In a line of barely-awake, Starbucks-craving New Yorkers, Floris White Bull is a vision in her Native American Dress.
She's only an afternoon away from the premiere of Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock, a film debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival in which she both narrates and features, and tells the story behind the struggles at Standing Rock against the famed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Waiting for our coffees, she tells me that after our interview she's headed to a rally to protest the DAPL, amid the pouring rain on a gloomy Saturday, before she leaves for the evening's red carpet soirée.
White Bull was chosen as one of the subjects of the documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox after a fortuitous meeting in Iowa. White Bull was in attendance to show support for a friend who had begun a blockade in her town against the prospect of the DAPL cutting through their land.
Fox had been accumulating footage for the documentary while penning an accompanying script which he planned to narrate. But after hearing White Bull speak at the protest he asked if she would take over the narration.
White Bull was by then a seasoned veteran speaking on behalf of the Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock's cause. Having chosen a degree in Energy Technology and then minoring in American Studies, she was well-acquainted with the effects of the DAPL on the land and the muddy future that would await those living off the water supply in the region if the legislation was pushed through.
"What's happening today in energy development is that there's a disregard for people's ties to the land."
-Floris White Bull
Her father, who raised her and her siblings by himself, had been a forward thinker when it came to clean energy. When he passed away, White Bull was adamant to pursue a dream of his. "The best way to honour a person is to follow one of their dreams to fruition," she says. White Bull was painfully aware of the ramifications of such a pipeline once the plans were disclosed. The pipeline and protecting the land it would run through would become her life's work.
Floris White BullInitially, neither side thought the standoff would last as long as it did. "You're facing a billion-dollar company and I lived on my [college] stipend - me and my [five] children," she remarks, continuing, "the feeling of helplessness I felt was unbelievably overwhelming."
Having been taken to prison after what is now known as "The Treaty Camp Raid," White Bull had real experience of the degradation and disrespect with which the local police force treated her people and those who stood with them with.
Floris White Bull and partner Mikasi at Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock premiers at Tribeca Film Festival
The unrest at Standing Rock was not the first time the Native tribes had clashed with the local police department or government. In the 1950's, Congress passed an act to construct dams in Dakota, the result of which would mean the river around the tribes' land would flood. Local tribes were left with no option other than moving further upland, and without any notice. "They came in and moved the people at gun point," White Bull's grandparent's generation said. "When the officiating priest was trying to identify the bodies as they were digging up our relatives to pull them out and get them out of that area - they weren't able to identify everyone they pulled out. So in my community in our cemetery now there's a whole space that's just marked unknown."
They weren't, however, able to get everyone out of their graves before the work started and now, White Bull says, when the water level drops, those bodies will sometimes rise to the surface.
"That's our history with the army corp of engineers. Just that - but it's just a slice. And that was just an act passed by Congress - just the flick of a pen, and how much it inflicted on us," White Bull remarks.
The pain suffered by the tribes at that time was emulated once again on the first day of Donald Trump's presidency, during which he signed an executive order for the DAPL to move forward.
“These are pipelines we don't even need," says White Bull. And is resolute that it's the billionaires that are the only people who are going to benefit from it. The regular person's oil costs are not going to plummet from the implementation of these new lines, she explains. “These billionaires are completely out of touch with the common people," she comments. "And don't understand what they're doing."
Looking back at the support the tribe received from the world, White Bull says, "it was an amazing convergence of all these different aspects of community." She continues: "It created a space for all of us to come together. Different religions, different races, it was truly beyond more than any of us could have ever asked for."
Given Trump's order of business, the future of Standing Rock remains uneasy. But although oil is currently flowing through the pipes, White Bull holds out hope for a future repeal of the order and a cessation of the line. “As we speak there is oil flowing through that pipeline," she says, "that doesn't mean this is done. We can still shut it down."
“A lot us are going through PTSD from what happened right now," she says. It wasn't something she ever expected, but admits that while they were not in a "conventional" type of warzone, that she saw things regular people should not see on a day-to-day basis. "A lot of things I see, normal people aren't meant to see things like that." Once the executive order was signed, her cousin, a military veteran who served in Iraq, warned her she would now succumb to feelings of boredom the likes of which she could have never imagined. And it's taken a toll on her mentally.
Going forward, White Bull intends to focus and concentrate her efforts on clean energy, while her partner fights upcoming pipelines in Oklahoma. She's shocked by the massive investments banks are making in these pipelines instead of in clean, renewable energy - where, regardless of what any politician believes, the future of the world's energy lies. Oil spills damaging the environment occur everyday. “Clean energy, is not supposed to be a dirty word," she comments, while lamenting the loss of the water source for which she has devoted the last year of her life.
Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 22nd, and can be watched here for a small donation.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.