Interpretation of a Primary Source


Protesters at Standing Rock. John L. Mone / AP.

Narrative Description:

This image is a picture of protesters at Standing Rock. There are three women holding signs; one looks middle aged, one looks elderly, and the one holding the sign that will be being focused on looks like a young adult. A older man is behind the women, and he also looks like he is part of the protesters. The women are wearing long pants, jackets, gloves, and scarves. The signs they are holding are bright neon construction paper, covered with slogans for supporting Standing Rock. The largest poster, the one that I will be looking at the closest, seems to be made of a firm material like cardboard or poster board. It has the words “REZPECT OUR WATER” in all white caps, while the background of the poster is painted into quadrants of four colors; red, yellow, black, and white. 

In the background, the sky is grey and the trees are either bare, or only have brown leaves. 

Interpretation of Meaning:

The manifest meaning in this photograph is that these people are protesting The Dakota Access Pipeline because they think it is trespassing on Native land and endangering the tribal water supply. This is clear by the slogans written on the bright posters held by the protesters, meant to catch your attention.

The clothing worn by the protesters and the condition of the trees show that this protest is taking place during the late fall or early winter, since it is cold enough for jackets, scarves, and gloves, and many trees are bare, but a few still have brown leaves. This also shows that supporting native land and water rights was important enough to these people that they came out and protested even in the cold, when it wasn’t convenient for them. This begs the question how long did these protests go on, and how long did these people stand out in the cold to protect their rights.

The protesters are not only Native Americans; there seems to be at least one White American, the man in the back, who is also supporting Standing Rock. This shows how the movement speaks to a deeper human connection of freedom and justice, and that people of different skin colors can come together and combat threats to these issues.

The “Rezpect Our Water” sign incorporates Native spirituality and beliefs into its design, using the background colors. These colors are specifically the colors of the Medicine Wheel, which represents the lifespan of man and the four qualities of a balances life to Native people.

A traditional Medicine Wheel

Red symbolizes Birth, and the Spiritual Life.

Yellow symbolizes Growth, and Emotional Life.

Black symbolizes Maturity, and Physical Life.

White symbolizes Death, and Intellect.

This shows a persistence in Native Americans to hold onto their traditional beliefs, even if those beliefs have been under attack by white settlers for centuries. In fact, many issues of sovereignty arise over the continued degradation of Native cultures, and often forcing them to assimilate to white American culture. So, we can look at how have traditional Native American beliefs been incorporated in the resistance to white encroachment on culture and sovereignty.

The slogan “Respect our Water”, even without the play on words, is a call to the justice and freedom the United States supposedly stands for. It calls for the respect of their resources and religion, because water is not only used as a drinking source but also in religious ceremonies. This also means it calls for respecting their sovereignty, in the way that land and water rights are inextricably tied to native nations. This sign also touches on one of the most basic principles in America: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have deemed these rights unalienable for every human being. And by denying the Standing Rock Sioux, who are American citizens, the basic right to life by cutting off their access to clean water, we are abandoning them for profit and showing where our loyalties as a country truly lie.

By adding the play on words of “Rezpect”, the author of the poster is drawing on a whole other latent meaning of those words. By alluding to the Reservation system put in place by the U.S Government, the poster again drawing attention to the repeated mistreatment of Native Americans and the violation of sovereignty by forcing them off their homelands and into cramped and impoverished reservations to make room for white settlers. It is reminding whoever sees it that not only have White Americans stolen land and forced Native Americans into reservations, the descendants of those White Americans are also now taking away their water source as well.