Oceti Sakowin camp, North Dakota – Winter can be stark and dangerous on the Great Plains of North America.
Blizzards come unexpectedly. When they do, everything changes. Winds literally howl. Snow doesn’t just drift gently down. It lashes horizontally over a flat landscape, whiting out roads and blinding those who venture outside. Temperatures plummet to Arctic lows in a matter of minutes.
That’s what people at this camp have discovered – twice in the past seven days.
Thousands of them have come to camp out at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers to support the Standing Rock Sioux nation and its efforts to stop the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline from cross the water upstream of their reservation.
They won somewhat of a victory on Sunday December 4 when the US Army Corps of engineers denied the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, permission to dig the pipe under the Missouri River. New routes would be researched, said the Corps press release.
But even as campers – they call themselves water protectors – celebrated into the evening, the skies filled with snow-laden clouds and what had been a gentle breeze began to blow harder and harder.
Roads from the hollow where the camp sits became clogged with cars as people tried to drive to shelter.
That pelting snow driven by prairie gusts can polish ice on the highway to skating rink slipperiness. As many drivers discovered to their cost. Dozens of vehicles skidded into the roadside deeps
One of them was Ember Arthen, from Leverett, Massachusetts, on the US Northeast coast. We found her Toyota SUV fishtailed into a drift in 60km winds and white out conditions, between the camp and the nearest city, Bismarck, North Dakota.
She was okay, and had thought herself experienced enough in winter driving after coping with the many snowfalls in her home state. But that polishing effect on a plains highway caught her by surprise.
“I was going around a stuck vehicle and I just started to slide and there I was, stuck myself,” she says. “I was hoping to stay two more weeks at least in camp, but not in these conditions.”
Ember said the nighttime temperatures were fiercely cold and the snow was heavy enough to collapse even her winter grade tent. There had even been a small fire when a tent canvas roof touched a woodstove. No one was hurt.
“The mood is good,” she says, “but wary. It’s getting colder this week.”
For the tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, David Archambault, the weather means one thing: people should disband the camp and go home. He thanked the thousands who’d supported his people since the protests began, but worried that it was getting dangerous out there.
“If you’re hearing this message,” Archambault said, “you understand that’s now it’s time to go home. If [your support] is needed in the future, you’re welcome to come back. But I don’t think that you have put anybody in an unsafe situation. Go home for the holidays and be with your loved ones.”
Interestingly, that’s not quite what camp organisers are saying.
While warning those at Oceti Sakowin and outlying camps that winter is severe and dangerous, they’re asking people who are adequately prepared to stay on and keep an eye on the pipeline construction project.
Each night, and even on cloudy days, the blazing spotlights that mark the pipeline route on hills near the Missouri River seem to mock the protesters.
Camp spokesman John Bigelow, who is a member of the standing rock Sioux Nation, said that as long the lights blazed and law enforcement vehicles lined the hills, people should stay.
“As water protectors, we have a responsibility to be stewards of the water. We’re not going any where,” he said.
“Only when the [pipeline company] says they’ve stopped the drilling and called off the project, only then will we wrap the camp.”
Yet there is a problem.
Sleeping in flimsy, summer-grade tents, without stoves, or even worse, sleeping in cars, is simply not an option any more.
Temperatures in early to mid-December are scheduled to hit record lows. Signs on camp lavatories list the symptoms of hypothermia, and camp medics make rounds of the tents often to make sure people are staying warm.
There’s plenty of donated food and people to cook it. Fires are always burning somewhere. And those who have set up more elaborate shelters – Plains Native teepees with chimneys belching smoke, yurts from Mongolia or even wooden buildings insulated with straw or foam – have been welcoming of temporary guests seeking warmth.
Many of those who are maintaining a presence are Native Americans, the Sioux, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Ojibwe and many other nations. Centuries of interaction with US governments and broken treaties have only strengthened their determination to struggle for their rights.
Much depends on the incoming Donald Trump administration and whether it tries quickly to restore the pipeline project to its original route. Or if the Energy Transfer Partners company blatantly disregards the denial of permission and simply keeps drilling a tunnel through the bedrock.
If either of those happen, expect the confrontation to resume at Oceti Sakowin camp. Police, fearing this, are still blocking a highway and holding high ground north of the camp.
Whatever happens, this dispute is far from over.