As blizzard conditions mounted, a representative of the protest camps just south of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction zone issued a clear message Monday, Dec. 5.
“As water protectors, we have a responsibility to be stewards of the water,” said John Bigelow, head of the camp’s media committee and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux. “We declare here today, we are not going anywhere.”
Bigelow spoke at an afternoon press conference held in the large central dome used as a gathering and meeting hall by protesters in the Oceti Sakowin camp based at the confluence between the Missouri and Cannonball rivers north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. His declaration came on the heels of a victory for protesters following the Sunday decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny an easement to Energy Transfer Partners -- the Texas-based company building the pipeline -- to drill beneath the Missouri River to provide a crucial crossing for the near-complete infrastructure project.
Bigelow described the easement denial as “one battle in a larger movement against injustice” and said he found it unlikely that President-elect Donald Trump, who has voiced support for the pipeline, would prioritize enforcement of the Corps decision. He also doubted the Trump administration would apply punitive action if Energy Transfer Partners defied the Corps and drilled beneath its intended route below the Lake Oahe reservoir on the Missouri River without an easement.
A statement from Energy Transfer Partners issued in response to the Corps decision stated the denial will not change its plans and the company will not consider rerouting the pipeline.
Earlier Monday, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault said protesters should leave the camps, Reuters reported. Archambault anticipated that no additional construction work would go forward over the winter season and said he would focus efforts on communications with Trump.
In response to Archambault’s statement regarding non-Sioux protesters, Bigelow said the chairman represents the tribe and has been working with the Oceti Sakoi camp for a “very long time.”
However, Bigelow said the interests of the camp and the tribe “may not always align.”
“Our interests here go as far as keeping people in camp safe, and it takes of all of our attention to do that,” he said. “We allow the tribal council to work on their things on their side, but we have a little narrower focus here. We welcome all who want to come and stand beside us -- we just want them to bring very warm shoes.”
Many of the protesters across the camp this past weekend were busy preparing for an arduous North Dakota winter. The summer tents and casual camping gear have largely been put aside -- many of the thin consumer tents can be found collapsed under the weight of recent snowfall and are now being reused to winterize larger structures, such as tepees, temporary wooden structures and boxy military surplus tents.
Volunteers have distributed insulating bales of straw around the camp, though not all of the living spaces are so equipped. Stovepipes rise above most of the bigger tents and propane heaters have become commonplace.
To address some of the risk of the heating methods, carbon monoxide detectors are included with the various cold-weather supplies distributed to protestors in the camp.
As day turned to night Monday, 40 mph winds and driving snow created white-out conditions. Temperatures are expected to fall into the single digits later this week
Glenn Scott, a member of the Chippewa tribe and a native of Wausau, Wis., was among the protesters gathered in the falling snow around noon at the camp’s central fire, a site used for ritual and prayer.
Scott, a military veteran who served in the Vietnam War era, said he felt drawn to camp from early on but had been spurred to action by the recent call to veterans. He came bearing a staff and eagle feathers in honor of his brother.
Despite the easement denial and the suggestion from Archambault, Scott said protesters were holding their ground.
“What I’ve been hearing so far is that people are not leaving,” he said. “People are staying behind to make sure they follow through, and they want to see (Energy Transfer Partners) take their equipment, pull out and go. I think, until that happens, a lot of these people are going to stay, and even then, there might be some who stay behind even longer to make sure.”
Other protesters echoed that sentiment.
“I know that the oil companies could give a damn about any permits,” said Karl Wood, of Los Angeles. “I’m not certain how much we can do out here, but I also don’t trust that they’re going to stop drilling.”
Wood believed the protest movement was “not just about Standing Rock,” but rather a piece of a larger environmental movement. Still, he said non-Sioux protesters should heed the wishes of Archambault and the tribe if asked to leave.
“We’re here by invitation -- it’s their land,” Wood said. “Staying on without welcome would just be further colonization and would not be respecting the very things they’re asking for.”
Jeremiah Soft, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Tribe who lives in Minnesota, said he wasn’t certain what the future of the camp will hold.
“I’ll pray for the best,” he said.
Soft was happy with the welcome he’d received at camp and said volunteers have been helpful and kind in ensuring the comfort of new arrivals. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Archambault’s suggestion that non-Sioux protesters should leave the camp.
“I think people should be respectful of the wishes of the elders and the chairman and not try to go off and do their own thing,” he said. “But we need all the help we can get out here. All the supporters are needed and people keep coming in left and right.”