STANDING ROCK, ND—Jeff Kelly’s smartphone was inches away from his nose as he swiped and tapped at his screen in search of a certain photo.
“Here it is,” Kelly said with a sense of satisfaction. The director of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Game and Fish department was sitting behind a large L-shaped desk cluttered with papers, notebooks and a red clock playing country music.
He turned his phone horizontally and pointed out the area now known as the Rosebud Camp, one of several communities that grew from the spontaneous movement to try and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
“It’s completely underwater,” said Kelly, looking at the grainy photo he had captured of the massive flood in 2013. From the image, only a faint dirt road and its position south of the bridge over the Cannonball River gave any identifiable reference to the site where rows of tipis and army-green tents still stand in the North Dakota winter.
“It’s gonna get dangerous,” he said. “It’s coming.”
With record snowfall forecast for the region, Kelly is among a growing number of local officials who are calling on the estimated 1,000 people remaining at the encampments to clean up and evacuate lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the snow begins to melt.
It is but one of many new challenges facing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its supporters at the turn of a new year.
The fear of spring flooding at the demonstration site could also be a metaphor for a wave of ensuing challenges in the ongoing battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. Despite the December 4 decision by the U.S. Department of the Army denying a key easement to pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners, Standing Rock’s struggle to protect the Missouri River from a potential oil spill continues on all fronts. The dilemma includes contending with an incoming Donald Trump Presidential administration eager to advance the energy project, as well as a new North Dakota governor supportive of this agenda. Meantime, as campers, regarded as water protectors, resolve to stay and fight, tribal leaders say their continued presence now threatens community resources and statewide relations.
“The movement’s costing our membership,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II during an informal meeting held with water protectors on Thursday, January 5. The tribal leader urged campers to begin planning a cleanup and evacuation strategy to prevent contaminating the Missouri River once the snow begins to melt.
“We made noise around the world for Indian Country, and it was beautiful,” he continued.
“But we are the ones who have to live here,” he added, indicating tribal council members who were present at the talks. “Our actions today are going to dictate what the future looks like for just Standing Rock.”
Potential Fresh Start
Since mid-summer, thousands of people have been living in tipis, tents, RVs and tiny houses at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. There’s now growing concern that human waste, abandoned cars and buried debris could be swept into the very waterway that campers have vowed to protect.
“We could ironically be creating an ecological water issue in a place where there was none,” said North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Inaugural festivities for the former Microsoft executive unraveled last week. Among the events was a January 4 luncheon in Bismarck with the state’s tribal leaders. Absent was Archambault, who said he was meeting with camp organizers about the cleanup process.
Burgum, who publicly supported the Dakota Access pipeline in mid-December, said he wanted to see the camps cleared out by no later than March 1. And he expressed concern about the scenario if floodwaters come and campers should remain.
“The group that we call on to help when we're flood fighting is our National Guard,” he said, noting the ongoing tensions between police and water protectors. “Given the current situation we're in, the optics of that might be confusing to people.”
In his State of the State Address held the day before, Burgum told lawmakers the DAPL controversy had frayed relations with North Dakota tribes and would take time to repair. Since confrontations between police and water protectors began in August, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has made 584 arrests, including five people detained just days before the new year.
But at the luncheon, where dozens of state agency leaders were present, Burgum pledged a fresh start with tribal nations. He even got teary-eyed when discussing the lopsided rate of youth suicide that plagues many of the state’s reservations.
“We have got to take these issues seriously because we cannot have that kind of difference within our own borders,” Burgum said.
Chairman Mike Fox of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation said he was impressed by what he described as “strong and open communication” from the new governor.
“I truly believe that where we're heading now, had that been in place a year or two ago, we could have avoided much of what's happening down there at Standing Rock,” said Fox regarding a breakdown in dialogue between the tribe, the state, and energy company officials. “Even the conversation about alternative [pipeline] routes, I mean those things could have happened early and it didn't because there was a lack of communication.”
Clashes Not Over
For Standing Rock’s part, the focus is also on renewing relations with the state in an effort to remove longstanding roadblocks along Highway 1806. The main artery serves as a link between the reservation and nearby Mandan and Bismarck, about 40 miles north.
