Desiree Kane
Some structures at the Oceti Sakowin water protectors camp withstood the punishing blizzard. Others did not, and their inhabitants sought shelter elsewhere.

Weathering the Storm at Standing Rock as Political Battle Ensues

Jenni Monet

STANDING ROCK, ND—A door to the pavilion of the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort slammed shut behind a gust of powdery snow whipping in the frigid December day. On Tuesday, December 6, a location normally reserved for weekend concerts and comedy shows was now bustling with people—mostly veterans—who had spent the night stranded by a relentless blizzard that pounded for a second day. A network of North Dakota highways and roads were closed due to icy conditions, snowdrifts and poor visibility.

“The roads are very dangerous,” said Georgian Brown, a Lac Du Flambeau Chippewa citizen. The U.S. Navy veteran was perched on a riser where, one week earlier, musicians Jackson Browne and Bonnie Rait had performed. Now, the stage had become a makeshift living quarters. Not far from where Brown slept on a pop-up cot was where she now sat smearing peanut butter on crackers and placing them neatly on a serving tray.

“More people are coming in,” she said. “They’re cold and hungry.”

Prairie Knight’s General Manager, Everett Iron Eyes, estimates as many as 1,000 people have sought refuge at the resort, either in the Pavilion or in one of its 200 hotel rooms. “This is exceptional,” said Iron Eyes, referring to the number of weather-bound water protectors and their supporters—individuals who weren’t original guests of the hotel. “People are putting themselves directly in the elements outdoors and have nowhere else to go. It’s putting a strain on our resources.”

In the auditorium, dozens of sleeping bags were arranged across the floor. Among the rows of cushioned bleacher seats was a smattering of blankets and backpacks. Beneath the bleachers, even more people slumbered.

In the hotel, the sleeping situation was just as compromising. Water protectors, escaping single-digit temperatures and 40-mile-an-hour winds, plugged their laptops and smartphones into sockets along hallways and stairwells. There, some tried to rest before security guards shooed them away.

Luckier ones enjoyed the privacy of a hotel room.

“They’re calling this the fifth camp,” joked Cherokee filmmaker Heather Rea. The Los Angeles resident said she shared a room with as many as eight people on Monday night. Blustery conditions collapsed parts of her tent, sending her and her filmmaking team to Prairie Knights, about ten miles south.

According to Desiree Kane, a media volunteer at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, many temporary structures fell to the elements of the two-day storm.

“There were tents that flipped over with people in them. [The tents] caught on fire and burned,” Kane said.

During a second day of below-freezing winds, on Tuesday, the Miwok water protector and a fellow organizer encouraged vulnerable campers to seek shelter in a nearby Geodesic dome. It’s where dozens huddled together below heat lamps as a way to ward off hypothermia. Kane said one young man ran to the structure without any shoes.To manage overflow of people caught in the storm, the gymnasiums in nearby tribal communities Cannon Ball and Fort Yates were converted into emergency shelters, as well.

Veteran medic Sean Roberts of Washington State expressed frustration after receiving several people at an emergency unit inside the Prairie Knights Pavilion. People were without proper medications, he complained. And based on new arrivals to the Pavilion, he believed there were a growing number of cases of early onset hypothermic cases needing attention back at the Oceti Sakowin Camp.

“I think right now things appear calm, but there’s potential for mass casualties due to the conditions,” said Roberts, standing near a cardboard sign with the words “Warming Center” scribbled on its face.

In recent weeks, federal, state and county officials have each issued public statements regarding the safety of thousands of people who continue to camp on land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As of Monday, Dec. 5, their permit to occupy the area has expired.

Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II has now called on the tribe’s supporters to leave. “I'm thankful and I appreciate you being here and supporting Standing Rock, but it doesn't do us any good in an unsafe environment,” said Archambualt in a video posted on YouTube. "We have to be proud of what we did and honored by the victory,” he continued. He was referring to Sunday’s decision by the Department of Army denying a drilling permit to Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), operator of the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access pipeline.

“It’s time now. It's time to go home,” Archambault said.

RELATED: Snowstorm Slams Water Protectors; ‘We Need To Go Home,’ Says SRST Chairman

“If Chairman wants us to go, then I guess I would have to respect that decision,” said Phil Little Thunder, a Sicangu Lakota elder who has been camped out near the Standing Rock reservation since May.

But others were less agreeable.

“I’m here to protect the water,” said Alphonse LeRoy, who later sat and sang at the drum during a daylong powwow inside the Pavilion on Tuesday December 6.

A Monday December 5 court filing by ETP and its partner Sunoco Logistics Partners is requesting a swifter ruling of its complaint that would allow the companies to instantly drill beneath the Missouri River reservoir, the final element to complete the nearly 1,200-mile-long pipeline.

According to court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the companies have lost $450 million due to construction delays. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday morning, December 9.

Meantime, a spokesperson for Donald Trump said the President-elect supports completion of the project despite the intervention of President Barack Obama’s Administration.

As the pipeline battle pivots and continues to intensify in the courts, on the North Dakota prairie it remains a question of how the months-long occupation near Standing Rock will weather the political storm. Kane reflected on the structures still standing at Oceti Sakowin—the dozens of tipis that were withstanding the punishing storm.

“We know the traditional ways are a good foundation for us that carry us through life,” she said. “And in this moment those tipis are carrying us through life.”

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