The Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Is Unprecedented — And 150 Years In The Making

Streaming, posting, and updating from "Facebook Hill" in the Sacred Stone Camp, thousands of protesters have made their fight impossible to ignore.

As the sun rose high in a perfect blue sky on late Saturday morning, Precious Brown sat on a rock overlooking the sprawling protest encampment at Sacred Stone Camp, trying to get her 10-month-old son, Kassian, to smile for the camera. Her husband, David Red Bear Jr., tried calling his name, but he ignored him entirely, staring at the ground, his pants, anything but the camera. A journalist, up on the hill to grab some cell service, started jumping up and down behind David, making faces and sounds to get Kassian to break into a laugh. Nearby, a woman with a MAKE AMERICA NATIVE AGAIN baseball cap scrolled through her phone, trying to upload pictures.

“Facebook Hill,” as the slight rise in the grassy camp has become known, is the only place where you can really capture the extent of the camp, which sits just outside the current boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation, about an hour south of Bismarck, North Dakota, and the thousands of people who have come here to memorialize what has become a truly historic moment for Native Americans.

If you’re a member of the Standing Rock tribe in North Dakota, you’ve become accustomed to the United States government breaking its promises. It broke them in 1877, when gold was found in the Black Hills and the government simply reworked the boundaries of the reservation to cut the Black Hills out. As the Supreme Court of the United States would later declare, “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” The government broke its promises again, 10 years later, when the Dawes Act effectively opened up their reservation to white settlement. And in the late ’50s, it broke its promise by damming the Missouri River, flooding more than 50,000 acres of farmland and displacing nearly hundreds. Today, elders recall playing in that river before it was dammed — and the difficulty of finding homes and jobs after their primary way of life was taken from them.

“There’s no denying that for some Americans, the decks have been stacked against them, sometimes for generations."

For those on the reservation today, life requires a long series of navigations: of the health care system, which is dismal, and the educational system, which is failing. A report by the US Commission on Civil Rights found that “our nation’s lengthy history of failing to keep its promises to Native Americans includes a failure of Congress to provide the resources necessary to create and maintain an effective health care system of Native Americans.” When President Obama visited the Standing Rock Reservation in 2014 — only the second president to make such a visit since Franklin D. Roosevelt — he, too, made promises.

“There’s no denying that for some Americans, the decks have been stacked against them, sometimes for generations,” Obama said. “And that’s been the case for many Native Americans. We’ve got a long way to go, but if we do our part, we can turn the corner, we can break old cycles, we can give our children a better future.”

So when the Dakota Access oil pipeline began to snake its way through a swath of land just north of the reservation boundary, desecrating sacred sites and raising potential threats to their water supply, it wasn’t just another broken promise. This time, the Standing Rock tribe, joined by a coalition of indigenous and environmental activists, have fought to protect their land and their water, wielding a potent combination of nonviolent protest and social media documentation to ensure that the promise of safe drinking water and the preservation of their cultural history would remain unbroken.

This past weekend, the protest swelled well past 2,000. Members of 280 tribes and more than a dozen companies have arrived to pledge their support, ranging from infants-in-arms to 86-year-old grandmothers in wheelchairs; to date, the protesters have raised more than $850,000 via its various GoFundMe and FundRazr pages. And while a judge ruled against the tribe’s motion to halt the pipeline last week, a subsequent statement from the US government, saying it would stop construction until further consultation with the tribe, seems motivated, in no small part, by the visibility of the protests and the sentiment accumulated around them.

Supporters and press from around the world have flocked to the camp, incited by video, images, and narratives shared on Facebook. A Democracy Now! video, posted on September 4, shows protesters from the camp clashing with guards and dogs from a private security firm. In the video, a helicopter hovers overhead as small groups of protesters, including young children, cross the property line to face off against anonymous, heavily sunglassed enforcers. Men recover from pepper spray as dogs bite at protesters and horses; the camera zooms in on a dog with blood on its nose. Other videos of the protests from BuzzFeed, Fusion, and Indigenous Environmental Network have amassed millions of additional views.

