In early December, a blizzard struck North Dakota, blanketing the Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, and Sacred Stone water protector camps with heavy snow in below freezing temperatures. As the Standing Rock Sioux and allies battled the crippling cold, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) handed the native community a victory by denying the permit for the final construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The USACE said they will conduct an environmental impact assessment and consider possible alternative routes.
The decision came just one day before a planned forced removal of water protectors camped north of Highway 1806 from land that is technically the USACE’s. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had also issued an executive order calling for fines on civilians who brought supplies to the camps and blocking emergency services from entering. The plans for forced removal and blockades were eventually abandoned as the camps swelled to an estimated 10 to 20,000 people during the weekend of December 3rd and 4th. Among the thousands of supporters were veterans who had traveled from around the country to stand in solidarity and defense of the water protectors.
Although fireworks rang out above the camps following the Army Corps decision, there was also a sense of hesitation. Water protectors remained uncertain over whether the fight had really been won or if the decision was simply a ploy to delay an inevitable conclusion. It quickly became apparent that the fight was not over as word spread that the company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, would continue with their plans to complete the project.
“The White House’s directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency,” reads a statement from ETP.
“As stated all along, ETP and SXL (Sunoco Logistics Partners) are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”
The Morton County Sheriff’s Office also suffered a setback as the Department of Justice denied a request for assistance from federal law enforcement. KFYR reports that Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said sending in border patrol and U.S. Marshals Service Special Operations could escalate tensions between protectors and police. Jonathan F. Thompson, the executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, says his group has “asked, pleaded and nearly begged” for federal officers.
Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota responded to the DOJ’s action, stating, “The Obama administration again declined our request for both law enforcement personnel and funding to address the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.” Hoeven noted that he has “already reached out to the next administration” to help law enforcement “keep the peace, as well as to issue the easement so that construction can be completed.”
ETP has also filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the Army Corp of Engineers to allow construction. “Citing losses of $20 million a week, David Debold, an attorney for pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, said that without an expedited decision the matter could ‘drag out forever’ after construction was halted Sunday by the Obama administration,” USA Today reports. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg set a court hearing for February, a move that has water protectors concerned. By February, President-elect Trump will be in office and could potentially fast track approval for the final construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Trump has already shown he is friendly to the oil industry and until recently, was invested in Energy Transfer Partners. Trump nominated Rick Perry — former Texas Governor and current board member of both Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners — as the head of the Department of Energy. Perry quickly joined the boards of the oil companies only weeks after leaving office.
With all these legal and political developments, it is easy to forget about the battle being waged on the ground and the water protectors who remain at the camps. Following the Army Corps decision to block the permit, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II asked supporters to go home. Archambault said the fight was shifting to a legal battle and asked supporters not to put their lives at risk by traveling to the camps under such harsh weather conditions. On December 10, the Oceti Sakowin Camp posted on Facebook that they were putting out one of the Sacred Fires that had burned since the beginning of the fight:
“As we extinguish the Sacred Fire today, it is not a time of ending. People have come from all over the world- from many nations- from many traditions. Prayers in hundreds of languages were spoken around that fire. Dances that are hundreds of years old, passed from generation to generation, were danced around that fire, & as the last coal of this fire goes out, the smoke goes into the air, & swirls, & the heat that it warmed us with together in these days is now cold & has gone back deep into the Earth. This is not an end, but when another fire is lit, what happened here now will not be forgotten.”
The Sacred Stone Spirit Camp made their own post to clarify that some people were choosing to stay behind and continue the fight.
“The main fire at the Oceti Sakowin camp was put out today. This is the first fire you would see when entering the camp by the flag road… The horn (7 sacred fires) fire, Sacred Stone Camp fire, and others are still up and running. The elders were told in ceremony it was time to put out this specific fire because the prayers had been heard. This doesn’t mean that the fight is over, I personally believe that is the beginning of a new chapter.”
The Indigenous Environmental Network’s Dallas Goldtooth has also begun shifting his efforts away from recruiting for the camp towards building a movement to divest from the banks and companies that support the DAPL. Meanwhile, former congressional candidate and native organizer Chase Iron Eyes has stated that a new camp, Oceti Oyate, or people’s camp, has formed for those who want to continue the fight on the ground. According to the Bismarck Tribune, Dave Archambault asked Iron Eyes not to encourage the new camp. “I’m never going to give them a deadline or sweep it out. We just want to make sure people are safe. If they’re going to stay, they’re going to stay,” said Archambault.
As the fight against DAPL evolves, the water protectors have been given a harrowing reminder of what they are fighting against. On December 5, a pipeline leaked 176,000 thousands of crude oil only a couple hours away from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The leak was apparently contained within hours of its discovery, Wendy Owen, a spokeswoman for Casper, Wyoming-based True Cos., which operates the Belle Fourche pipeline, told CNBC. Interestingly enough, the Belle Fourche pipeline uses the same type of electronic safety equipment that is supposed to keep the DAPL from leaking. For the water protectors, the spill is just another in a long list of reasons why the Black Snake known as the Dakota Access Pipeline must not be completed.