Tribe at odds with the aggression and violence of their oppressors. These techniques, along with others, help represent the authenticity of life surrounding the protest site at Standing Rock and help expose the destructive actions of the extractive industry.

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Revolution is a violent and lengthy process of deconstructing global systems and rebuilding a new humanism through deep-rooted revolutionary social change.64 Using media as activism can be a platform for communities to resist powerful global actors and systemic marginalisation as has been evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement.65 Media can be used to deconstruct hegemonic normativities exposing or highlighting naturalised and concealed practices and relationships while rejecting the necessity of reciprocating violence. Activist media can be used to combat the systemic nature of violations, violence and deprivations experienced by marginalised communities. The historical and geopolitical contexts surrounding race are central to the cinematic style and authorship of indigenous media. Mainstream media such as Hollywood films have also begun to use their platform to encourage support for progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter. For example the blockbuster film BlacKkKlansman showed mobile phone footage of violence against counter-protesters in Charlottesville in 2017, they were peacefully protesting a white supremacist rally when a car drove into the crowd.66 It was a powerful image to end on and brought the message of the whole film back to the harsh reality of racial inequality.

In the image uses indigenous media to change the one-dimensional media representation of Palestinians using footage captured by the subject. The footage captured human rights violations and the brutality they experience in their daily lives from the Israeli military.67 Clips collected for In the Image made it into the news in many countries, and some have been submitted as evidence in Israeli courts and have led to the conviction of abusive soldiers.68 The footage humanises the subject and pushes against the preconceptions of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. Nuhe Nenë Boghílníh (Protecting our Homeland) was made to educate local populations, particularly the younger generations about the Patterson Lake uranium mining and how it affects the people and ecosystem. It has been screened at universities and film festivals such as TIFF and the International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec. These kinds of films along with footage collected and shared during movements such as Black Lives Matter help create an empathic connection with the causes and people they present; they drive people into action by asking are you a part of the problem or a part of the solution? The emotive footage is a call to action that is harder to dispute when you can see the damage caused by the violent reaction of police and security forces protecting the interests of the state and corporations over that of the public.

Indigenous media circumvents the checklist of western comparative perspectives and presents indigenous communities as they see themselves. This gives autonomy over what is valuable and important to them as a community, and disrupts the tendency to attribute western values to non-western structures and beliefs. The film is a way to empower and strengthen their communities. The filmmakers and subjects of films such as Awake and Nuhe Nenë Boghílníh (Protecting our Homeland) use the platform to give context to and mitigate the prejudiced institutionalised media bias promoted by the systems and corporations they are protesting against.69



In the struggle for control of land and natural resources and representation, nation-state governments, TNCs and MNCs, and other elite individuals and groups have developed complex techniques for ensuring the success of their extractive operations that often ally with oppressive state mechanisms. Counterinsurgency methods are used to silence and criminalise opposition and to greenwash and legitimate operations as seen at Standing Rock and during Black Lives Matter protests. This powerful network of elite intersecting corporate and state interests dictates the narrative observable to the general public and manipulates research and scientific ‘fact’ to maintain the status quo and control the perception of destructive systems of extraction. While media might entrench these dynamics, it can also be used to mobilise alternative narratives and to counteract hegemonic interpretations and perceptions of global systems of extraction. Media such as Awake can bring awareness to oppressive practices and present alternatives to destructive global activities and as a result lead to further understanding and positive action against destructive practices and systemic racism.70 Media can be used to educate, to encourage empathy and solidarity and to encourage global support for unequal and abusive treatment of people and the environment. While Awake was a call to arms, in the image was a tool for justice, BlacKkKlansman was an exposé and Nuhe Nenë Boghílníh was aimed at educating younger generations, they all seek to empower the vitality of both image and alternative narratives and bring to fore the racial injustices hidden behind violence from states and police, corporations and private security.

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