For Native Americans, who make up less than 1% of the current US population, this sort of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment is nothing new. But the visibility — and the inability of non-Native Americans to look away as these images flash through their social media feed — represents an unprecedented opportunity: to shed light on a government that says that Native Lives Matter but acts as if they do not, and to point to the ways that the refuse of capitalism disproportionately affects the poor and disenfranchised.

Standing Rock is a protest 150 years in the making. And for all the fickleness of hashtag activism, the alacrity of its spread, and the sheer amount of support it’s accumulated, point not to momentary distraction on social media, but to a movement. “Our freedom is in our DNA,” camp coordinator Phyllis Young told a packed audience at the center of camp. “And we will never stop until we have accomplished our way of life, which is the most beautiful in the world.”

The specific focus of the protesters is stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline. Its current route goes through land once part of the Standing Rock Reservation — considered sacred by the tribe and home to ancient burial sites, sites of prayer, and cultural artifacts. Leaks from the pipeline could additionally threaten the water supply for the reservation as a whole. The threats to the Standing Rock land and health have sparked larger, essential conversations about the rights of tribes and environmental justice broadly. The thousands at Sacred Stone Camp are here to protect the water, but they’re also here to protest: the systematic mistreatment of Native Americans by the American government, the impunity of big business when it comes to leaks, spills, contaminations, and other unintended but often ignored side effects of making money in America.

As a woman from the Northwest Ontario Nation put it, “When one of our sacred lands is violated, it is all of us that is being violated.” That’s the sentiment that has drawn so many tribes and indigenous people together, including those who have historically been seen as enemies. “It’s huge that the Crow are here,” Red Bear said. “There’s old, old, bad blood between the Crow and the Sioux. We’d never go to their powwow or something like that. But their chief is here. They brought us buffalo.”

The lived experiences of Native Americans in America vary wildly, but the likelihood of living in poverty, being affected by alcoholism, or struggling to find a job rise exponentially based on the size and remoteness of a reservation — and the eight Sioux reservations, of which the Standing Rock Reservation is a part, are among the largest, most remote, and, as a result, most impoverished.

But at the Sacred Stone camp, there was no talk of difference — only sameness of purpose. Whether Palestinians, Mayans, Alaskan Natives, Maori, participants in #BlackLivesMatter, or members of dozens of other indigenous communities, unity sprung from centuries of oppression, mistreatment, and social injustice. “What’s happened here is not right,” Terrell, from the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, in New York, told me. “It’s as simple as that.”

In camp, there’s no doubt that Native Lives Matter. It’s one of the few places off reservation where Native Americans form the clear majority. At the center of camp, Native Americans, with precious few exceptions, were the only ones given the microphone to speak, testify, or pray. Speakers address the fellow Native protesters as “relatives"; Joyce, a 76-year-old member of the Standing Rock tribe who’d traveled from Denver, described the feeling at camp as "the biggest love — we are all one people!”

Once protesters leave the camp, however, they receive far different treatment. On Monday, a deputy county clerk in Minot, North Dakota, was officially reprimanded after suggesting on Facebook that the tribe could keep their sacred land, but “stop the monthly checks and ALL the government payouts! Stop all the subsidies and hand outs ... The government has paid out enough over the last few hundred years. Enough is enough!”

On the ground, harassment and vitriol played out as Native Americans left the camp to replenish supplies. Earlier in the week, Rhea and Paula, who’d driven in from the Onondaga Reservation in upstate New York had gone into Bismarck to load up on supplies at Walmart. Their SUV, painted with "#NoDAPL" and "Mni Wiconi" (water is life), attracted the attention of a Trump supporter, who approached them in the parking lot and told them, “You know it’s going to happen no matter what.” At a different Walmart between eastern Montana and the Sacred Stone Camp, a Walmart employee sought out a family, members of the Gros Ventre tribe, in the corner of the store just to tell them, “I don’t agree with what you’re doing here.”

