Lorna Hanes is tall, and of firm gait. She wears her long brown hair loose, leaving it to brush over her broad shoulders. She speaks in an endearingly flat, nasally tone that’s hard, even after just one conversation, to get out of your head. Fifteen years ago, when she was 35, she met Winona LaDuke, the famed Ojibwe indigenous rights activist. Eventually, LaDuke would adopt Hanes as a sister and set her on her own path of activism. “I finally sobered up and came around and met everybody and started doing work like this,” Hanes says, a cigarette in a gloved hand. “Instead of being drunk. Or on drugs.”
She now lives with LaDuke on the White Earth reservation, in Minnesota, and works with LaDuke's Honor The Earth organization. Regularly, they set off on “spiritual rides”: awareness-raising group horse treks that run along the path of proposed gas pipelines. Hanes lovingly recalls past pipeline rides that snaked through the Badlands of the Dakotas, on ridges miles above twinkling lights of car traffic, on paths surrounded by treacherous openings into seemingly bottomless caverns.
It was in August, shortly after one of those rides — in opposition of Northern Minnesota's Sandpiper pipeline, which was eventually aborted — that Hanes and her sister got to the camps at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in North Dakota. The sprawling camps, full of people who call themselves Water Protectors, exist in defiance of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL. Back then, the landscape was all greens and browns. While LaDuke moved back and forth tending to business in Minnesota, Hanes lived on the land with her horse, Lucky. He’s feisty, she explains: once, after running into an aggressive pipeline employee, he “fucking flipped a tit and kicked the shit out of him.”
“We were just kind of wondering why — how — things could have gone the way they did.” —Lorna Hanes
When Hanes and LaDuke first got to the camps, they would compare dreams about DAPL. “Mine was the earth really shitting the bed,” Hanes says. “Big chunks of earth flying around, spinning around. Shit’s on fire. The black snake” — the derogatory term the Sioux use for the pipeline, based on a traditional prophecy — “is in the air, spitting fire. I’m on my horse and he’s freaking out and I got out my knife.” In activists standoffs between DAPL security and authorities, she would see an echo of the ugly violence she’d once dreamt of.
Within weeks of the sisters arrival, a group of activists in a confrontation with construction workers were attacked by DAPL security guards with pepper-spray and trained dogs that bit both people and horses. Hanes and LaDuke weren’t on the scene at the time, and were horrified to hear the reports. “We had a big meeting. My sister was really pissed off. She said, ‘If we were up there, we would have killed them guards.’ We were just kind of wondering why — how — things could have gone the way they did. It was a bad deal.”
The Morton County Sheriff's Department is the presiding law enforcement body in this part of the country. But over the months of the standoff, 76 other law enforcement organizations have volunteered time or material support. And according to The Guardian, the various authorities have responded to the Water Protectors presence with “sponge rounds, bean bag rounds, stinger rounds, pepper spray, Mace, Tasers, a sound weapon, and explosive teargas grenades banned by some U.S. law enforcement agencies because they indiscriminately spray people.”
In one notorious incident from November, activists attempted to remove burned-out trucks, remnants from a past altercation, from in front of the barricade. In response, Morton County opened up powerful hoses gushing water in freezing weather. “It was sprayed more as a mist,” Sheriff Kirchmeier would say, despite clear video footage to the contrary. During the skirmish, a 21-year-old woman named Sophia Wilansky suffered a severe arm injury and faced a possible amputation from what her family says was a law enforcement concussion grenade.
Most of the ugly confrontations between the activists and the authorities have taken place at a physical “front line,” an oddly militarized blockade propped along a single-lane road a lonely hour’s drive south of Bismarck. It’s a cluster of concrete jersey barriers, tall floodlights, and coils of barbed wire fronting a string of Humvees. Down the road a bit, on North Dakota State Route 1806, scattered black beef cattle break up the thick, clean monochrome of fresh snow.
