Cannonball, North Dakota, US – When army secretary Eric Fanning announced in early December that the US Army Corps of Engineers had turned down a permit that would allow the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the news was greeted by a celebratory procession at the largest of the protest camps. Exuberant members exchanged sweets and chocolate around the central fire.
But for the longer-term residents of Camp Oceti Sakowin, little had changed.
“We’re not leaving until we can walk up to the drill bed and see that construction is gone,” said Heather Sheppard-Waters, a 32-year-old Sioux woman who works as both security and medic at the camp, on the day of the Army Corps’ announcement.
Now, about 500 campers remain, down from a peak of several thousand in November and December. Heather is among them. The camp’s central fire, considered a sacred symbol of tribal unity and of the camp’s mission, has been put out. “Our prayers were answered,” said Heather in January. “What we prayed for happened.”
And yet, in the same breath she says that apart from a lightning storm and a blizzard that “messed with their machines”, DAPL construction has been unaffected by the decision of Fanning, who had left office on January 11 (the incoming administration is set to appoint his successor.) The barricade on the road to the construction site is still standing.
“They’re still sitting up there,” she said.
History, nostalgia – and confusion
The protest against the pipeline united the seven subtribes of the Sioux Nation, known as the Seven Council Fires, for the first time in modern memory, Heather said, invoking the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, a historic victory for the Sioux and their allies that is also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
“This is history. This is what we always wanted, and here we are, living in it,” she said.
On the night before the announcement, they had been joined by hundreds of military veterans, who had arrived as part of a four-day operation spearheaded most publicly by Wesley Clark, Jr, a four-year-veteran-turned screenwriter, and the son of retired general Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO.
Matthew Snow, 35, a former paratrooper in the 173d Airborne who served two tours in Afghanistan, was among the new arrivals. “Nostalgia is definitely a part of it,” he said, explaining his decision to join the protest.
Tom Lynch, 29, who had been a military policeman in Iraq, had left his town of 800 residents in eastern Illinois. “I missed walking around with body armour on. Not gonna lie, I think it’s just the sheer bad assery element,” he joked.
Brothers Frank and Richard Gonzales, both Apache Vietnam veterans in their 60s, had also come. Being around other veterans was “spiritual,” said Frank.
Before the announcement, Loreal Black Shawl, a 39-year-old Native American veteran who was the official spokeswoman for the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock event, addressed hundreds of the new arrivals as they gathered inside a shed in the reservation town of Fort Yates.
“Fall in!” she shouted to the veterans, who were mostly dressed in military garb. “I’m not in the army any more,” one responded to her friend.
But still, they formed neat lines as a man passed by with a pail of burning sage so that, one by one, those in attendance could sweep the smoke towards them in a cleansing ritual.
“If you answered this call … I am your sergeant major. You take orders from me,” said Loreal.
But for Dylan Gaffer, 25, who had served with Matthew in Afghanistan, this wasn’t a military event, merely one that made use of his military training. “People got out of the army for a reason,” he said.
Loreal told them that there would “be no direct action” and that the tribal elders and leaders, from whom she took her orders, had ordered “peace and prayer”. Still, Direct Action Training was held each day at 2pm.
It seemed to send a mixed message. “No direct action, but also taking the fight to them,” said Tom, questioning the seemingly conflicting messages they’d received. “It’s like, ‘war, peace, war, war, peace, peace, war, peace.'”
For some, the reason for participating in the protest was a deeply personal one. “Water is life – it’s simple,” said Heather as she stood outside her teepee on the north side of Oceti Sakowin, in a pocket known as the Navajo camp. First and foremost, the Dakota Access Pipeline needed to be blocked from directly polluting her water supply.
For others, Standing Rock was a stand-in for other environmental and social issues. But for many of the younger veterans, the reasons for protesting didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the right to protest be protected. “It’s just not how you treat people. It could be PETA for all I care,” said Tom. “Because some day I might disagree with something, and if I didn’t do anything when it happened to other people, I can’t complain if it happens to me.”
But rifts quickly began to appear between the newly arrived veterans and those who had been in the camp longer, and independently, largely under the banner of Veterans for Peace.
“There’s so much confusion now,” said Albert Strickland, 70, from Savannah, Georgia who had been in the camp for weeks. “12.30 here, 2.30 here,” he said, miming the movements of a headless chicken. “It became about them. The media’s here for the vets now, it’s not here for the mission.”
