STANDING ROCK, ND—A large circle had formed around a raging fire fueled by stacks of wooden pallets. Its smoke blew west toward a salmon-colored sun that was disappearing behind a pair of bluffs known as the Twin Buttes.
Morgan Hale, 30, broke out in song.
“Father, grandfather, oh help me know, which direction I’m supposed to go…”
The Nashville resident wore blue braids topped with a black cowboy hat adorned with feathers. Thick, jagged designs were painted around her eyes. She said she had arrived at Sacred Stone Camp fresh off the trail from Burning Man, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert arts festival centered around a temporary community. The Sacred Stone Camp was the first encampment to form behind the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s push to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
“We’ve been fighting a pipeline and fighting racism, all while praying,” said Hale. “It’s compassion, and there’s so much of that here. And as far as I’m concerned, we won already.”
Hale represents a strong contingency of allies who have been a fixture of the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock, and now, some of the last people to part with the months-long movement. In the aftermath of last week’s razing of the main demonstration camp, Oceti Sakowin, dozens of water protectors, or protesters, are leaving the borderlands of the reservation with heavy but determined hearts to keep the spirit of Standing Rock alive. Yet despite recent reports that suggest oil may be flowing underground as early as March 6, there are still an estimated 200 or so others that remain committed to fighting the pipeline, even now.
“LaDonna’s prayer that brought me here is what taught me how to listen,” said Hale, referring to Standing Rock Sioux tribal member LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. “If LaDonna’s not telling me to go, and she’s still continually telling me that this is her land and we have every right to be here, than I will continue to stand by her."
Allard has long been credited with being the first to call on people to “stand with Standing Rock” in the fight to try and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was a rallying cry she continued even in the final days before the February 22 clearing of Oceti Sakowin that was enforced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of North Dakota.
On February 15, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) pressured campers to leave after agents issued a trespassing notice to those living in teepees, tents, yurts, cars and RVs on lands once believed to have belonged to Allard. According to the BIA document, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Corps own the majority of the lands linked to the Sacred Stone Camp. To dispute these claims, Allard issued leases to her followers in early February. But those efforts were futile. It remains unclear whether the BIA will forcibly remove people who remain in makeshift camps nestled along the banks of the Missouri River.
Several water protectors and medics began packing up to leave on Monday February 27. But for others, departing is less easy.
“A bunch of people are stranded,” said Alex Wilson, a water protector who arrived at Sacred Stone last September. For Wilson, whose camp nickname is “Distance,” this isn’t her first eviction. A squatter in an abandoned home in California, she recently drafted a petition in an attempt to stay on the reservation.
“We need help, and so far we haven’t received anything.”
As for Allard, she retreated to Iowa and turned to Facebook to respond to those seeking her guidance.
“The timing is all wrong for me,” read Allard’s post. “I should be at home, but I did not know when this was planned that things would move so fast.”
Repeated calls and texts to reach Allard were not returned.
By the end of the weekend, fellow water protectors had raised more than $10,000 online to issue bus tickets and gas money to those wishing to leave.
Meantime, there remain about 100 people living on private lands leased to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. But the camp remains under heavy surveillance from BIA agents who continue to man a checkpoint at the camp.
“The BIA hasn’t even given us any reason for being there,” said Remi Bald, spokesperson for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. According to Bald Eagle, the BIA received authorization to be on the Standing Rock reservation based on a January 20 resolution passed by the tribal council calling to close all protest camps on and near Standing Rock, although the council made an exception to allow the Cheyenne River Tribe to keep its camp open. But the presence of the BIA has been taxing. On February 25, a manned roadblock that deterred people from entering stymied a prayer demonstration at the Cheyenne River camp.
“It disrupted a religious function,” said Bald Eagle.
Religious freedom is the central argument behind a lawsuit currently being pursued by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock in the ongoing legal battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Meantime, dozens of tribes have stepped up in the courts to argue against the multibillion dollar energy project.
As the fight shifts away from the reservation where thousands of people had sung and prayed, water protectors like Ray Kingfisher has carried the indigenous-led struggle to other communities.
“This was our home,” he said with somber voice. “We learned to heal and love here.”
It was February 22, and behind him, fires raged at Oceti Sakowin hours before the Army Corp’s 2 p.m. evacuation deadline.
By Saturday February 25, Kingfisher had turned up on Facebook, livestreaming in a car driving down the Santa Monica Highway in Los Angeles.
“It’s our duty to get the word out about what’s going on,” said Kingfisher. Like many water protectors now scattered across the country, and even the globe, the spark ignited at Standing Rock lives on.
“We’re still here.”