The blockade cuts off traffic on 1806 and is hugged, on one side, by the DAPL drill site. On the other side is the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and the camps of activists. Just days before I arrive, in early December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had issued an evacuation order. They’d stated that anyone that wasn’t off the federally managed lands north of the main camps by December 5 could be arrested for trespassing. They then issued a map indicating a small sliver of land where the activists would be allowed to stay. In a gorgeously surreal move, they named it the “Free Speech Zone.”
Today, white helicopters swirl around the blockade. A man in all camouflage smokes a cigarette out of the mouth hole of his brown ski mask, while teens on horseback — the camp’s Spirit Riders — move in a loose joint formation into the no-man’s land. Behind the DAPL side of the cement barriers of the barricade, uniformed, helmeted men stick out of their armored vehicles, almost like tank commanders surveying a battlefield. Right now, here on Route 1806, save for the crunch of boots in the snow, there is silence.
Farther back, the mass of the Standing Rock camps hum. For the last few weeks, stoves have been installed with fervor; now, the pleasant smells of burning wood greet the camp every morning. Axes swing down on small logs for firewood. Chainsaws roar down on the big ones. Dogs wear clothes, horses run free, cars get stuck constantly, kids chuck snowballs and, giggling, try to linebacker tackle you to the ground.
The season’s first serious storm has just smashed down on the region, dumping 17 inches of snow on Standing Rock and turning what had been a months-long rootsy outdoor gathering into a rebel outpost on the ice planet Hoth. Plastic tents that once breezed through the summer are now comically snowed under. But the tipis, yurts, campers, lean-tos, reappropriated school buses, prefab shacks with porches, and ice-fishing tents are holding strong. They’re being joined by Mylar-insulated yomes, wooden frames covered in Tyvek, and organic, hay bale structures. Still, on both sides of the standoff an inevitable question is finally being asked: can the camps really survive a the life-choking strength of a Great Plains winter?
It’s at the frontline where I meet Lorna Hanes. We chat; she invites me back to her yurt. Then I get back in my car. The sunlight is leaking out fast, and I have to scramble to find the RV I’m crashing in tonight. I back my car out, and see a woman, panting, in my rear-view mirror. At the behest of Hanes, she’d chased me down. Dutifully, concerned I’d perpetuated some grave camp faux pas, I get out of the car and follow her back to the yurt.
There, Hanes waves at my boots. She has deemed them carelessly lightweight. Inappropriate. She pulls me into a supplies tent and makes sure I swap mine out for a thicker, more trusty pair. She yanks down sleeping bags, tosses me handwarmers, makes sure I have everything I needed to stay toasty and alive for the next few days.
Seven months ago, on April 1, on a small sloping plot of private riverbank land, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard officially opened the doors on the first camp, Sacred Stone.
Back then, Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas company behind DAPL, was already nearly finished building its 1,172-mile, $3.78 billion pipeline. But on the way from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil tank farm near Patoka, Illinois, DAPL still had to cross under Lake Oahe, a federally dammed stretch of the Missouri River that abuts the land of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and provides its residents with water. Standing Rock, fearing a leak and aghast at construction that would disrupt their sacred burial grounds, had long objected.
Their defense was multi-pronged. First, there was action in federal courts, including a lawsuit brought against the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees pipeline construction on and near waterways. Then came Allard’s Sacred Stone, and the action on the ground.
Allard possesses a homegrown regality and electric-purple fingernails. In her Chevy SUV, there are big stems of sage loose on the dashboard and a man in a black jacket with a feather tattoo on his left temple mutely keeping watch out the window in the backseat. She says the initial plan at Sacred Stone has been the plan throughout: to force an Environmental Impact Statement — a governmental review of the environmental effects of a proposed action — and to begin the official federal process of direct “tribal consultation.” To those ends, she wanted to make as much noise as possible. On the first day, there were six tipis and three residents.
“There was still snow on the ground. And we said, ‘Everything will be good. We’ll be OK.’” —LaDonna Brave Bull Allard
“We got everything set up,” Allard recalls. “Got some wood. I remember it was kind of cold. There was still snow on the ground. And we said, ‘Everything will be good. We’ll be OK.’” You were planning on doing it all with just a handful of people? I ask. You didn’t need anybody else? She unfolds a slow smile and locks eye contact. She’s sassing me. But she’s dead serious, too. “We still don’t need anybody else.”
