FORT YATES, N.D. — Thick snowfall, howling winds and below-zero temperatures on Tuesday drove thousands of activists out of a camp near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that for months has been the hub of the movement to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
A blizzard moved in on the Oceti Sakowin camp Monday afternoon, blanketing the area with fresh snow and sending campers scrambling to reinforce the tents, yurts, teepees and wooden enclosures that have housed their growing numbers since April.
Temperatures dropped below zero overnight and gusts of wind up to 55 mph whipped through the camp. By Tuesday morning, camp organizers and medics were urging activists to take shelter 10 miles away at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort — one of the only major establishments for miles — saying their lives could be at risk if they stayed.
Teams of volunteers fanned out through the camp, checking tents and vehicles for people in trouble.
“We’re checking every lump,” one volunteer said.
The evacuation of Oceti Sakowin camp came after a momentous and at times chaotic weekend for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other anti-pipeline activists, who say the $3.8 billion project threatens water supplies and disrupts sacred sites.
Starting late last week, more than 2,000 veterans from around the country flocked to the area to demonstrate against orders from North Dakota officials to clear the camp by Dec. 5. Activists — who call themselves “water protectors” — spent days erecting tents, chopping firewood and bulking up on supplies to prepare for their arrival.
Then on Sunday, the Army Corps delivered a long-awaited victory to pipeline opponents, denying an easement that would have allowed the pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir that provides drinking water to the reservation.
Celebration over the Army Corps’s decision was short-lived. After a night of singing and dancing, a crowd of veterans and other activists numbering in the hundreds staged a march on the road outside of camp, but heavy snowfall drove many to seek shelter.
By Tuesday morning, caravans of trucks and SUVs were carrying women, children and seniors out of camp to the casino. At least two community tents, one of them housing more than 20 veterans, had collapsed and flooded with snow. Medics were treating people for hypothermia.
Roads throughout North Dakota were closed or given no-travel advisories by the state’s department of transportation. The only two gas stations in the area surrounding Oceti Sakowin camp had run out of fuel, employees said.
Every room in the Prairie Knights casino was booked for several days, leaving many activists to lay down bedding in the hallways and stairwells. The main event hall was converted into an emergency shelter, with sleeping bags and cots lining the concrete floor and a group of medics triaging patients.
Cheyenne Poor Bear, 36, was selling red T-shirts reading “Standing Rock Solid” for $20 each at a table near the event hall’s entrance. The proceeds, she said, will fund the defense of an activist accused of firing a gun at police during a clash in the fall.
Like many anti-pipeline activists, Poor Bear said she was skeptical that the Army Corps’s decision would halt pipeline construction. Being trapped under the same roof for a night would help steel people for the fight ahead, she said.
“Being here in this weather and being here together is only going to make us stronger,” Poor Bear said. “We need it now. We know this isn’t a real victory.”
Tribe members held a series of ceremonies on the main event floor. Native Americans in feathered regalia danced, beat animal-hide drums and sang songs throughout the evening.
Hundreds more people chatted and smoked cigarettes down the hall in the casino’s main gambling room, surrounded by blinking slot machines. Alcohol sales were cut off, but the main bar served chicken fingers, french fries and burgers, and a buffet stayed open late into the night.
Julian Boucher, 56, was smoking Winstons and talking with three friends at the bar while an NBA game played on a giant flat-screen behind him. Boucher, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said he has made the 280-mile drive from Sisseton, S.D., to the Oceti Sakowin camp more times than he can count in recent months to deliver handmade teepees and other supplies. He said the camp has at least a dozen teepees he sewed and erected himself, and he trusts the structures to protect any stalwarts who chose to stay behind.
“If they’ve got firewood and they keep a fire going, they’ll be all right,” said Boucher, adding that he came to the casino because he worried his truck engine wouldn’t start in the cold. “A lot of people don’t know how warm a teepee is — they’ll hold up to these winds.”
Mimi Davis, a sixth grade teacher from Chicago, drove to camp with two friends in a rented Ford Escape on Friday, saying she was drawn by the sense of unity with the anti-pipeline movement. The trio slept comfortably their first two nights, but on Monday their tent’s tarp blew off and Davis took a bad fall in the snow, soaking her boots and pants.
She spent the night “severely chilled,” she said, then started to panic when she couldn’t warm up. Her friends found her a ride to the casino in the morning, she said, and she was wrapped in an emergency blanket in the medical area. Medics took turns warming her as she lay on a cot, she said.
“I just got uncontrollably cold and couldn’t stop shivering,” said Davis, 45. “It was just brutal.”
The punishing weather and the decision from the Army Corps seemed to bring the latest phase of the anti-pipeline movement to a close. In interviews Monday, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault urged activists who had come from out of town to return home, saying their “purpose has been served.”
“It’s an opportunity for them to spend this winter, and if they celebrate holidays, to spend the holidays with their families,” he told KFGO. “I know their families are yearning for them to come home.”
In a separate interview with Reuters, Archambault said: “The current administration did the right thing and we need to educate the incoming administration and help them understand the right decision was made.”
Jason LaDucer said he made his first trip to the camp from Tacoma, Wash., in November. Days after he returned home, he saw the widely circulated images of police in riot gear spraying anti-pipeline demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas in subfreezing temperatures.
“When I saw that, I knew I had to come back,” said LaDucer, a 37-year-old from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe. “I almost felt like a coward staying home.”
LaDucer said he returned this weekend with a contingent of veterans and immediately went to work chopping wood, building teepees and helping elders stay warm. Like many others, he was spending the night in the casino’s event hall Tuesday after the wood stove in his tent died and three wool blankets weren’t enough to keep him warm. He said he plans to keep coming back and may eventually bring his teenage son when the weather gets warmer.
“We’re here to protect each other,” LaDucer said. “When everybody’s coming together, it makes your heart explode.”
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