Dakota pipeline protesters dig in as Trump nears the Oval Office

CANNONBALL, N.D. - Amy Lewis was driving through South Dakota when she got the news.

She switched on her car radio on election night to hear that Democrat Hilary Clinton was losing must-win states, that Donald Trump was about to become president-elect of the United States, and that Republicans would retain control of both houses of Congress.

Lewis began to cry.

She’d been on her way to Oceti Sakowin, one of three camps set up near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Trump has pledged to expand fossil fuel exploration, owns stock in the pipeline and took campaign contributions from a pipeline executive.

“I was like everyone else — I couldn’t believe it,” said Lewis, a member of the Ponca tribe of Nebraska who lives in Austin, Texas. “I didn’t even want to come. Stopping any of this with a Republican house and Senate is going to be next to impossible.”

But then Lewis called her mother, who opposes the pipeline but had worried for her daughter’s safety.

“She said, ‘I want you to be there now, more than I ever have,'” Lewis said.

Lewis completed her journey the next day and soon found herself surrounded by well over 1,000 people at a camp that appeared unmoved by the ascendancy of a pro-oil president-elect.

Actions continued as the week drew to a close. Protesters blocked Highway 6 northwest of the camp Friday and locked arms at the entrance to a Dakota Access staging area just west of Mandan on Saturday.

Organizers have been planning a series of demonstrations nationwide Tuesday since before the election. The goal of those 153 events nationwide — including one at Standing Rock with activist Robert Kennedy Jr. — is to push President Obama to take action to delay or stop the 1,172-mile project through executive action.

That message is more urgent now, said Jade Begay, an organizer on the ground at Oceti Sakowin who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

“Our fight has gotten a lot harder, but it actually makes us stronger,” Begay said. “This is our time to put pressure on President Obama.”

The Obama administration took action this fall, but the decisions lacked finality.

Three federal agencies forced the delay of an easement to drill beneath Lake Oaheto complete the final 90-115 feet of North Dakota construction in September, just hours after a judge ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had properly consulted Standing Rock on the project’s potential impact to culturally sensitive sites.

Obama said a re-route was on the table earlier this month, but the Justice Department said Thursday it plans to offer a “path forward” on the easement.

Trump’s election has given pipeline supporters hope for an end to such rhetoric, and with good reason.

Trump has between $500 million and $1 million invested in the pipeline, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the Federal Election Commission prior to Nov. 8. Kelcy Warren, CEO of Dakota Access operator Energy Transfer Partners, contributed $103,000 to Trump’s campaign.

Trump’s priorities for his first 100 days include a re-start to the stalled Keystone XL pipeline and an across-the-board expansion of oil, coal and natural gas.

In a call with analysts last week, Warren called Trump’s commitment to infrastructure “refreshing.”

None of that news has slowed the steady growth of the North Dakota opposition camps.

The flags of hundreds of indigenous tribes worldwide fly in the right-of-way along Highway 1806 leading to Oceti Sakowin and line the well-traveled dirt paths that weave through it. All day and all night, a sacred fire burns, prayers are spoken or sung over the beat of traditional drums and campers paint banners bearing phrases like “NoDAPL,” “Water is Life” or “Defend the Sacred.”

The camp has grown markedly in the past two weeks, Begay said, with at least 20 new large tipis erected and the placement of additional solar panels for electricity. A wooden enclosure for the camp’s water supply is rising just south of the sacred fire and yurts are popping up all along the grounds to prepare for the coming winter.

“It’s definitely grown,” Begay said. “I don’t think anyone’s lost spirit.”

Sonny Iron Cloud, 25, has watched the growth, as well. He left Sioux Falls to come home to Standing Rock a few months ago.

He’s left the camp a few times since then, and each time he’s returned to find larger crowds, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays.

“It gets really packed here on the weekends,” Iron Cloud said.

Iron Cloud didn’t see any sort of exodus after the election Tuesday — or even a slowing of the visitors to the tipi where he and a group of young men care for a handful of Crow Creek Reservation horses.

“People stayed,” Iron Cloud said. “People are here until the end.”

Philadelphia-born Joe Kirby, 31, arrived Thursday from Portland, Oregon. Kirby spent months working with Occupy Philadelphia activists in 2011 and says he’s ready to stay in North Dakota as long as he can be useful to the cause.

“Now it seems bigger,” Kirby said of Trump’s victory. “If anything, it makes me even more committed to change things.”

Twelve students from Linfield College in McMinville, Ore., arrived Friday to volunteer. They’d planned their trip in a Linfield vehicle 10 days before learning the election’s outcome.

Sarah Stark, a 21-year-old senior, was disappointed in the outcome, but it didn’t detract from their desire to “do something beyond online activism” to help the protest movement.

“I think it gave our group more of a reason to come,” Stark said.

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II formally responded to Trump’s election Wednesday, urging President Obama to “set a lasting and true legacy and respect the sovereignty and treaty rights of Standing Rock and tribal nations across the U.S.”

On Friday, however, Archambault II took a conciliatory tone, saying the tribe is ready to work with anyone on the issue of alternative, renewable energy.

“When the new president made his speech, he said, ‘We need to unify,’” Archambault II said. “I’m looking at that and saying we can take the good with the bad.”

The bad is expected in tribal communities, he said.

Historically, the election of one presidential candidate over another has made scant difference in the day-to-day lives of indigenous communities. Democrats and Republicans alike have overlooked tribal struggles and sidestepped tribal sovereignty for hundreds of years.

“We understand that there is a lot at stake with this new president, but when you think of the Great Sioux Nation, we’ve had a lot of issues,” he said. “We’ve lived with high poverty rates regardless of who the president is.”


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