From April until July, the camp maxed at 20 people. Grants started to come in from like-minded indigenous groups, and donations started ticking up, too, of clothes and food. Folks from the reservation town of Cannon Ball, a few miles down the road, began to come by with whole cooked meals. “And then after July,” Allard says, “everything exploded.”
The earliest press coverage came from indigenous news outlets like the Indian Country Media Network and Indigenous Environmental Network, followed closely by alternative sources like Democracy Now! and Unicorn Riot. A loosely connected network of people fueled attention on social media: those at the camps documented Morton County’s actions or their daily lives; those outside the camps shared links. Over weeks and months, 20 people became a couple thousand, and major news outlets started paying attention.
Mark Ruffalo showed up. So did Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas. Dee Snider shot a music video here. Someone saw a young starlet spending all dinner at the communal kitchen getting reiki. Someone else saw the scion of a political dynasty accidentally getting the port-a-potty door swung open on him, mid-business.
From the original Sacred Stone, the camps grew north, eventually leading to the creation of what’s become the new main camp, Oceti Sakowin. (In Lakota, one of the primary languages spoken by the Sioux, Oceti Sakowin translates to the Seven Council Fires, the term used for the Great Sioux Nation at the time of its contact with the Europeans in the 17th century, before its fracturing.) In late October, working alongside state police and the North Dakota National Guard, Morton County pushed back, driving activists off a northern sprawl of the community that the activists had named Treaty Stronghold Camp. 141 people were arrested, including Johanna Holy Elk Face, age 64.
“Me and two elderly ladies were just sitting in a ditch on a log, praying,” she recalls one evening, as I give her a ride from Standing Rock to Cannon Ball. “They stood us up and handcuffed us with those plastic ties. Then they just started bringing us one by one onto school buses. I was like, ‘I haven’t sat on a jail bus in a loooong time.’ Then we seen all the buffalo running down the hill towards us. I was like, ‘Look you guys, the buffalo are gonna come and get us!’” Hours later, she was booked for trespassing. “I was telling them that I was diabetic and needed my insulin. They told me I had to wait until I got booked in and they did my profile and my fingerprints — like we were real criminals!”
Along with temporary holding pens likened by the arrestees to dog kennels, it painted the incident as a clumsy and dangerous enforcement of power. It was as effective as any call to arms. It fueled more attention, more money, more warm, loud bodies in the camps.
At one point, Morton County threatened to block the delivery of propane tanks, claiming they’d been used in attacks against law enforcement. In moments like this, you can see how a local sheriff's department can begin, perhaps almost unknowingly, to take small steps toward the language and tactics of international, entrenched power struggles: at times, Israeli authorities have put forth similar reasoning when blocking construction materials from getting to Gaza.
The barbed-wired, militarized blockade. The threatened confiscation of basic supplies. Propane can easily be used as a life-endangering flammable. But what the people in the camps would tell you they need propane for is to keep their RVs habitable in freezing nighttime temperatures. And what the folks in Gaza would tell you they need construction material for is to build houses. What they would tell you is that they’re just trying to live.
Clyde Bellecourt, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, sits on a crate outside a communal kitchen in Oceti Sakowin. Decked out in a black letterman jacket reading “Choctaw Casino Pow Wow” on the back and “CHAMPION” on the front, he is enjoying a bowl of garlicky potato soup. I’d seen him speak at a press conference a few days earlier. “My Ojibwe name is Thunder Before The Storm,” he’d explained, to rumbling laughs. “I like that better than Clyde!”
Formed in Minneapolis in 1968, the American Indian Movement operated as something like the indigenous peoples’ Black Panther Party. They were a propulsive, combative force. In 1973, they made a symbolic stand by occupying the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, holding off against federal agents for 71 days.
Bellecourt himself is nearly as controversial as the movement. While he’s long denied the charges, he’s been implicated in the 1975 unsolved murder of Anna Mae Aquash, a high-ranking AIM official who had been accused, without concrete evidence, of acting as an FBI informant. (Much like with the Black Panthers, the FBI actively worked to fracture and weaken AIM).
