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.
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.