When I think about leaving, I feel like I’m walking out on a ceremony that’s not done. I don’t feel right about it.

—Wanbli Mani, Santee Sioux from Nebraska


Over the past three months, I have been taking photographs in Standing Rock resistance camps. When it was warmer, I would wake up before the sun and work long after it disappeared. Now that winter has truly arrived, I have to work a bit slower, but my routine is the same: I spend the day talking and connecting with people and their stories. They are stories of community, healing, sacrifice, family, grief, survival and most of all, determination.

The Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people of Standing Rock are tired of having their rights trampled in the name of “progress.” Thousands of people representing hundreds of tribes and non-indigenous groups have gathered together in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would transport crude oil beneath sacred Sioux land, including the Missouri River, the source of their drinking water. The last time there was a similar assembly of nations was before the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In my time at the camp, I’ve dodged water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray while peaceful demonstrators stood fast. I’ve watched young Sioux and Crow men tend carefully to their horses. I’ve seen the gentle and absolute leadership of the Elders. I’ve been invited to share venison jerky, squash soups, and rice goulash made over the fire and welcomed into warm winter buses, tepees, military tents and wigwams. I’ve been moved to tears by a morning water ceremony led by a group of women.

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers called a halt to the proposed construction, but many feel this victory is tenuous: the company building the project is fighting the Army in court, and Donald Trump made the tapping of America’s oil reserves one of the centerpieces of his campaign. While some protestors have dispersed, others have vowed to remain gathered in prayer until they are certain their land is safe. The battle for the land has become something larger: a united stand for indigenous rights everywhere.

—Amber Bracken, December 2016

Editors’ Note: The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline only intensified after Donald Trump took office. On January 24, 2017, just four days after he was inaugurated, Trump signed an executive order to advance the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. He also cancelled a new environmental study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. In late February of 2017, police cleared the majority of the protesters from the camps at Standing Rock. Opponents to the pipeline aren’t backing down, though—they have vowed to continue the fight.

Bracken’s project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—don’t miss the work from all 44 of the outstanding, international talents!

She has also won 1st prize, stories, in the “Contemporary Issues” category of World Press Photo’s 2017 Photo Contest. The World Press Photo Festival will be held from April 20 to April 22, 2017 in Amsterdam. We hope to see you there!