“We didn’t wait for the government to pass legislation to say that we can pray and sing and dance again.” —Clyde Bellencourt
His hair has long gone gray, but it is still bountiful, parted down the middle and ponytailed down his back. At 80, the years have muddled his voice, giving it that soft, wet, grandfatherly tone, as if there is a hard candy being worked on somewhere in the back of his jowls. But even four decades removed from the seminal AIM actions of the 1970s, Bellecourt is still fierce, and quick to rail.
“We didn’t wait for the government to pass legislation to say that we can pray and sing and dance again,” he says, addressing AIM’s rebuttals to mid-20th-century Indian Termination Policies. “Build schools, hold ceremonies, speak our own languages — we just started doing it! And they were calling us radicals, militants, terrorists, communists — every label they could think of.”
AIM’s actions were the last, great moment of cultural relevance for indigenous rights in America.
A generation or two later, a new breed of activists has come forth. That includes people like Lorna Hanes, and Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez.
Lopez, a 24-year-old who identifies as Chicano, grew up outside of Denver as the adopted son of Sicangu Lakota parents. And pretty much since birth, he knew about AIM: one of his grandfathers is the AIM luminary Chief Leonard Crow Dog. After graduating from college, Lopez dreamt of hosting his own The View-like entertainment program, one that would feature indigenous and other minority artists. In the meantime, he was in the late stages of landing a job at Out Front, a national business magazine focused on the gay community, when October’s Treaty Camp raid went down. Quickly, he packed up and headed to Standing Rock. “Do you know how many little gay boys would kill for this job?!” Lopez, grinning, recalls the Out Front recruiter asking him.
At Standing Rock, he became a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council, a solid, self-defined structure within the anarchic sprawl of the camp. They’ve organized silent marches and, in a gesture of holiday goodwill, donated supplies to Morton County. And like a lot of people I talk to, Lopez speaks of his experience at Standing Rock as life-altering: he believes that here he has finally tapped into the leadership capabilities he was born with.
Now, he directs his peers on the Youth Council down to the most minute details. “I try to explain it to people in a fun joking way, but really — we’re warriors — and if we can’t organize a yurt, how can we organize everything else?”
Small of stature, with thick black hair swept dramatically back, Lopez is undoubtedly a modern kid. He says the story of Standing Rock will forever change self-perception in indigenous communities, encourage heretofore unimagined ambitions. As an instructive example, he talks with joy of a “gorgeous, knockout, 16-year-old girl” he met at the camps recently who he successfully encouraged into considering a career in runway modeling.
But Lopez also has no problem flashing the grand, righteous fire of Bellecourt and his grandfather Crow Dog and his militant AIM forefathers. “What you’re seeing from DAPL is the last moves of a dying animal,” he promises. “They’re getting desperate. And what you’re seeing from all these corporations is the last of their years. The corporations should be very scared of us. They should be very, very scared.”
Early one weekday morning, there is an unmistakable buzz of activity. A native kid in a thermal shirt, boots, and basketball shorts runs to the port-a-potty. A white thirtysomething in a “California Fencing” shirt practices his craft, jabbing an épée into the air. A handsome hippie named Alex commands a semicircle of volunteers in one of the many subcamps, reluctantly taking charge ahead of the mind-boggling winter chill to come: “The purpose of this meeting is to get ready for the nine below next week!”
It’s almost the weekend, and the residents are self-organizing. For all of the makeshift structures that are here, there’s a lot that doesn’t exist (your best bet for a shower: talk someone into letting you into their hotel room bathroom at the forever-overbooked casino seven miles down the road). You’re digging trenches for toilets. You’re roofing the kitchen. Little pockets of volunteers scramble to their assignments, and Alex calls out, halfheartedly, “If there’s time later, we can meet to talk about more important stuff. Like decolonization. Maybe.”
