Photograph of a small, white, quad-propellor drone within a dimly lit glass case in a museum. 'Water is Life' is written in black ink on one side, and colored cloth is tied to its four legs: black, red, white, yellow, respectively.
Water Protector drone, photographed at Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

The most cyberpunk thing I’ve ever seen is a small, bullet-riddled drone, decorated in sacred colors, that survived its participation in American Indian resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I came across this critter at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology last month. The little museum’s two exhibits, as I write this, both involve Native American resistance to environmental degradation: one against the Trump administration’s desanctification of Bears Ears in Utah, and the other addressing the well-publicized protests against DAPL.

According to the placard that accompanied this case-displayed drone, it was operated by Myron Dewey, a journalist and filmmaker. Dewey is part of the the Water Protectors, a movement created around resistance to DAPL, led by the Sioux of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and joined by allies from across the country, both Native and otherwise.

Dewey was one of several protesters who used drones like this one to surveil the pipeline construction, the masses of gathered protestors, and the police and security forces hired to keep the protestors at bay. The police, in turn, felt free to fire on the civilian drones that watched them; this drone in particular bears a prominent bullet hole near its left leg, visible in this photo.

Strikingly, it also has four pieces of colored cloth tied to its four legs: white, yellow, black, and red, reading clockwise. These are the colors of the Lakota Medicine Wheel, a symbol held sacred by Native American Plains tribes. You can see that Dewey had also marked up the drone’s carapace with Water Protector slogans, but its subtle evocation of the Medicine Wheel struck me like a thunderbolt. By applying those colors, Dewey pressed this bland hunk of off-white consumer technology into a sort of religious-militant service. It feels to me that he also somehow transformed the drone itself into a “living” instance of the Wheel symbol, assisted by the drone’s own rounded-square shape.

I realize I have an easily-dazzled outsider’s vantage point, but I can’t deny how the thought of Indigenous protestors daubing drones’ legs in the four sacred colors and then flying them on surveillance missions over disputed land takes my breath away, more than — say — the thought of an overseas American soldier painting one up in stars and stripes and buzzing it around a battlefield, or something similarly pedestrian. Somehow, the Water Protectors’ use of symbology make their drones seem more like will-bearing agents than merely flag-bearing tools.

Videos shot by this and other drones play on a loop in the Haffenreffer Museum, and you can see them on YouTube as well. Many of its mechanical comrades did not survive their sorties, blasted from the skies by security forces — but this one did make it back to its operator, scarred but intact, its mission complete.

And that is the most cyberpunk thing I have ever seen.

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