North Dakota is what Americans call a flyover state: visible to travellers from the air, but a black hole in the US news landscape.

That changed with the decision to re-route a pipeline that will stretch from North Dakota to Illinois. A group of Native American tribes, backed by thousands of supporters, succeeded in protecting their water supply and some sacred burial grounds at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

But prior to that, a protest which was described as the "longest-running protest in modern American history," went largely unseen in the mainstream news media.

The way that Indians make news is through something called the WD4 rule, which is they have to be warriors, drunks, dying, dancing or drumming.

Tristan Ahtone, freelance journalist

"It is astounding how little coverage they have gotten over these months. But this very much goes in lockstep with a lack of coverage of climate change. Add to it a group of people who are marginalised by the corporate media, native Americans, and you have a combination that vanishes them. And yet these protests have only intensified, the resistance camps have only grown over the months, without the media megaphone of the corporate media," says Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!.

There were also logistical challenges that hampered media coverage. The closest airport is an hour away from the protest camps in Cannon Ball and the weather has grown worse as winter moved into the Upper Midwest.

The independent journalists who went in to cover, over social media, what major news outlets were initially ignoring couldn't even count on a wi-fi connection - congregating on what came to be known as Facebook Hill, hoping to get a signal.

Hotels to accommodate reporters, and restaurants to feed them, were miles away, leaving many of those covering the story sleeping in their cars.

"Once you arrive in Bismarck, you have to drive through some very snowy roads to get to this protest site. And we've gone through a blizzard then, and then, another blizzard this week. It's also very expensive for news organisations to send reporters out here for an extended period of time to cover an issue like this," notes Amy Sisk, journalist, Prairie Public TV & Radio.

But the lack of coverage at Standing Rock went deeper than that, reflecting at least two institutional biases in the US media: bias against environmental issues, as well as stories about Native Americans. 

Ironically, a recent pair of events changed the story arc, both involving another institution the media tend to treat more favourably, the US military.

The arrival of some 2,000 US military veterans, who came to support the tribal leaders and activists, changed perceptions. Then, the US Army's Corps of Engineers, for environmental reasons, denied the construction company permission to route the Dakota Access pipeline through a lake.

The activists, who call themselves water protectors and who don't like it when the media describe them simply as protester, have prevailed for now. While the White House is also backing them currently, they know Washington awaits a changing of the guard and that the Trump administration could change everything.

"The limited amount of coverage that was done on the Dakota Access pipeline issue at least awakened a lot of America to the fact that American Indians still exist and are still there and are still fighting the same battle that they've been fighting for the last few hundred years. What the media is missing right now is that this will happen again. This will happen somewhere else in the country and, because there's not a particularly good grasp of what the issues and history are that made this particular incident happen, that they're going to miss it when it happens again," says journalist Tristan Ahtone.

Talking us through the story are: Tristan Ahtone, freelance journalist; Amy Goodman, host, Democracy Now!; Amy Sisk, journalist, Prairie Public TV & Radio; and Sydney Brownstone, reporter, The Stranger Newspaper, Seattle. 

Source: Al Jazeera