“It’s amazing, dude,” a long-haired, smiley, pockmarked twentysomething named Drew tells me. “It’s anarchy in its purest and most truest form. And this is sacred prayer land.” He pauses dramatically, goes to a stage whisper. “You have no idea how powerful it is. I just don’t believe in a world where this prayer doesn’t work.”
To indicate the power of the prayer, Drew ticks off a list of items he’d been praying for, and then quickly, inexplicably, received: a knife, fingernail clippers, a shower, and, “like, someone to hang around with — like, a girl?”
You met a girl?
So are a lot of people, uh, meeting each out here?
“I don’t know about meeting each other,” he says. “But I do know midwifery has been passing out condoms like crazy!”
It’s an unexpected patchwork of people, to be sure. There are hippies and Standing Rock lifers; families who “world school”; Amy Goodman stans from Columbia, Missouri; older men with easy smiles and light blue crosses tattooed on their foreheads; hardworking documentarians who happily take on the nickname Wasi’chu, a mild pejorative for white people meaning “the one who takes the fat.” There are so many veterans, so many of them physically or mentally injured. You end up hearing about a lot of motivations to come out here, not one quite the same as the next.
Jay Fitzgerald is a handsome man with a firm jaw covered in white stubble. A few weeks ago, his son Clark was killed in a car accident while on his way to Standing Rock. Passing through Wisconsin, the car Clark was traveling in flipped; the driver had jerked the wheel to avoid a deer carcass. Clark was 28, a bike messenger and a co-founder of Woodbine, an “experimental hub” with a social action bent in Ridgewood, Queens.
Jay and Clark used to text constantly, swapping links and photos. “Over the last few years, my impression is that a lot of his ideas started coming together in a coherent way,” Fitzgerald says. “He helped build a really cool community up in New York. He was really starting to become a leader.” On the day before the election, Jay sent Clark a Times article about lefty doomsday preppers: folks getting ready for the then-unimaginable possibility of a Trump victory. “I’m not gonna be in New York on election day,” Clark texted back. “I’m passing up that nonsense.” Then he sent his dad his Google maps route from the East Coast out to North Dakota.
“I’m completing my son’s journey,” Fitzgerald says now. “And I’m trying to do what’s right. Clark was a real activist, a real doer. I’m gonna try to make his death make me a better person, too.”
What does your wife think of you coming? I ask him. “She texted me the other day. She said she’s super proud of me.”
“Clark was a real activist, a real doer. I’m gonna try to make his death make me a better person, too.” —Jay Fitzgerald
Over a few days, I’d make attempts at finding Lorna Hanes again in her yurt at Red Warrior, a subcamp associated with the kind of direct action that invites law enforcement scrutiny. Duly committed to privacy, they have their own security checkpoint. It’s not exactly high-level: one afternoon, it’s manned by an ex-ballerina with a triangle nose-piercing and two little camp kids running around her feet eating Flaming Hot Cheetos. Still, time and time again, I’m stopped at the entrance.
Even the most peaceful minds at Standing Rock can’t ignore the efficacy of Red Warrior-style direct action. Morton County’s dramatically aggressive responses to fundamentally peaceful protest at the frontlines are a primary reason why Standing Rock became an international news story while so many other pipeline protests went undercovered. The imagery of militarized police facing off with horse-riding indigenous Americans felt grand, and representative of generations of tragedy.
By the same token, actions on the frontline wouldn’t have worked without the thousands of people standing staunch behind them. So much of the regular coverage of Standing Rock has focused on the ghastly clashes, and understandably so. But the sheer mass of the outpost is the true bulwark.
That means the “emotional support center” tipi and the “acupuncture without borders” yurt. The herbalists’ tent, where you can get an artisanal potion for a lingering dry cough whipped up from the jars of Chaparral Leaf and Slippery Elm Bark. The kitchens, where volunteers chop cactus leaves and gut turkeys and whip out hash, pasta salad, fried bread. The dusk water prayer ceremonies, where people end up teary-eyed and sniveling in the cold. The morning general meetings at the geodesic dome, where issues get passive-aggressively hashed out.
