Update: On Sunday night, activists at Standing Rock reported that the authorities had used rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons against them.
In April, a small prayer camp appeared on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Tents and teepees popped up along the Missouri River to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline—the nearly 1,200-mile, $3.7 billion oil pipeline set to run from North Dakota to Illinois. Now the action has achieved worldwide recognition, the settlement has grown to four camps and approximately 5,000 people, according to organizers. Some arrivals stay for just a few days, some make weekend trips, but many have set up a semi-permanent home here.
Winter is coming soon to Standing Rock. But they plan to stay here, for as long as it takes.
Though internet service is spotty at the camps, residents are keeping their eyes on their phones to monitor the ongoing legal battles that could decide their fates. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, to pause construction until more analysis could be done. ETP responded immediately with litigation, writing in court papers that, while the Corps "takes the position that Dakota Access will not have the right-of-way to cross beneath that land" until the Corps grants an easement, in ETP's view, the Corps had already granted it and is now backtracking.
On Friday, ETP CEO Kelcy Warren told the Associated Press that he has no plans to reroute the pipeline, but that he would meet with leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux to discuss their concerns about the project.
But the people living at the camps say the only solution they're interested in is a total halt in construction—they don't want a pipeline running under their main source of drinking water. They aren't sure how many weeks or months of living there it will take to realize that goal, but the "water protectors," as they call themselves, are settling is as the temperature drops.
"They're waiting for us to disperse, and they're not going to win that way," says Madonna Antoine Eagle Hawk, a member of the Sicangu Rosebud Sioux. Eagle Hawk runs the kitchen at one of the camps at Standing Rock, and is living here with her husband.
"We're not going anywhere," she adds. "We're going to stay here till we win."
There is a sense of growing permanence here. People are winterizing their tents and teepees, using bales of hay outside their tents as a buffer against the wind. Many now have portable wood stoves, built and donated by various people who have visited the camps. There are now fully functioning kitchens, medical and wellness tents, even a school for children who are here with their parents. And the "city" continues to grow.
"We've been here for hundreds of years," says Eagle Hawk. "We've survived through hundreds of years of winters —we're not going anywhere. If they think we're not prepared for it, they need to think again."
Eagle Hawk is focused on her mission to protect the water. No one is talking about election results here, or President-elect Donald Trump, who happens to be a shareholder in ETP.
But Eagle Hawk says she's happy to see Barack Obama's term coming to an end. "He was here, on this reservation, promising to help them and nothing," she says.
She feels the same about many of the celebrities who have visited. "All these big movie stars supporting Standing Rock—where they at? You can't just talk about it, you've got to be about it."
There's evidence, though, that the publicity garnered by the protests is putting the government under pressure. Last week, the Obama administration canceled 15 oil and gas leases in Montana, on land considered sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe. "There are special places in this world where we just shouldn't drill," Montana senator Jon Tester said in a statement. (Those canceled leases were issued in the 1980s, and there hadn't been any drilling there since.)
At Standing Rock, bulldozers are parked by the camp, in waiting for the go-ahead to continue construction, but the residents don't seem to be concerned.
Marcus "Quese IMC" Frejo traveled to Standing Rock from Oklahoma in June and has been here ever since. A member of the Wolf band of Pawnee and Bear clan of Seminole, he says he's here to show support and solidarity with the other tribes and has no intention of leaving anytime soon.
"Sometimes people say, 'How long can you stand living like this? Is it comfortable? It's cold!'" he says. "I think it's funny because this is a dream for us." He says that the concept of living this way—long before the protests against the pipeline—was something he would talk about with his friends back home.
"The idea that it would be so awesome if we could live in the old days, with all our tribes together, camped around one another and singing Indian songs all night, going from camp to camp—and here we are living that dream."
It's something that outsiders have trouble understanding, he says.
"This is easy for us," Frejo says. "It's easy for us to have nothing. Because we've always had nothing monetarily or earth bound. We're just living that dream, and it's beautiful. I'm happy to be here."