Archambault blames the blockades for lost revenue at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, the tribe’s largest employer. While he did not disclose a figure behind the shortfall, the chairman said the economic loss was a “significant amount” affecting tribal programs for children and elders. On December 14, the tribal council voted to reserve up to $3.2 million of funding raised in donations from its standwithstandingrock.net website to help offset the deficit.
Meanwhile, the roadblocks have been a point of contention for water protectors—specifically at the Backwater Bridge.
In the early morning hours of Friday, January 6, dozens of people approached the bridge blockade at the edge of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Video of the incident shows that at least one individual began cutting at the coil of razor wire laced against long concrete blocks barricading the crossing.
The bridge was the site of the water cannon attack on demonstrators led by Morton County Sheriff’s deputies during the sub-freezing night of November 20. Since then, the overpass has become more heavily fortified and surveilled by police.
Archambault is worried that ongoing actions performed by water protectors at the bridge could stymie any chance of removing the barricade. The overpass is currently under review by state transportation officials to determine whether fires ignited on the crossing during an October demonstration have made the structure impassable.
“By the actions taking place, it prevents the roadblock from opening,” said Archambault. “It impacts our individual membership, and that’s a huge cost of this movement.”
Truth Sets In
As the director of Standing Rock’s Game and Fish department, it was Kelly’s job to conduct daily inspections of the Cannon Ball River during the flood of 2013. Back then, he said his focus was mostly on the bridge. Ice jams had started to stack up against its concrete pillars like a multi-car pile-up. Kelly feared the force of the ice might collapse the bridge.
“Those ice jams are pretty wild,” said Kelly, who grew up playing and fishing in the area, along with witnessing routine floods. “When the bridge stops the ice, eventually it builds up and the bridge acts as a dam.”
From there, he described how the strong, chilly waters rush beneath the boulder-sized glaciers, some as large as four to five feet in size. That's when, he said, the river starts to spill over onto the very lands where the water protectors are living.
“We know we have to move. We know the flooding’s real,” said a man from Virginia who only identified himself as Spencer.
It was a Saturday, and the sun had just returned following a day of light snowfall. For the first time, signs of building at the Oceti Sakowin Camp had subsided. Half-constructed structures were no longer being worked on. Nearby, men were hauling tattered colorful tarps and tents to an industrial-sized metal waste bin.
Spencer said he had purchased a plane ticket home earlier in the day. He’d been living in a tipi at the Rosebud Camp since October.
“I’ll still fight the pipeline,” Spencer said. “Just in different ways.”
Others were still wrangling with the transition.
“We need numbers. Strength in numbers,” said Nicholas Wagner, a 37-year-old Yaquii man from Riverside, California who opposes the Dakota Access pipeline. The water protector, who arrived at Standing Rock in September, said he was organizing a mass demonstration to take place on Valentine’s Day called the March of Love and Peace.
“It’s a march to shut down the drill pad by setting up an occupation there,” he said, nudging his head in the direction of the nearby bluff where beaming lights shined down on the pipeline construction site. “From there, we’ll see what the authorities do, because the world is watching.”
His final statement was a deliberate latching-on to the groundswell of support shown in early December, when an estimated 15,000 people had descended at Standing Rock. On the Facebook Page advertising the march was an image of a black snake, what the water protectors call the Dakota Access pipeline. It was a symbol Archambault said had become emblematic of the larger conflict.
“I keep seeing this image of this one black snake,” Archambault told the campers inside council chambers. “What we should see is a black snake and hundreds behind it. The oil industry is the fight. Not this one pipeline. Not this one snake.”
The tribal leader’s comments were added discouragement from growing the movement any further, least of all when it came to putting lives on the line—a message that invested water protectors like Wagner have found difficult to take.
“It’s dangerous out here,” said Wagner as he stood in line to fill four small propane tanks to last him for the week. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his oversized coat and shifted his weight on packed snow. “I’m freezing right now, but this is what it’s about, the struggle.”
Then he said what has been on the minds of many, for weeks.
“We’re gonna do whatever we can to stop them,” Wagner said, regarding the energy companies. “This fight isn’t over.”