By now you’ve heard the U.S. government has denied a proper permit to Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics to extend the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline by drilling under the only water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. But here’s the thing: construction of DAPL is still happening. I’m not reporting this from word of mouth, interpretations from the web or even a local hotel room. I am reporting this from Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock, in minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and from where I can see DAPL’s construction crew still working relentlessly into the evening hours. The lights are still on, drills are still drilling, helicopters are hovering overhead and the militarized police are watching from atop the hill.
We pulled into camp the night after the Army Corps of Engineers announced it had denied DAPL contractors the easement they needed to drill half a mile north of the Sioux Reservation. The night before, water protectors had celebrated in temperatures well below zero, with winds howling at 50 miles per hour.
But the next day was one of the harshest days yet at Standing Rock weather-wise, and what we saw upon arriving was remarkable. Everyone was leaving. Thousands of people, including the veterans who promised to leave 200 bodies on the ground to help fight the pipeline, had all but vanished after Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told them to go home. “Nothing will happen this winter,” he told Reuters.
With protestors assuming they had “won” and national media reporting the same, many visitors expected DAPL construction to simply stop upon their leaving. But it hasn’t. As promised, ETP and Sunoco continue to work on DAPL, running up a $50,000 a day fine. If the easement is reversed, their logic goes, they’ll be there to finish the job—and further along to boot.
Some water protectors have remained despite’s Archambault’s plea. Rumors of DAPL workers infiltrating camp to encourage people to leave are rampant; many of the Lakota and Nakota people are now making it known they’re not asking anyone who wants to stay and help to leave. Those who have stuck around are digging deeper roots, building more permanent structures and preparing for a long winter’s war to ensure the pipeline is truly stopped or re-routed.
Standing Rock feels like a ghost town now; many are confused about what to do.
But Standing Rock feels like a ghost town now; many are confused about what to do. Reaming protestors who fought on the frontlines at the height of the standoff are getting worryingly sick due to a lack of preparedness. Some are stranded because their cars are buried in snow or they were dropped off two months ago on a whim. Donations have stopped flowing in and the weather is so bad, it’s difficult to get proper supplies in—and the allies’ trash out. And most media has left.
Some of the white allies still here seem to be environmental activists more interested in pushing for renewable energies. But this is not their land, and that was never the purpose of most Native residents. The local Sioux tribe had a specific goal, and that was to prevent the pipeline from crossing into sacred burial grounds and under their primary water source. While a great number of Native tribes across the country want America’s oil snakes decapitated—and this protest has been a catalyst for others—without a unifying purpose, the camp, I fear, will continue to decay, despite the best efforts of those committed to a long-term cause, whatever it may be.
Still, water protectors will remain to document DAPLs continued progress or to see the pipeline dissolved altogether. At this stage, the most important part of the fight is the legal battles that will rage on for the next few weeks until Trump’s administration reviews the pipeline, DAPL is rerouted or the project turns into a pumpkin from bailing investors.
Until then, there is a substantial need for cleanup from the abandoned waste and the left-behind oil-based products that, if not disposed properly, will feed right back into the water systems, completely absolving the purpose of the entire standoff.
If you’re planning on going to Standing Rock, a word of advice from the frontlines: don’t. The sacred fire that burned bright when the camp was erected earlier this year is falling to shambles. It’s too damn cold for anyone who’s not from here to know how to survive in sub-zero temperatures. More and more people are getting sick, some are becoming confused, and the last thing they need are outsiders flooding federal lands with permanent structures and more waste.
Some better advice: find people or an organization already on the ground and donate to them directly. These protectors are the most respectful, peaceful and prayerful people I’ve been around, and their fight was waged in a unique and invaluable way that demanded international attention. If the government does kill DAPL, it will indeed be a great a historical victory for Native Americans who, after centuries, might finally have had their voice heard in Washington. And that is the bigger picture here.