Feb 8, 2017
CANNON BALL — Wednesday’s bitter cold wind swept in the news to about 300 men and women camping out in opposition of the Dakota Access Pipeline that an easement to drill under the Missouri River/Lake Oahe had finally been issued.
The Oceti Sakowin protest camp quietly absorbed the news without a ripple, at least on the surface. People bundled in layers, gloves stuffed with hand warmers, went about the business of digging out abandoned campsites and cleaning up ahead of high water expected to fill the Cannonball River floodplain come spring.
No one charged the hill one-half mile away where the brightly lit drill pad looms, ready to bore the final link in North Dakota’s portion of the 1,100-mile line between the Bakken oil fields and Illinois.
Protesters aiming to stop the pipeline for fear of water contamination and destruction of sacred ground have been in the camp since August. Of the thousands once there, just hundreds remain, many determined to stay.
“We’re not charging the bridge, not anymore,” said Matthew Bishop, of Alaska, who arrived in mid-October and will leave soon to operate his seasonal business back home. “It bothers me that there’s no reaction, but the other side has got us in here where we can’t do anything.”
Law enforcement is visible to the north and west of the camp and airplanes circled overhead.
Bishop, like others in the camp, is preparing to move, but only to higher ground, despite the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s official call for protesters to return home and carry on the pipeline fight.
“I’m going to listen to the people here,” Bishop said.
Hannah Vandagrist, of Oregon, said she’ll move as far as “Facebook Hill,” so-named in the camp because cell coverage made it a mecca for people trying to connect to the internet.
The news of the easement didn’t faze her much, and she continues her work in the camp’s animal medical shelter.
“I feel like I didn’t have a large reaction. We’re not charging the (drill pad) hill; that’s not a good plan of action,” she said. “I’m staying until the pipeline is stopped or the water is safe.”
Floyd Hart is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and was sitting in one of the large green tents where his tribe is located in the camp, making plans to empty the tents and move to higher ground.
“I anticipated it to be that way,” he said of the easement. “I felt not defeated, but still in distress.”
He said the group will make its stand on treaty land inside the camp.
“I don’t know if they’ll try to bulldoze us over, or if we’ll get shot with real bullets, or rubber bullets. We’re not geared up for a riot. I believe in peace and prayer — some things are out of our hands,” Hart said.
Bryce Peppard, of Idaho, a former U.S. Navy fire control technician, came with the call-out to veterans in November and has remained ever since. He’s planning to move with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe contingent to “Facebook Hill” and said it’ll be arranged so there’s room for everybody.
“I want to stay. The pipeline’s a done deal. The fight for me is more about treaty land taken from the Indians,” he said, referring to the 19th century treaties that assigned land to tribes and are still contested. He’ll stay in the camp on treaty land, rather than “retreat” to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation across the river.
Meanwhile, volunteers and staff from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe moved though the camp this week, identifying abandoned camps and cleaning up the grounds to prevent contaminating the flood water. Man and machine worked together to haul tons of abandoned gear and ruined equipment to nearby roll-off Dumpsters.
Steve Harrison, a crew leader, was organizing the cleanup of a camp kitchen, left behind weeks ago with equipment and food stores still inside.
“We can clean up eight to 10 camp sites a day, but many people want to wait as long as they can. We need them to say what they’re taking or leaving. I volunteered for this because I want to see everyone get out safely,” Harrison said. “A lot of people want to stay until the end, but the end is going to come real soon once Mother Nature starts the melting.”
Cleanup started in earnest on Jan. 30 and large areas of the once-crowded camp are stripped bare to the ground.
Forest Borie came to the camp from Tijuana, Mexico, to protest the pipeline and stand up for indigenous treaties. He’s living in a blanket-lined summer tent, burning candles to stay warm at night.
“I’m focused on the cleanup and waiting if a window of opportunity still arises where we can peacefully represent the voice of the people who are from this land,” Borie said. “We have been supported by the entire world. I don’t know what we will do.”