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Dakota Access Protest Camp Faces Winter And Evacuation Orders

Jacob Brooks of Ann Arbor, MI works on one of the many "tarpees" erected in the camp, a winter dwelling developed by Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner.
Celia Talbot Tobin/Inside Energy
Jacob Brooks of Ann Arbor, MI works on one of the many "tarpees" erected in the camp, a winter dwelling developed by Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner.

President-elect Donald Trump indicated for the first time on Thursday that he supports completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Protesters have been camped out at the construction site in North Dakota for months, and now winter has arrived, dumping almost two feet of snow on the encampment this past week.

The two-day deluge drove out some of the fairer-weather protesters, but most are gearing up to stay.  All are waiting to see what happens on Monday, the deadline set by the Army Corps of Engineers for protesters to leave federal land. Cusi Ballew is hurrying to finish wrapping insulation around a wooden structure -- like a little box house --  at the Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Reservation.

"It's essentially a glorified tent with a lot less chance caving in with snow," Ballew said.

Ballew is from Ohio. He’s a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

"That's about all people need out here though. We could go for comfort but that's not why we're here," he said.

Ballew is one of a few thousand people committed to this ongoing protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They’re living in three camps along the banks of the Cannonball River, and that has authorities worried. The Oceti Sakowin camp is the only one on federal land, where authorities say campers are illegally trespassing.

The day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an emergency evacuation order for land it manages near the river. A few days later, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple issued a similar order, warning that people trying to truck in supplies to the camp could be fined and the state will no longer provide emergency services.

"We will do our best to respond to emergencies, but in those conditions, we cannot guarantee a response," Jack Dalrymple said.

Early reports of the evacuation order described it as a blockade. Dalrymple says that’s not the case. But he still thinks people should leave for their own safety. He said this emergency order was the same he would issue during an intense flood.

"We have not at any time ever contemplated going to the main camp and removing people from that are," said Dalrymple. "All we're saying is we encourage you to find a better place to be, and we will continue to do that. We want the entire public to know, this is a not a safe place."

Some people did leave camp after the storm and governor’s order, but more are digging in for a long winter.

Paul Cheokoten Wiggins designed and is building a new style of teepee for people preparing to stay and continue protesting the pipeline despite the pair of evacuation orders.

"They have been endeared with the name 'tarpee,'" Wiggins said. "They're kind of like unicorn teepees, because they only have a stovepipe sticking out the top (laughs)."

Wiggins is from the Saanich tribe in Washington state. He says he came up with the design after his first trip to Standing Rock in September.

"I looked at the teepees when I was walking around and I was like, that's it, it’s the structure. It's perfect shape for the environment."

He started a Go Fund Me site and raised enough money to build 80. They come equipped with a stove, fire extinguisher and carbon monoxide detector.

Closer to the Missouri River, Kareen Lewis is living in Michigan Camp.

She’s part of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and has been shuttling back and forth between the camp and her house in Michigan for a few months.

"I felt like I was so at home and empowered to be here," Lewis said.

Michigan Camp is a cluster of three Army green canvas sleeping tents, a mess hall, a teepee filled with supplies and a few tents half-buried in snow. Currently, about 50 people live here. Lewis thinks they can make it without grocery runs for about a month. Even though she’s living in the evacuation area, she says she has no plans to leave.

"I'm pretty content here," Lewis said, "but I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here and see what's gonna happen."

Despite the orders to evacuate, more people are arriving every day, including a group of 2000 veterans who say they plan to act as human shields between protesters and the police.

This story published with permission from RMPBN and Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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