It’s been months of freezing cold and dark days at the Standing Rock encampments on the North Dakota plains, where water protectors still go about their routines while living next to pieces of the Dakota Access pipeline that await final construction under the Missouri River. Last week, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault and the tribal council voted to disband the camps. On Tuesday, President Trump signed orders to try to fast-track not only the Dakota Access pipeline construction but also to restart the Keystone XL. Activists across the nation immediately protested.
Trump’s orders had not changed the position of the council on disbanding the camps.
Journalist Jenni Monet, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, has been covering the Standing Rock situation since last summer and has been at the camps since early December. This morning, Archambault told her that Trump’s orders had not changed the position of the council on disbanding the camps.
I asked Monet to describe how the water protectors are taking this succession of events.
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn: What’s your understanding of what happened Tuesday morning—what did President Trump do, in effect?
Jenni Monet: Tuesday’s executive memorandums advancing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and the pipeline industry, overall, was a pro-energy agenda at work, one that had been predicted from a Trump administration. The memos, while more symbolic than substantive, have helped set a tone in his administration, promoting a fast-tracked system toward implementation of such energy projects, as opposed to a thorough Environmental Impact Statement study and review process that is only beginning with regard to the Dakota Access pipeline.
Loeffelholz Dunn: Can—or will—the Standing Rock Sioux challenge the order in courts because the Environment Impact Statement process has begun?
Monet: In a statement prepared by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Chairman Dave Archambault II said the tribe plans to legally challenge the Trump administration’s decision to ignore the Environmental Impact Statement review that was entered into the federal register on Jan. 18. The formal step by the U.S. Army Corps issues “notice of intent” to begin the EIS as part of an easement request by Energy Transfer Partners, operator of the Dakota Access pipeline, to cross over Lake Oahe.
The tribe feels any violation of this step is unlawful and disregards treaty rights that have been acknowledged by the U.S. Army.
Loeffelholz Dunn: Have you been to the camps to know what the resistance’s leadership has in mind going forward?
Monet: Interestingly enough, there was more display of activism on the streets across America than there was at Standing Rock. Among the network of encampments, it was business as usual, with people chopping wood and cleaning up the massive amounts of debris that others have left behind. Perhaps two dozen people walked to the Backwater Bridge blockade to pray, a demonstration that lasted less than an hour.
“The fire exists within them and now is the time to let them reignite.”
But according to one leadership group known as the Oceti Sakowin Headsman Council, it issued a statement to me just moments before I went live on MSNBC to discuss President Trump’s memos. In the statement it called for mass civil disobedience in communities around the world, saying, “The fire exists within them and now is the time to let them reignite.” And by late afternoon, it appeared that several cities worldwide had heeded this call. As seen on Facebook, live streams captured mass demonstrations from coast to coast. In Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, to name a few.
Loeffelholz Dunn: Have you heard how this might affect Sioux Chairman Archambault’s position and the council vote the other day to disband the encampments?
Monet: Even on Jan. 20, the day the council made the unanimous decision to remove the camps, there was also conversation about the legal battle that lies ahead in advancing the EIS. A member of the tribe’s outside litigation team, Jan Hasselman with Earth Justice was present at the meeting and provided an update to the council regarding strategy. And so, the tribe has been fully prepared for a Trump challenge. Tuesday’s executive memos are less of a surprise when examining some of the issues impacting daily life closer to the reservation.
As early as the first week of January, Chairman Archambault along with state and environmental officials began expressing concern over a known flood plain come spring where the majority of water protectors remain camped out, including the Oceti Sakowin and Rosebud camps. There’s also been ongoing concern about reopening a nearby bridge that has been closed since late October, a road block that the tribe has said has negatively impacted their casino revenue, the main source of economic development for the tribe.
Yet, the founder of the Sacred Stone camp and Standing Rock tribal member, LaDonna Allard, has said that she will keep her camp open. According to Allard, the entire encampment, where as many as 1,500 people have lived at one time, is held on lands owned privately by her and her extended family.
On Tuesday evening, Allard turned to Facebook as she did in the early call for water protectors last spring, saying to all who journeyed to Standing Rock: “All of you are welcome in my home and on my land. You are welcome to come back and you are welcome to come stand with us. Because we will continue to stand.”
Loeffelholz Dunn: Were the water protectors surprised by Archambault’s call to disband the camps?
Monet: It’s a unique time at camp because there has been such a mass exodus of people, including familiar faces that at one time were considered lead organizers of the grassroots movement situated on the ground at the network of encampments.
The tribe has been fully prepared for a Trump challenge.
While it’s difficult to get an exact count, I would estimate there are anywhere between 600 and 800 people who remain living there, and that number keeps dwindling by the day. Some of the remaining water protectors are people like Charlotte Cobb [Oglala Sioux], who say it’s time to listen to the tribe and respect their wishes of others to leave their homeland.
But it seems the majority of water protectors are seeking ways to stay.
One man, Michael Little Feather [Chumash], said he gave up his job and his home to stand with Standing Rock. “I have nowhere else to go,” he said. The 44-year-old California man arrived in August battling drug addiction. He said he’s been clean ever since he started praying at camp and credits his role as a security guard at Oceti Sakowin for giving him a sense of purpose.
Loeffelholz Dunn: You’ve been at Standing Rock this week and off and on over the past few months. And as you’ve stated, there are currently relatively few water protectors left in the camps. That must be a low point for morale and organization. Do you see this changing now?
Monet: I arrived to Standing Rock the day of the dog attacks on Sept. 3 and have made as many as five visits to the reservation before embedding myself here in December. I have seen this movement at its height, in terms of people power. And with the number of people who remain at the camps presently, I often find myself wondering whether the dynamics were similar to before the movement grew, in the early summer months. It’s difficult to say. I wasn’t here.
I can only speak to the fact that the winter months have brought a sense of survival I have not yet witnessed until now.
Propane trucks arrive on Fridays and the lines are long to fill them up. People stand sometimes three hours or longer to wait to fill their small tanks to last them for the week. Meantime, firewood—dry firewood—is scarce. One delivery arrived in the morning and the supplies were gone within a couple of hours. As one water protector beamed that day, it paid to be “an early bird.”
Despite the executive memos and the call to leave, there are many people in the camps who are making plans to move elsewhere, either to Sacred Stone or onto private lands in the surrounding area. The notion is that as long as the DAPL crews remain, so too will the water protectors.
“It’s important that we fight that black snake before Mother Earth heals her way in a catastrophic way,” said Donald “Duck” Long Soldier [Oglala Sioux]. “We need to stand together.”
Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz is the former creative director at YES!, where she directed artistic and visual components of YES! Magazine, and drove branding across the organization for nearly 15 years. She specializes in infographic research and design, and currently works with The Nation, in addition to YES! She previously worked at The Seattle Times, The Virginian-Pilot, Scripps Howard Newspapers, Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Connecticut Post, The San Diego Tribune, The Honolulu Advertiser. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently serves on the board of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association. Tracy speaks English.