“My biggest fear is that something’s going to happen — someone’s going to killed and then we’ll have a civil war."

The ranchers in the area surrounding the camp and the proposed pipeline are increasingly on guard: Several, who didn’t wish to be named for fear of retaliation, were wary that protesters would harm their livestock or land. “These are bad people, thugs from out of state,” one said, adding that he’d been called "motherfucker" and does not feel safe driving the road past the camp. “They don’t have any respect for what we’re doing, our lives or anything.”

“My biggest fear is that something’s going to happen — someone’s going to killed and then we’ll have a civil war,” another rancher said. “What can I do if it’s one of me and 4,000 of them?” He’s now carrying a gun. “If I feel threatened, I’ll stick up for myself.” And though there were rumors that members of camp were armed, despite official camp rules against weapons of any kind, and that police officers had been threatened with scalping, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said it had not heard of such threats against any of its officers.

At least two dozen members of the state patrol were at the protest at the state capitol on Friday, arranged in military-like rows and wearing riot shields. The North Dakota National Guard has manned checkpoints on the road between the camp and Bismarck since September 8, ostensibly to keep the peace and make sure drivers know to be cautious on the two-lane highway, whose speed limit is 65 miles an hour.

On Friday, Cody Hall — who’d been featured in footage and photos of two separate protests on the pipeline construction site — was pulled over from the checkpoint with expired tabs, then arrested on trespassing charges stemming from attempts to stop bulldozers from further desecrating sacred sites. Driving back from the camp on Saturday afternoon, a half dozen police cars were dispersed throughout the 40-mile road between Bismarck and the Standing Rock Reservation, including at a speed trap outside of the tiny settlement of Huff.

But this sort of harassment is simply a more public version of what Native Americans tell me they endure off the reservation. Over the last 10 years, the Native American population in Bismarck has increased from 3.39% (1,883) to 4.5% (2,757), but over the weekend, residents seemed nonplussed or unpersuaded by the #NoDAPL protests. Aliya, a junior in high school and a member of the Standing Rock tribe, says that part of what she loves so much about the camp is how people actually smile at each other. “It’s not like when you go into town, when people might look away or ‘accidentally’ bump your shoulder as you walk past.”

There were a handful of Bismarck residents and families at the rally at the capitol, but there were no signs in the neatly kept yards in town, no markings on the trucks and SUVs that seemed to fill every driveway. The sentiment in town is divided: One woman in her twenties told me that about a third are in support, a third think the tribe’s objections have come too late in the process, and a final third have no idea anything’s happening.

The local paper, the Bismarck Tribune, has been criticized for its coverage of the protest, which included an editorial from the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council declaring that the “full story isn’t being told.” On Sunday, the front page was a picture of a massive tower of water bottles. In a live video of protesters chaining themselves to construction equipment, posted to Facebook by local CBS affiliate KX News on the morning of September 14, the comments split between support and thinly veiled racism: “There is more hate there at the protest site then the whole state,” a North Dakota resident wrote, adding, "QUIT LIVING IN THE PAST OR GO BACK TO YOUR TEEPEES AND FIRES AND DON’T USE ANY OF OUR!!!! oil.”

Red Bear, who is 15/16 Standing Rock Sioux, says that he and his young family do their best not to leave the reservation unless they have to: “They say they don’t racially profile, but you know..." he said, trailing off. “We have our own rules, our own laws, our own police. We stay where they are.” The desire to stay on the reservation — either because the reservation is their sacred homeland, or because of implicit and explicit hostility — has made it difficult for the tribe’s 6,171 members to rise out of poverty: 43% of the reservation lives below the poverty line, 16.6% live in extreme poverty. Only 15% of residents have a bachelor’s degree. Drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse are common.

