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Triumph and Danger: Decision Week at Standing Rock

Oceti Sakowin Camp
The Oceti Sakowin Camp | Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It's been an eventful few days at the Standing Rock Reservation. On Sunday, December 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would be denying an easement underneath Lake Oahe adjacent to the reservation for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which is being built to carry oil from the Bakken Oil Fields to a major oil storage hub in Patoka, Illinois. The local Standing Rock Sioux Tribe opposes the easement, which they say threatens not only their water supply but also their sovereignty as a people.

The Army Corps' announcement came as thousands of veterans, led by actvist Wes Clark, Jr., and others, were arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Cannonball River. Their intent was to form a human shield between Native activists and the local police, who have been using objectively harsh force against the protesters. Until the Corps made its announcement, many in the camp were concerned that police would attempt to enforce a looming December 5 deadline for activists to vacate the camp or face eviction.

Almost as soon as the Corps made its announcement, the pipeline builders — Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners — announced that they would be proceeding without an easement, presumably figuring that they'd lose less in fines for violating the law than they would in lost profits from the many-months delay that a full environmental study of the pipeline route would cost — not to mention $1.4 billion in financing that will only drop once the pipeline's way across the lake is clear.

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On Wednesday morning, New York Daily News journalist Shaun King sent an email out to his subscribers including a message from an energy industry executive who had asked King to withhold his name and the name of his employer. That message said, in part,

That anonymous executive went on to characterize Energy Transfer Partners as especially combative, saying "The CEO of Energy Transfer (the company leading the pipeline’s construction) is known even among [an] industry of generally unlikeable people to be a blood-sucking [anatomical expletive deleted]. His company routinely finds any loophole it can and minimizes the social engagement necessary to get pipelines approved." He suggested that the company's worst-case scenario was simply waiting for swift reversal of the Corps' decision after Inauguration Day.

As that news was swirling through the camp and across the internet, a cold front and dangerous storm swept down on the Dakotas, bringing life-threatening low temperatures to the camp and forcing a partial evacuation.

It's a developing story, in other words, and we'll be keeping track as best we can. In the meantime, here are ten photos that ably sum up the last few days along the Cannonball River in North Dakota.

December 3:

As veterans and other supporters converge on Oceti Sakowin Camp, an art project conceived by Standing Rock Sioux artist Cannupa Hunska Luger deploys shields to protect activists from the police's rubber bullets; the shelds are mirrored, in the words of one participant, "so that they have to see themselves firing at us."

water Protectors use mirrored shields at Standing Rock
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

December 4

In mid-day, after a morning of increasing numbers of supporters arriving at the camp and mounting preparation for the anticipated December 5 eviction deadline, news of the Army Corps' decision spread through the camp.

Kissing at Standing Rock
Scott Olson/Getty Images

A friend at Standing Rock — who prefers not to be identified —texted me at around 5:30 pm Dakota time, saying "Wonderful day in many ways, bigger victories than just the Corps."

Drumming at Standing Rock to celebrate decision
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

 A few hours later she added "A good day. Lots of singing and drumming all around."

Fireworks at Standing Rock
Fireworks fill the night sky above Oceti Sakowin Camp on December 4. | Photo:  Scott Olson/Getty Images

December 5

On Monday, at the nearby Prairie Knights Casino, a group of veterans led by Wes Clark, Jr. — son and namesake of the former NATO Supreme Commander and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate —  made a remarkable gesture when his group knelt before Leonard Crow Dog, Faith Spotted Eagle, Ivan Looking Horse, and other Native elders and asked forgiveness for historic wrongs. Clark said, in part,

wes-clark-asks-forgiveness.jpg
Wes Clark Jr. leads a contingent of veterans asking for forgiveness for historic wrongs. | Photo: Tina Malia

Crow Dog offered forgiveness to the group, reminding them that "we do not own the land; the land owns us."

Ten miles north at Oceti Sakowin Camp, the land was making that point clear. The weather had been none too good for days, with icy conditions making driving extremely dangerous: several vehicles along the road between the casino and camp ended up sliding off the road.

Veteran supporters of the Sioux march through blizzard
Veterans march through a blizzard at Oceti Sakowin Camp on December 5 | Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Snow kept falling, with more than a foot of accumulation — especially where the ferocious wind blew fallen snow into formidable drifts. 

Shoveling snow at Standing Rock
Efrem John, a Diné Navajo from Shiprock, NM, clears snow at Oceti Sakowin Camp. | Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Temperatures continued to drop.  

Blizzard at night at Standing Rock
Bracing for sub-zero temperatures on Monday night | Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

December 6

Oceti Sakowin Camp got dangerously cold; temperatures in the afternoon were below 10°F, with wind gusts passing 40 miles per hour.  The Standing Rock Sioux decided they could not ensure the safety of their supporters and asked them to find their way to shelter away from the camps. My friend texted again at just after 4:00 p.m. local time, after she'd spent the day ferrying people very slowly to the casino, taking an hour to drive the ten mile distance:

She told me at least 1,000 people had assembled in a large room at the casino to spend the night in relative safety.

December 7

At this writing, many supporters are continuing to make their way from across North America to the camps, as Standing Rock Sioux elders plead with non-Native people to stay away from the time being. Temperatures are expected to stay below 10°F until at least the end of next week, with more snow coming over the weekend. But many protesters are reluctant to leave, in part due to mistrust of official pronouncements, in part because of Energy Transfer Partners' adamant insistence that the pipeline will go through as planned.

One thing is certain: this campaign is not going to be snowed under. 

linked-arms-in-snow.jpg
Military veterans march in support of the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin Camp. | Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Banner: Scott Olson/Getty Images

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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