“When Wes [Wesley Clark, Jr] stood up, it kinda broke the prayer,” said Albert, who has Cherokee roots and fought in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. “His heart is in the right place, but it became a different thing.”
“I grew up in the cowboy era. But I never rooted for the cowboys to win. I always thought … maybe this time,” he reflected.
In Matthew’s mind, the roles at the camp had seemed clearly defined: The protesters would protest while his group would serve as “human shields”, ideologically unaffiliated except with the idea that those with a message shouldn’t be hurt for speaking it.
“We’ll be the whipping boy,” he said. “It’s our job to absorb the impact, so the water protectors can do what they do, to allow them to protest without paying with pain.”
But with the police having disappeared, there was nothing for the veterans to shield the protesters from.
“Ever since I got here, I’ve just been haemorrhaging minutes,” said Matthew, pacing outside the tent. “Like someone cut my wrists open, and just: minutes.”
“I liked this placed better yesterday,” he added. Arriving at night, the camp had the feel of a unified winter wonderland.
But, in daylight, the divisions had become apparent, and they only seemed to be further complicated by the newly arrived veterans and the media that followed them. “Yesterday it was magical, today it’s a bit paranoid,” Matthew reflected, referring to the camp as Standing Rorschach and explaining that, like the ink blot tests, “everyone looked at it through their own little prism and came to their own conclusions”.
A way of life
But, for some, the camp had become a way of life.
“Some people are here for two days, some people have left their lives completely,” said Philip Eastman, 31, a photographer who was visiting for the third time.
Even Matthew thought about bringing his wife and children and building a new life off the grid. Civilian life in Chicago as a parent of four-year-old twins was presenting countless financial and ethical challenges.
“My kids came home from school saying ‘beaner’ [a slur against Mexicans] and we had to pull them out,” he said.
As a wounded soldier, he receives a lifetime stipend from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and, he added: “Two grand a month can go a long way on the prairie.”
The draw, for many, is clear. Heather left a job she hated at a casino for a respected role at the camp.
But it was also something more than that, she explained. “Our ancestral trauma has brought us here,” she said.
‘Jesus would have been here’
As 25-year-old Nero Celestino, from Wisconsin, chopped wood, she explained: “I feel like God has prepared me for this my whole life.”
After first coming to the camp in September, Nero enrolled at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation, and plans to begin studying the Lakota language in January.
“Growing up queer and gender nonconforming in a Catholic family in Wisconsin sucks,” she said, “so I learned how to have empathy.”
“The way I see it, every Catholic should have gone to Standing Rock.”
Nero said she called herself an atheist before coming to the camp, but now prays and believes in God. “I know Jesus would have been there on the frontline,” she said.
For others, the benefits are more worldly. “Medical at camp is better than Indian Health Service [the federal healthcare provider for 2.2 million Native Americans]. And it’s in a yurt,” said one speaker at the veteran-tribal gathering of the permanent clinic run by volunteers with nursing and medicine experience.
For John Griswold, a 53-year-old former army diver, now a creative writing professor in Louisiana, it was “the breakfast”. He wistfully described the previous day’s meal: “Elk, bacon, some kind of pico de gallo – which was the best I’ve ever had – a blueberry compote, a vegetable that had kale in it.”
“I want to do more stuff like this,” said military police vet Tom. “I’m tired of living in a small town – feels like a waste of a life.”
So, when the announcement that the pipeline would not have its easement granted came through, it wasn’t celebrated by all. Some worried that it posed a threat to their new way of life.
Cyrus Norcross, a 27-year-old Navajo veteran from Arizona who had been at the camp for many months, said: “I heard the news and I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t want it to be true.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder
On the night after the Army Corps announcement, about two dozen men and women crawled into the pitch black dome of an Inipi, a “sweat lodge” made of willow trees covered with hide. They were there to sit knee to knee in a ceremony of mental and physical purification: the sweat.
A young man lifted hot rocks one by one from the fire outside into the lodge. After each round of seven, he closed the hide flap. A member of Oklahoma’s Tonkawa tribe presided, telling stories, leading songs, joking.
He called the vets who had come to Standing Rock warriors.
“Wes Clark told me that this was a place that could cure PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he said.