To understand why — and why this particular protest has gained so much traction — you have to zoom out: to the larger state of Native Americans in the United States, but also to over a century of broken promises to the Sioux in general and the Standing Rock tribe in particular. Each of these issues can be readily traced to the original genocide of Native Americans by land- and gold-hungry explorers, followed by a century of purposeful neglect and mistreatment, attempts to eradicate culture, and generalized neglect.

In 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie established what was known as the “Great Sioux Reservation,” which encompassed the whole of South Dakota, including the Black Hills, which are sacred in the Sioux tradition. The treatment stipulated that no changes in the boundaries would be made unless approved by a full three-fourths of adult Sioux males. But the reservation was decreased in size (in 1877, after gold was discovered in the Black Hills), split into parcels and opened to white settlement (in 1888, when the Dawes Act was applied to the Sioux Reservation), and flooded and taken from them (in the late ’50s, when the government installed five dams on the Missouri River).

“We’re a sovereign nation, but we’re not."

That flooding resulted in the loss of 22,000 acres of waterbed, 55,944 acres of land, much of it prime farming land, 95 miles of main roads, three rodeo arenas, three sawmills, and 190 housing units — all Standing Rock. Those who lost their homes and livelihoods were relocated elsewhere on the reservation, many in one of the 650 homes maintained by the Standing Rock Housing Authority or low-income HUD housing — low-slung, downtrodden buildings that function as the reservation equivalent of the projects. Most of these homes can be found in the reservation headquarters in Fort Yates, which was named not for any of the Native Americans who lived there, but to memorialize Capt. George Yates, who served under Gen. Custer and died during the calvary’s defeat, in 1876, at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Since Native Americans were first shunted onto reservations, tribes have been nominally considered independent nations, yet figuratively treated as children — wards of the state in need of “civilizing.” As one woman from the Gros Ventre tribe told me, “We’re a sovereign nation, but we’re not. You know the Bureau of Indian Affairs? They have that because they think we’re incapable of taking care of ourselves.”

Native lands are officially “held in trust” by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, decided where their children should go to school, whether or not they should be able to learn and speak their language, who was a “good” (read: cooperative) Indian and who was a bad one. Missions continued their work of “civilizing” residents, whose children were often sent to boarding schools or participated in the Mormon Indian Placement Program, in which Native children went to go live with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the school year.

Although casinos and gaming have helped lift many reservations from poverty, towns like Fort Yates still bear the scars of decades of neglect, exploitation, and economic depression. The population of the town, which reached a peak of 1,153 in 1970, has fallen to just 191 (the Fort Yates District of the reservation, which includes the surrounding area, numbers 1,961). The abandoned Baptist Mission is overgrown with weeds, its windows boarded up, the letters of its signage barely clinging on. A box-like Taco John’s — an attempt to bring commerce onto the reservation — stands vacant.

At the intersection of Sitting Bull Street and Agency Avenue, the only grocery store has a bleak exterior, but the inside is well stocked. On the nearly empty streets, bands of elementary school–age kids wander on small bicycles. The houses are largely manufactured, or of uniform HUD construction; a few are visibly abandoned. Housing supply is short: The average number of persons per household is 4.60, compared to 3.27 for the state of North Dakota. There are no houses or apartments for sale or rent; the assessor for Sioux County, which covers the North Dakota half of the reservation, says that the average home sells for about $30,000, and that only two homes have been built in the entire county in the last five years.

Slightly up a hill, the Saint Bernard Mission School is housed in a structure, constructed in the late ’60s, to resemble a teepee. The elementary school struggles to keep teachers, in part because the lack of housing makes it so that any prospective teacher would need to commute up to three hours every day, often in the harsh North Dakota winter, and relies on a mixture of nuns, part-time teachers, and generally making-do. Saint Bernard boasts that its graduates go on to a 90% high school graduation rate (compared to 65% for the district), that it teaches Lakota, and that it provides free breakfast and lunch to its students, funded mostly by donations.

