Why they’re staying: Army Corps of Engineers’ decision a win for Standing Rock, but not a victory
The sweet taste of victory has already begun to sour at the Oceti Sakowin camp just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Over recent months, thousands of people have settled in this off-the-grid community, united in their mission to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from snaking through nearby treaty land and under the Missouri River that serves millions of people.
The mantra silkscreened on T-shirts, painted on signs and embroidered on hats drives home what matters here: Mni Wiconi, or Water is Life.
On Sunday, the US Army Corps of Engineers said it would seek alternative routes for the pipeline. The “water protectors” and their supporters sang, drummed and cheered in triumph.
But by Monday morning, as a winter squall descended and temperatures dropped, so, too, did the enthusiasm here.
Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the $3.7 billion project, had pushed back. It blamed politics, specifically the Obama administration, for the Army Corps statement, adding that it was in the corporation’s legal right to proceed as planned.
This twist is raising questions, stoking suspicions and, quite possibly, fueling rumors. Among those: The pipeline has already been completed.
‘We’ll stay here until we’re told otherwise’
“Some people say they are digging from the other side,” says Daniel Calderon, a former Marine and retired police officer.
Calderon, 45, came here from Malibu, California. He’s one of thousands of veterans who, in recent days, answered a call to defend the water protectors. They were summoned so they’d be here Monday, when an evacuation order was supposed to go into effect.
“The call to service and to help Mother Earth is a huge honor,” Calderon says. And the Army Corps announcement about rerouting the pipeline doesn’t change a thing.
Nor does the blizzard that’s rolling in.
“We’re still sticking it out and hoping that what they say is true and that there’s no sneaky business going on,” Calderon says. “We’ll stay here until we’re told otherwise.”
Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II on Tuesday, citing the bad weather, called for the “water protectors” to head home.
“While this phase of the struggle relied largely on the protectors at camp, this next stage will be focused on the legal battles, and keeping the current decision in place,” he said in a statement.
Lots of people here assume the pipeline company would rather pay fines than change its plans.
Melanie Schure of Fort Collins, Colorado, notes how barriers and vehicles remain on the other side of the Backwater Bridge, the area where law enforcement and demonstrators have met in ways that, at times, have become violent.
“If my president asked me to do something, I think I’d start moving my stuff out of the way,” she says. “That they haven’t suggests to me that they have no intention of going anywhere. They’ll just push through and pay fines. That’s my personal opinion.”
Schure, 41, took a leave of absence from work to be here. She’s only been at the camp for three days but would like to stay for however long she’s needed.
The conflicting narratives about what’s to come leaves Shannon Joseph of Tacoma, Washington, confused. Originally from Canada, Joseph is a Cowichan. She arrived on Sunday with her husband, who’s a veteran.
“It [the pipeline] stopped, but they’re still drilling. So how’s that going to work?” Joseph says as she huddles by a fire with others looking for warmth. “What are they going to do? Is it going to cause more fights? Are they going to spray us or shoot us with rubber bullets still?”
The luxury to leave, the duty to stay
Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock Sioux attorney and activist, marvels at what’s evolved in recent months.
“We have never known a time when non-native American allies from around the country, around the world have come here in the dead of winter to stand with us, to stand together to call for a new day,” he says.
The battle being waged is about more than oil, land and water, says a woman who asks to be identified only by her first name, Cat.
Dressed in a long goatskin coat that was given to her by a Mongolian friend, Cat carries a gas mask, just in case anyone needs it. She first came to the camp thinking she’d stay for three days. That was more than a month ago.
The announcement to reroute the pipeline should be seen as a win, Cat says, but that represents just one battle in an ongoing war.
“It’s a human-rights war as well and requires understanding what it means for those who are part of a marginalized community and what injustices [to them] have done over time,” she says.
She says she’s come to know some of the Standing Rock Sioux who live in abject poverty and are here fighting the pipeline.
“They gave up everything to be here,” she says. “They have nothing but this.”
Blaze Starkey, a Lakota educator from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, sees the Army Corp’s decision as “a great step toward victory for everyone at Standing Rock and for everybody in the world that cares about living in a just place, in a clean place and in a place where people respect each other and the Earth.”
He cautions, though, that it remains to be seen what will ultimately happen with this pipeline. People need to still keep a watchful eye and know that there’s plenty of work still to be done.
“It doesn’t address the police violence and militarization. It doesn’t address the racism that we live with every day and that, I think, has been exposed to the world,” says Starkey, 31.
“It doesn’t address treaty issues that have been raised and it doesn’t address similar circumstances that are faced by tribes all over the United States.”
Gilles, who also asked that we use only his first name, says he wants the US to shift its attention to alternative energy sources.
He came here from California in his Austrian-made Pinzgauer — a vehicle made for the Swiss army for mountain rescues. He points out that whatever happens with the pipeline, “I get to leave. I have the luxury to do that.”
The Standing Rock Sioux don’t, which is why thousands — more than 10,000 people at this point — are still here. Like many others, Chase Iron Eyes fears what could come in the months ahead.
“If President-elect Trump could override what just happened … and grant that easement, then we’re in for a world of hurt. Nothing has changed for us.”
After the Army Corps decision, the tribe released a statement thanking the Obama administration for hearing their concerns.
“In a system that has continuously been stacked against us from every angle, it took tremendous courage to take a new approach to our nation-to-nation relationship, and we will be forever grateful,” Archambault wrote.
But that doesn’t mean the water protectors are packing up and leaving.
On Monday afternoon, hundreds trudged through the unforgiving landscape and gusts of white as the blizzard strengthened. They were heading up the highway toward the blockade on their side of the Backwater Bridge, which serves as the front line these days.
As promised, the crowd up front consisted of veterans — many whom wore camouflage. There were drums and songs. Scattered between were the cries that have come to define this movement.
No matter what statements come out from authorities or corporate giants, no matter how much the words contradict one another, this isn’t over.
“Mni Wiconi!” they yelled. “Water is Life!”
No one was waiting on the other side of the bridge to hear their cries, though. Even so, they’ll keep shouting those words into the wind.