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Dakota pipeline protesters face the inevitable

The main camp here, once home to thousands of Native Americans and their allies who gathered to protest the completion of the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline, is quickly turning into a gooey pit of mud.

Unseasonably warm temperatures over the weekend melted giant mounds of snow, and many of the remaining 200 or so pipeline protesters — self-described "water protectors" — are gathering their possessions and making plans to get off the 80-acre property, which sits in a flood zone near the Missouri River. The rising waters, and a federal eviction notice for Feb. 22, have forced their hands.

Others say they will stay and fight the Army Corps of Engineers, which decided last week to allow completion of the 1,172-mile pipeline. After President Donald Trump cleared the way, the corps granted an easement to Energy Transfer Partners to drill under a reservoir less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's reservation. The drilling began last week.

The tribe has argued in court that this short stretch of the $3.8 billion pipeline threatens their water supply, crosses sacred burial grounds and violates long-standing treaties between the Native Americans and the federal government. But the path forward for the fight is unclear; many are pinning their hopes on court challenges, including one scheduled Monday in Washington, D.C., seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the political — and actual — machinery. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has joined a motion by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to halt the drilling.

Horses still run free in the camp. Small packs of dogs dart about, tussling in the snow, their barks drowned out by the incessant whine of a snowmobile that wends its way through the slushy mess. Everything is white, brown, gray. The only flashes of color come from weatherworn tribal flags, banners that were jubilantly raised last summer and now, some in tatters, snap to and fro in the ever-changing wind.

In the slurry running through camp are the remains of a mostly abandoned mini-city: an unopened packet of Top Ramen, a broken shovel, a mud-soaked glove, a pacifier.

One day soon, all of this will be gone: the tepees packed away, the yurts pulled down, the abandoned tents and sleeping bags and boxes of belongings scraped up by bulldozers into waiting dumpsters and hauled off to landfills.

The question for the camp's inhabitants and visitors and supporters is whether its dismantling becomes a catalyst for renewed Native American activism or fades into the hazy nostalgia of uprisings past.

Josh Dayrider, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, has been at the camp off and on since early last year. The 30-year-old isn't quite ready to leave, but he knows departure is inevitable. 

"We're still in the fight," Dayrider said. "And we've accomplished something amazing. We woke the world up by showing how the oil companies treat the land and the people. We're still standing. We're still fighting."

Tanya Olsen stood next to her mini-camper, pulling out a mattress that had been soaked by rising waters.

"The plan is to stay until the last minute," said Olsen, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She arrived here in November. "I was never an activist. I knew very little about pipelines. But what really caught my attention was the mistreatment of the Natives here. I thought, I've got to go there. I need to stand with my people."

As she prepares to leave, Olsen says she takes solace from the impact the year-long protest has had on tribes. 

"It has brought the people of all of our nations together," she said. "It has awoken the children, the seventh generation, and it has been a learning experience for us as culture. It's sad that they went and allowed them to drill, but this hasn't been all for nothing."

From across the camp, there's a yell: "Mni Wiconi!"

Loosely translated from the Lakota language, it means "water is life," and it has become the protesters' rallying cry. The yell is picked up and repeated from different corners of the camp for a minute or so, echoing up to a snowy bluff overlooking the encampment where state and local police sit in a fleet of law enforcement vehicles, monitoring comings and goings. Quiet returns.

For the Standing Rock tribe and its supporters, the decision to allow completion of the pipeline without a promised environmental impact study came as one more slap in the face. Particularly upsetting to Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II was that he had traveled to Washington on Tuesday for a White House meeting with a Trump administration official the following day; he believed he would have one more chance to plead the tribe's case. But he arrived at Reagan National Airport to learn that final approval had been granted while he was en route. 

The snub was a sharp insult to the tribe's 8,000 members. On Friday night at the Standing Rock High School gym in Fort Yates, 25 miles down the road from the protest camp, several hundred fans from the reservation gathered to watch the home Warriors girls basketball team take on the New Salem Holsteins.

Cheers and the squeak of sneakers filled the gym, where banners hang from the rafters touting the reservation's champion teams and athletes going back to the 1940s. 

In the lobby, members of the Standing Rock high school band were holding a bake sale. Their teacher, Kim Warren, a tribal member, said she made regular visits to the main camp in the fall, believing the protest was a necessary and valuable one.

"We can't give up, especially with this new administration," said Warren, who has been teaching at the school for 18 years. "We can't give up. That's what I tell my students every day. Every struggle that they have, I tell them don't give up, keep going."

Despite assurances from the pipeline's owners that it is safe and is using the most advanced technology available, there is almost universal belief among Standing Rock tribal members that an accident is unavoidable and their drinking water will be contaminated.

"Pipelines break all the time," said Charles Bailey, 46, a tribal member, as he stood outside the gym. "Everybody knows that it's going to break at some point. At my age, I'm thinking about how is this going to affect our youth, my daughters."

As legal options dwindle and the prospect of a completed pipeline that could begin transporting more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day in two to three months appears more likely, its opponents are taking stock.

Dallas Goldtooth has been one of the leading voices of the protest, filing regular Facebook Live feeds to share the most recent developments. An environmental activist who is an Isanti Dakota from Minnesota, he wants supporters to know that their participation has not been in vain, no matter what the outcome.

"Some feel it is all or nothing, but we cannot adopt that frame of thinking," Goldtooth said. "We've seen defeat as indigenous people, but we still persist, we're still striving. Whether we get a win here or not, we've pushed the boulder down the hill and it's running. The fight never stops. It builds. It moves. It grows."

Some activists have called for more protesters to come out to the site, but the Standing Rock tribe has discouraged that, asking that opposition be directed at the local level and at a March 10 march planned for Native American rights in Washington.

The relationship between the camp's remaining inhabitants and the Standing Rock tribe has at times been prickly. The tribe welcomed the 200 or so Native tribes that gathered here in late summer and fall to help their cause, and it welcomed the national and international support that followed. But the ongoing protest, at times involving violent clashes with law enforcement from neighboring Morton County, has drained the tribe's attention and resources. 

One of the reservation's leading sources of revenue, the Prairie Knights casino hotel and concert venue, has taken a financial hit as the main road between the casino and Bismarck — normally an hour's drive — has been blocked off by state police for months, forcing patrons to make a lengthier trip.

The ongoing protest also has strained an already tense relationship with Morton County law enforcement officials, who have arrested more than 700 protesters in recent months, including members of the Standing Rock tribe. And the unrest has led to a series of bills being introduced in the North Dakota legislature that create severe penalties for protest activities, a move that Amnesty International said "would undermine the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression."

Joe Plouff, 67, a former Wisconsin state representative and an Army veteran from Prairie View, Wis., stood outside of his tent near the entrance to the Sacred Stone camp, which sits across the frozen Cannonball River from the main camp. He's not hopeful at this point that the pipeline can be stopped, but since arriving here in December, he says he has drawn inspiration from the movement and from the number of young people involved.

"Will they be demoralized if they lose this battle? Yes. Depressed? Yes? Hurt? Yes. But I see a lot of young people here and I think they will take it as a start," he said. "There's optimism because the Native Americans here have brought forward an issue that most of us have not paid attention to, and that is the safety of our water. They've taken a local issue and made it a national one."

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