Mary Annette Pember
Shucking dried corn for winter.

Bracing for Winter: DAPL Water Protectors Shuck Corn, Build Shelter, Prepare for –35 Temps

Mary Annette Pember

LaDonna Bravebull Allard was shucking corn that had been drying in the autumn sun at Sacred Stone Camp, one of the water protector camps opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock.

Women of a certain age, including myself, seemed compelled to join her. Wordlessly, we set up our camp chairs and seized pieces of the corn; there was something uniquely satisfying about twisting the dried kernels free of their cobs. We fell into a rhythm seated there in the sun, a summer sun that was quickly moving into fall. The shadows it created had grown longer, and its rays a bit thinner.

“Yes, it’s time to prepare for winter,” Allard said. The dried corn will taste good when added to soup during the months ahead.

“The cold weather comes fast in North Dakota, and once here it stays for a long time,” she said.

Thus preparations began for the cold weather that is serious business on the plains of North Dakota, where winter temperatures can dip to minus-35 degrees, and winds can gust up to 100mph.

“I was gathering together all the balaclavas and pilot-cap winter hats that were donated, and one of the volunteers said, ‘Oh, we don’t need those, do we?’ I told her, ‘Oh yes we do,’ ” Allard said.

Although numbers of residents at the various water protector camps have fallen from the summer’s high, several hundred still remain. Exact numbers are difficult to nail down and vary widely according to camp leaders. Camp populations grow over the weekends when people come out for a couple of days to show support.

A young Native woman from Arizona said she and her group of 35 people from various Southwestern tribes were committed to staying through the winter.

“We are here for the duration, but we don’t really know what to expect,” she said as she laughed nervously.

Fortunately, Allard and others from northern tribes do know what to expect and have reached out to various sources, both traditional and modern, for help.

“Our people survived here; there are still some of us left who remember what our ancestors taught us,” Allard said.

She thinks that the work surviving the winter will provide new information about how traditional indigenous and modern technologies can work together.

For instance, Wahleah Johns of the Navajo Nation and Project Manager for the Black Mesa Solar Project, and Barrett Rafferty of GivePower, a nonprofit organization founded by SolarCity, visited the camps to assess what sort of energy production assistance was needed.

The Black Mesa Solar Project is part of the Black Mesa Coalition, a consortium of Navajo and environmental groups that works to address water depletion, natural resource exploitation and health promotion on the Navajo reservation. John’s work with the Solar Project includes helping the Black Mesa region transition from coal to solar power.

Rafferty is a consultant with GivePower and has worked to create community-based solar projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Solar City is a for-profit provider of solar energy.

They met with Allard and James Northrup III, Ojibwe from the Fond du Lac Reservation, who was building several traditional Ojibwe waaginogaans, domed lodges made from yellow birch and ash tree poles. Northrup, a cultural resource teacher, brought several truckloads of poles to build lodges that he said could withstand the winter.

Indeed, a helper who looked to weigh at least 180 pounds climbed over the frame of the waaginogan, which appeared to support him easily.

“We put tarp as the final covering over the lodge but have to keep it pulled tight so the wind can’t get ahold of it,” Northrup said.

If properly constructed, the dwellings are also waterproof, according to Northrup.

The waaginogans are insulated with various donated materials available at the camp.

“It will stay really warm if we have a fire, but if we invite Grandfather Fire inside, we have to ensure there is a hole for him to exit too,” he said.

The lodges measure about 35 feet long by 15 feet high. Johns and Rafferty consulted with Northrup and Allard and are planning to provide several small solar panels that could be attached to the lodges and provide power for electric devices such as refrigerators and computers. 

It’s unclear exactly where campers will stay over the winter. According to Forum News Service, the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, is located on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, land that is flood-prone and provides little protection from the wind. Standing Rock Sioux tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told Forum News Service that talks are underway about relocating the main camp.

The wide plain is not a good location for a winter camp, according to Archambault.

“I’m concerned about the safety of the people,” he said. “When it gets cold in North Dakota, people don’t realize it get 35 below zero…and that’s not just for one day. It can last for a week. Camping in a tent is not realistic.”

In addition, Forum News service said, the land is prone to drifting snow as well as flooding.

Cody Hall of the Cheyenne River Tribe, a leader at the Red Warrior Camp, told Forum News that many people want to remain in the main camp. Archambault, however, wants to ensure that there is a plan if the camp is moved.

“We want to make sure the community is okay with this,” he said.

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