Speaking to any given person one-on-one, it’s easy enough to scoff at all of these vague good intentions. But squeeze enough of them together shouting “We must protect Mother Earth!” and a certain small profundity gets pushed forth. After just a few days, I find it tests one’s ability to stay insincere. It starts to feel like the basic fact of the camp’s existence — that is the grandly intrusive action.
When I finally do find Hanes, she’s on top of Facebook Hill. It’s the highest mount around, with the best cell reception. Traditionally, it’s where the news cameras set up and the press lingers. Now that the slope is slick and shreddable, it’s also where the really gnarly kids cluster together to bomb down on bikes
Nearby, Hanes’s sister LaDuke ably holds court with a huddle of reporters; every once in a while, Hanes punctuates a particularly good point with a little fist pump and a “yeah!” Off to the side, we chat about her foray into this life.
“It was all action,” she says. “I was told what to do, and I did it. It had nothing to do with my mouth. I’m on the ground. In the trenches. Boom. I leave the talking to the talkers.” But, she clarifies, it’s not just direct action she’s talking about. In Minnesota, while fighting the Sandpiper pipeline, there was “meeting. After meeting. After meeting.”
The DAPL standoff tends to lean toward pitched language: there is a lot of talk of missions, of tactical strategy, of battles. But in pipeline fights, it’s also the pervading mundanity of what Hanes calls the “white man paperwork” that looms again and again.
If you want to build a pipeline, you need permit approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. But the Corps often won’t review your pipeline as one single entity. Instead, under a process called Nationwide Permit 12, they analyze any given segment of your pipeline as its own “single and complete project.” It’s a kind of technicality that allows both the Corps and pipeline companies to avoid further analysis legally reserved for bigger projects. It also allows pipeline companies to begin construction without having secured all permits, relying on the force majeure of their existence and the Corps’s traditional friendliness to pipelines to ensure everything goes smoothly.
With DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners had all rights to expect that things would continue moving smoothly. Then the combination of the action on the land and the action in the courts came forward and left them anchored in place, awaiting an easement from the Corps that would allow them to cross below. “To fight these guys, you have to sit in their meetings for weeks, months, years,” Hanes says, sounding a little bored and a little proud but, mostly, resigned to her fate. Which is: more community boards, more public forums, more courtrooms. “Don’t miss one.” Then she goes off to inspect a nifty motorized wheelchair that’s doing remarkably well moving in the snow, and I lose her again.
It’s Sunday, December 4, a day that U.S. Armed force veterans from all over the country are slated to arrive. And the atmosphere in the camp has the auspicity of opening day.
The call was put out a few weeks back by Wes Clark Jr., an ex-Army officer, and the son of decorated general Wesley Clark. The idea was simple: have America’s revered vets give the movement a boost, a show of force, a stamp of approval. All week, talk has revolved around their numbers, and the estimations keep rising. It was supposed to be 500, but now it’s 2,000! I heard 3,000?! Longtime residents of the camp feel emboldened by the possibility of their presence, and understandably so. It seems inconceivable that Morton County would be as quick to act aggressively toward former soldiers as they have been against the people of Standing Rock.
The temperature is still in the 20s, but the sun has broken through, and the rays are just enough to suggest the first cracks of a yet-long-away spring, as veterans from every major U.S. combat operation since WWII, from Korea to the Balkans to Iraq, meet, and clap each other on their camouflaged-jacketed backs.
“They denied my 2-S deferment,” one grinning Vietnam vet tells another, about his bad luck in using college as a ticket out of the war. “I said, ‘Shit!’”
“That’s all you said? You should have heard what I said!”
Suddenly, the hints of promise that had come with the veterans arrival see an unlikely fruition. That morning, there had been no indication that a ruling on the easement decision was imminent. Seemingly out of nowhere, then, word trickled out in the camp: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had decided not to grant it. Rather than allowing Energy Transfer Partners to cross under Lake Oahe, the Corps would, in fact, be undertaking an Environmental Impact Statement and exploring alternative routes.