But after the first of four rounds pouring water over the rocks, former army diver John excused himself and crawled out into the snow. “I think I still have a little PTSD from confined spaces,” he said.
For more than an hour, the others stayed inside in the heat and steam. The re-emergence into the light is said to represent liberation from the physical universe. Inipi means “to live again” in Lakota.
In the inaugural address to the visiting veterans, the chairman of the Standing Rock Reservation, Dave Archambault II, had said: “You are not here to choose death, you are here to choose life.”
Suicide rates for veterans are much higher than average. And among the general population, suicide rates are highest among young Native American men. For those who came to be warriors or human shields, this was a subtle warning not to choose “life” by way of tempting its opposite.
“Everyone walked away from their lives and came looking for meaning,” said Matthew. At the camp, some could combat the urge to quit life with the possibility of choosing a new one. It seemed to offer instant integration and a clear moral code.
“A kind of ‘collective effervescence,'” said Matthew, borrowing one of sociologist Emile Durkheim’s well-known terms.
An age of protest – and performance
This moral code will likely surface once again in light of US President Donald Trump’s most recent actions. Trump has gone forward with his campaign promises, signing two exective actions that would advance the building of the Dakota Access pipeline less than two months after the Corps of Engineers rejected the permit, with the support of former President Barack Obama, in response to the growing pressure from protesters.
“I see this as the start of the Trump era,” said John, citing “systemic racism, starting with the decision for where to put the pipeline – and how different the reaction has been to those peckerwoods in Oregon.” For six weeks last winter, an armed group occupied a wildlife refuge in the American northwest. They were acquitted in October.
Army veteran Dylan Gaffer had taken time off from college in New York, where he said his classmates celebrated him for volunteering. But in pro-Trump territory: “It was totally different for me,” said veteran Tom Lynch. “I’m being vilified for this. The pipeline is life at home.”
Tom hoped to leave his job as a meat inspector and to open a business that would hinge, he thought, on the economy of rural Illinois, near the DAPL’s southern terminus. “[Everything] depended on the pipeline running. But now I don’t really want the pipeline to run,” he said. “Do you think I wanted to learn what I learned this weekend?”
For those who believed that the system was broken but that all ways of fixing it weren’t, their presence at a protest implied a simple hope: that solutions were possible.
But for Matthew, the dissonance between his conscience and the country’s was becoming too great. “I think I’m done with America,” he said, contemplating moving to Chile.
Tom, Dylan and John all expressed a plan to return to Cannonball. So did 33-year-old Arturo Ferreira, a combat veteran who worried that the vets and the media that followed them had helped frame the protests as what he called a classic “American history moment”.
“All bleak, and everybody’s hurt and there’s this hopelessness: and then all of a sudden the man on his white horse rides in … and we win, and we’re gone in two days,” Arturo said.
A four-page “operations order” had been circulated to participants in Wes Clark’s “Veterans Stand For Standing Rock” event. “Now looking at it, it was just a movie script,” Arturo said. “That’s the new American culture, right? Just play to the camera.”
Looking forward: A new template for community and purpose
Storms and plummeting temperatures have driven all but the “diehards,” as some campers call themselves, from the land between Highway 1806 and the Cannonball River. To escape potential flooding from the thawing of the winter’s snowfall, many of the remaining hundreds are shifting camp to the high ground of “Facebook Hill” – the best spot for connectivity in Oceti Sakowin.
“Everyone’s cleaning up, packing and moving – we’re not leaving, though,” said Heather.
Those who have stayed talk about a sense of community. “This is something we waited for for hundreds of years now, why let go of that? We have to harness that unity,” Heather reflected. “We’ve all bonded a lot closer due to the fact that we’ve gone through this.”
The other draw most commonly invoked is the clarity of purpose the camp provides. Veterans Dylan and John even returned for a week in January. “I would much rather be there with people helping each other for a goal I believe in, than being bothered with petty stuff in New York,” said Dylan.
In spite of the sacrifices, or because of them, the protesters feel there is more to gain in camp, and after Trump’s decision they may well be needed.
“My only finger that’s not frostbitten is my thumb,” Heather laughed. And then, as if surprised to hear herself say it, she added: “I like being here.”
Adam Valen Levinson is the author of The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah (W.W. Norton, 2017), and a sociology fellow at Yale University.