The adjacent Catholic cemetery is parched and in quiet disarray, with several tombstones toppled or broken. But it bears witness to Standing Rock’s history: There’s a joint grave for William P. Zahn, a member of Custer’s regiment, and his wife, Princess Kezewin, daughter of Chief Flying Cloud; matching gravestones for three sisters who staffed the school through the bulk of the 20th century; the grave of Chief Rain in the Face; Giles Goose, an Indian scout for Rogers’ Company during the Indian Wars; and Renard Red Tomahawk, a private in the US Army during the Vietnam War, in which 42,000 Native Americans served, 90% of whom were volunteers.

But there’s new development, too: The Prairie Knights Casino, constructed in 1993, has become a leading concert and events center for the area, offering jobs with full benefits and 401(k) matching for its employees. Across the highway from Fort Yates sits a brand-new middle and high school. Aliya, the a junior in high school, has been in camp for three months, but had started commuting back when school started. “I don’t want to mess up my credits,” she said, holding her bunny, named Atticus. “I want to help prove that Indians aren’t lazy, like people say. I’m gonna get my degree and go to college, hopefully in zoology. I’m figuring out the best schools for it right now.”

Even with the influx of funds from the casino, Fort Yates still stands in sharp contrast to the lushness of Bismarck, which has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the US, largely because of the oil boom. On the reservation, there’s the single grocery store, a few bars, a laundromat, and a handful of convenience stores scattered across 2.3 million acres. In Bismarck, big-box stores clutter the main arteries, McMansions line the Missouri River, and beautifully maintained parks and baseball diamonds abound. There are dozens of places to eat out, a well-stocked public library, and a public transportation system. Ten miles outside town, the North Dakota State Veterans Cemetery sits atop a hill with an exquisite view, bleached white marble headstones organized like a mini Arlington. There are no discernible Native American graves.

The differences between Fort Yates and Bismarck are, at least in part, a factor of size: All over America, people in isolated rural areas are increasingly struggling to keep above the poverty line. But it’s also cyclical, and the problems that plague the reservation are systemic: Many residents don’t have cars, which makes it difficult to find any employment; others who do have cars often have to drive an hour to reach the work they can find. Education is poor because it’s difficult to attract teachers; when education is poor, it’s all the easier for kids to drop out.

There’s an argument that people could just leave the reservation — but in doing so, they also leave their people, their land, their home.

Many reservations, including Standing Rock, do not have public libraries or any source of public transportation. When a woman is sexually abused by a non-Native on Native land, it’s virtually impossible to prosecute. Making meth is one of the few ways to make money, but 64% of tribal police have reported an increase in domestic violence and assault as a result of its use. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota, the unemployment rate oscillates between 80% and 85%, and the life expectancy rate is the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere — below only Haiti. Many homes lack electricity, water, sewer systems, and kitchens; elders freeze to death in their homes every year.

There’s an argument that people could just leave the reservation — but in doing so, they also leave their people, their land, their home. If enough people follow that logic, the reservation itself will become a husk of its former self: a land with no people. Which is why the Standing Rock and their allies are fighting so ardently against the Dakota Access Pipeline — not only because its construction desecrates their sacred lands, which it does, or because a potential leak would poison their water system, which it would. They also want to show that simply because they are small and diffuse in number, simply because they are not Bismarck, does not mean they should be discounted.

Originally, the pipeline was slated to run north of Bismarck. When it became clear that a leak could contaminate the town’s drinking water, the path of the pipeline was rerouted to its current plot just north of the Standing Rock Reservation — a move that Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, described to Outside as “environmental racism.” Its proximity to the reservation’s water supply is their primary objection, but pipeline construction would, and already has, desecrated areas sacred to the Standing Rock tribe. Copies of a thick packet with official studies of the rock formations on the land circulate readily throughout the camp; on Friday morning, M. Jay Cook, a member of the Pine River Sioux, flipped through the pages, showing me the constellations mirrored by each formation.