“People have said this is a make it or break it. And, uh, I guess we made it.” —Chief Arvol Looking Horse
The microphone stand next to Sacred Fire — the large, 24/7 campfire that is the central hub of Oceti Sakowin — is usually a constant, comforting source of noise. There are speeches, prayers, thrown-off announcements about rides to Portland or lessons in dog-care responsibilities. There are lots and lots of songs. Now, a rapid-fire string of speakers takes over to bask in the unexpected announcement. There’s Standing Rock chairman David Archambault II, elder Phyllis Young, the Hollywood actress Shailene Woodley.
Then the spiritual leader of the Sioux, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, comes on the mic. Minutes before, his headdress on, he’d led a pack of horses and teen riders marching down the main road of camp. Now, his voice calm and bold, he speaks of “people all over the world” who’d supported the camps, and how “their prayers are being answered. And I know that this is gonna change their life, too.”
He pauses, with crisp timing, then adds: “People have said this is a make it or break it. And, uh, I guess we made it.”
The cheers erupt, victory songs breaks out, drums are pounded, people weep. A teary-eyed native veteran in a camouflage jacket and a skirt dance away, but not before letting it be known: “Prayers work.”
Hanes and LaDuke are together near the front of the huddle, embracing, grinning big, bopping up and down in place. Nearby, a couple of aunties sit with plastic partitioned camp plates of food, not quite bothered enough to pause on the consumption of their noodles.
That night, yelps and songs come strong from the Sacred Fire. A voice on the mic calls, “All nighter!" For the first time since I’ve been to Standing Rock, the cloud coverage is minimal, and the stars are actually visible. In the dim light, between the bumpy topography of the hard, well-trod ice and the army tents popping up left and right, the place begins resembling a bustling moon colony.
The fight at Standing Rock has been a part of a larger, loosely-connected international campaign that rejects fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy sources. In the last five years, a movement to divest from fossil fuels has committed pledges from investors controlling assets in excess of $5 trillion. In 2015, plans for the Kinder Morgan pipeline were felled in Massachusetts thanks in part to grassroots efforts.
But there are already 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the United States. The network crisscrosses the nation; your home or primary water source lays closer to a pipeline than you think. And if you were planning on driving somewhere today, or heating your home sometime this winter — or brushing your teeth, or popping an aspirin, or cleaning your kitchen, or painting your bedroom — you are a willing customer of America’s well-developed fossil-fuels industry. And despite recent growth in the field, alternative energy is still very much fledgling: in the U.S., solar power delivers about one percent of total electricity.
Pipelines leak, that’s a fact. They are also the safest way we currently have of transporting oil that’s very much in demand. Current alternatives can be dramatically hazardous: in December, a propane-butane tanker train explosion in Northeast Bulgaria “decimated” a small village.
Originally, Energy Transfer Partners had requested a permit for DAPL to go north of Bismarck. The Corps marked it unfeasible, calling it a “high consequence area [with] proximity to wellhead source water.” That’s when the pipeline was rerouted South, to go by Standing Rock. But Energy Transfer Partners did not plot DAPL’s track through Standing Rock to spite the Sioux. They did it because it was the closest thing they could get to maintaining a straight line between the Bakken oil fields and Illinois.
At this base level, Energy Transfer Partners is not inherently malicious. What they are is disproportionately powerful.
For decades, the oil and gas industry has had an outsized role in dictating American policy at home and abroad. Under the Trump administration, it’s a tradition that will become hugely, almost comically bolstered. As his choice for Secretary of State, Trump has named Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. As his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, he has named Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, a man “who has built a career out of suing” the very organization he will control.
Ultimately, then, Standing Rock is as much about pipeline protests as it is vested power dynamics. Even if you believe wholeheartedly in fossil fuels — in your truck, in ingenuity in pipeline safety — it’s hard to ignore the resonance of a tiny band of people forcing action through that most American of values: pure hard work.
The bizarre, possibly unreplicatable confluence of forces that made Standing Rock an international news story had led to this: actual political power. With perilous nights in plummeting temperatures, with voices shredded raw, with hands run ragged, people who were not billionaires or CEOs chipped away actual political power.
Soon, just over a month after the rejection of the easement, the President-Elect will assume power and all of it could slip away. The appointees he’ll put in place in the federal agencies regulating the fight over DAPL will have wide latitude to reverse the Army Corps’s decision. But if the President-Elect is a threat to democracy as a whole, then Standing Rock has a been a boon to it in general. Here, in the tundra of North Dakota, a wild sprawl of life has popped up, to teach us the protocols and the potential power of peaceful, asymmetrical warfare.
Just 400 miles to the west, in November of 1876, the Lakota Sioux defeated General Custer at Little Bighorn. As far as historical precedents as to what is happening here now, it’s utterly meaningless. As far as some shit to get you going in the morning, it’s horseradish right to the nasal cavity.
On the day I’m set to leave Standing Rock, a brand new blizzard comes storming in. With it comes skepticism over the good news about the easement. “It’s propaganda!” a native veteran of Desert Storm tells me, as she stomps through the camp in her big black boots. “It’s a stall tactic ‘cause the veterans are present.”
Her face is covered with a camouflage bandana and red war paint, “‘Cause we’re still ready for combat.” Near Sacred Fire, a voice on a microphone is pleading, “Don’t leave! The fight is not over!” A man standing around with a lacrosse stick tells me it’s his “little brother of war”: if any tear gas canisters come his way, he’s ready to whizz ‘em back. Accordingly, the camp buzz has not ceased. A massive construction shed is a hive of activity, with folks streaming in and out to grab power tools. As the snow piles up, barracks and huts are still rising.
Back in the SUV, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard explains that this is the exact the kind of wobbly permanence off of which she hopes to build. The tally of people who have donated to Sacred Stone via online crowdfunding is now over 60,000; the amount of money they have donated is now over $3 million. And in the summer of 2017, Allard is planning on using those donations to open a full-time ecovillage.
“Wind power, solar power, eco bathrooms,” she rattles off. “We’re now finishing up our kitchen, our school, a medical center.” If all goes to plan, there’ll be a permanent testament to the Standing Rock Sioux way of life. “I was just informed that I’ve got an incorporated town now,” she says. “We have enough people for our own post office address.”
People had given up their lives to come here. And it seemed they weren’t quite ready to give up these new lives yet. At the front of the construction shed, a kid tells me excitedly, “We’re building.”
People had given up their lives to come here. And it seemed they weren’t quite ready to give up these new lives yet.
Meanwhile, on Route 1806, the veterans assemble to execute a peaceful march. It’s a remarkable thing to see: within the whipping winds and whiteout snow, men and women — some in traditional dress, some in tactical gear on horseback — carry heavy flagpoles and trudge out forward to the barricade. With bold chants, they vocalize the anthem of the American Indian Movement. One man runs past the front line and drops onto his back to knock out some snow angels. It’s December 5, the day the evacuation order from the Army Corps of Engineers was slated to take place. But the barricade is, for once, unmanned. And the only presence on the bridge are the Water Protectors.
“Mni Wiconi!” the marchers shout. A camp rallying cry, it’s Lakota for “Water is life.” A woman climbs on an old burnt out Jeep and encourages the people to say it again and again. “Every time you say it, it’s a prayer!” she shouts. “Every word in Lakota is a prayer!”
Later, as I drive out of the camps, the sunset starts off blazingly orange over the expanse of white, then dips with a thin line of pink over the wide, blank hills. Snow swirls come in gusts that resemble solid mass. These are bursts of winds that feel strong enough to topple steel.
After hours stuck in blizzard traffic in the dwindling sunlight, I get an opening to power through. I get to Bismarck, where I get drunk with an ex-Marine from New Jersey and chase a false rumor of Ramada Inn blackjack, and then I get home, where there is warmth and, finally, a shower. But before I go, unlikely as it is, I see Lorna Hanes standing in the middle of that one-lane North Dakota road. I stop the car, bracing for a storm of honks behind me.
Lorna! Hey Lorna! How you feeling?!
She smiles and, absentmindedly, makes an S with her finger in my snow-covered drivers-side window.
“Oh, good,” she says. “But we’re still gonna camp here.”