While the land, like the land on which the campsite stands, no longer legally belongs to the Standing Rock tribe, members are quick to point out that it was their land under the original treaty and was taken from them illegally. As one performer put it to the crowd at the camp: “This was Indian land, this is Indian land, this will always be Indian land.”

It’s under that principle that the Standing Rock are officially protesting: As they state on their website, “having signed treaties as equals with the US government in 1851 and 1868,” the tribe “staunchly asserts these treaty rights to remain steadfast and just as applicable today as on the day they were made.” Put differently, the US government may not be acting to protect the land of the Sioux. But that doesn’t mean that the Sioux won’t act to protect it themselves.

Henry is somewhere in his thirties, wears his brown beard bushy, and on Friday morning, was wearing a matching camo fleece and hat. Earlier in the week, he’d rolled over on his glasses, but had managed to piece them together using black electrical tape. He and his elementary-age son had arrived from Beaufort, South Carolina, earlier in the week and had been spending his days helping with water drops and trash dumps. Earlier in the day, the leaders of the camp had called for veterans to lead the march, and Henry — who’d done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, before being discharged just a few months before — joined the crowd.

On the walk back, Henry, who walks with the slightest limp, told me that he’d been interested in social injustice for some time — in his community, it’s the way that land has been taken from its black owners when it became desirable, especially on Hilton Head and the surrounding areas. But he also felt a strong responsibility to be here for the Lakota: When he returned home from war, traditional medicine didn’t work with his ailments, which he didn’t want to name; but a VA doctor referred him to a Lakota family, whose approach to medicine and wellness have been the only thing that’s worked. He and his son were there just to show up and show support, but also to show gratitude.

“Oil is not part of our sacred history.” 

Others just had stories of how negligence has affected them: On Sunday afternoon, Paula and Rhea, from the Onondaga Reservation, were taking shelter from the 90-degree heat under a shade tent near the river, working on beading. “Everyone who walks past our tent and comes over to talk, it seems they have some story of the water,” Paula told me. “Another family that just left, it was to spread their son’s ashes in California — he’d gotten two types of cancer after lead got into the ground so many years ago.” After they spread the ashes, the family was returning to camp. Paula and Rhea had taken to their neighbor, a veteran who they joked “was one of the lost tribes,” also known as white. A tanker had exploded near his home, affecting his health for years — and when he heard about what the Standing Rock were fighting, he had to come.

“Oil is not part of our sacred history,” Tim La Batte, who lives on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reservation in South Dakota, told me. “It was all over in Montana, and we had no use for it.” Still, there are tribes in the northern parts of North Dakota who could benefit tremendously from the pipeline and the accompanying increases in the price of oil. But that’s a well-worn strategy of the government: appealing to immediate interests of particular members of a tribe, and using those appeals to divide the power of the whole.

It’s the young people, then, who are building the coalitions of the future: like Jackie Fawn, from the Klamath Basin tribe, and Caryna, from Oglala Sioux, who’d met at a campfire and become inseparable; or the dozens of teenage boys who'd organized regular horse races as entertainment; or the youths of the Standing Rock tribe, who held a meeting on Saturday afternoon to discuss divestiture, helping alert members of the ways in which their bank accounts at a half dozen different banks are helping to finance the pipeline; or the work the International Indigenous Youth Council, which formed at the camp with the explicit goal of fighting environmental racism through nonviolent direct action. On Tuesday, members of the council headed to the #NoDAPL rally in Washington, DC, where they will meet with the Senate Committees for Energy and Natural Resources and Indian Affairs.

La Batte has literalized the power of the youth with the paintings on his horses: a circle on one haunch represents power — not power that’s used to oppress, but power that manifests in strength. A black snake, representing the pipelines, comes up the haunch of the leg, but a string of yellow dots go up the other haunch, over the horse’s neck, and down to the circle of power. “Our tradition inverts the understanding of power,” La Batte told me. “Instead of one person on the top of the pyramid holding power over all others, the person in power is below everyone else, holding them up. They carry the tribe.”

On Sunday afternoon, two dozen of those young people were playing an intense game of volleyball in a dusty corner of the camp. Others, like a pair of young women from Manitoba who’d spent the weekend working in the kitchen, were piling into cars to drive the nine hours back home. There were jobs and school to return to — and the promise that they’d be back the next weekend. As the camp thinned, the feeling began to shift: “This is what they were waiting for,” one woman told me. “For enough of us to leave, then they’re going to come in.” A helicopter had been hovering overhead, and the rumor was that it belonged to the Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline.

The camp had always been cautious and organized — there are no drugs and alcohol allowed; entrances are closely monitored; all press must adhere to specific guidelines about what and who they can film and photograph. But after Cody Hall was arrested based on “video and photos viewed by investigators,” largely assumed to have been circulating on Facebook, there’s a growing weariness of both reporters and any sort of visual documentation.

Inside Standing Stone Camp, there are numerous “sub-camps” — including the Red Warrior Camp and other unnamed camps — cordoned off from the normal camp, where more close-knit groups have their own meetings, meals, and communication systems. Guards man the entrance to these sub-camps, enforcing a no-picture/video rule. At protest actions, many residents of these camps wear bandanas pulled up over their faces to avoid possible identification. But those bandanas have taken on a sense of menace: A neighboring rancher said he’d been confronted earlier in the week by protesters wearing them. “I understand that most of the protestors are nonviolent,” he said, “but that 1% makes it look bad for everyone.”

This movement was started by a dedicated group of individuals, but it’s gained its massive momentum — and, arguably, the attention of the US government — in part through its savvy use of social media. But now that the decision is in limbo, many fear the US government will simply do what it’s always done to the Native Americans: hold “talks” that aren’t really talks, and continue to disrespect the treaties between the government and the individual nations — and the Native Americans who continue to honor them. On Wednesday, Energy Transfer issued a memo declaring that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on local water supply are unfounded” and reaffirming their commitment to the pipeline’s completion.

The water protectors are committed to making sure this does not happen — and continue to document their cause, and curry favor, through social media. The camp has pledged to remain open until at least January 1, a school has been set up on the grounds, and massive heating implements were already arriving in the donations tent. On Sunday afternoon, Winona Kasto, a no-nonsense woman who serves as the traditional-foods cook for the camp, had begun drying spirals of crookneck squash on small strings hanging from the edge of one of her tents. “We’re here for the long haul, and we have to start preparing,” she told me. “Winter is coming, and we’ll be ready.”

As the joint statement from the Department of Justice, Department of Army, and the Department of the Interior that effectively paused construction on the pipeline declared, “this case has highlighted the need for serious discussion on whether there should be a nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects,” and set forth a plan for “government-to-government” meetings this fall in an effort to ensure that tribal input is properly considered in all projects going forward.

The potential for this sort of holistic reconsideration and appreciation of the tribes’ voices, power, and rights underlines the greater accomplishment of the protests. But only if the momentum can continue: In the past, placating actions like those of the Obama administration have served as a temporary distraction before a larger defeat. Yet the people preparing for winter at the camp have seen that strategy before, in their own lifetimes and in those of their ancestors, and are readied for the long fight — against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and for Native rights — that’s to come.

“We will not stop until #DAPL is dead,” camp coordinator Phyllis Young declared to a roaring, whooping crowd on Saturday. “You are welcome to stay the course.” •

Read Anne Helen Petersen’s previous dispatches from the Standing Rock Tribe’s protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline here and here. Our BuzzFeed News video of the protest can be viewed here.

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