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Sights, Sounds And Realities At Standing Rock

Oceti Sakowin camp, as seen from "Media Hill," where MTPR's Nicky Ouelette spoke to News Director Eric Whitney earlier today.
Nicky Ouellet
Oceti Sakowin camp, as seen from "Media Hill," where MTPR's Nicky Ouelette spoke to News Director Eric Whitney earlier today.

MTPR’s Nicky Ouellet has been in North Dakota this week, covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protest for Inside Energy. Earlier today, Eric Whitney spoke with her about her experience there.

Eric Whitney: Nicky, where are you right now?

Nicky Ouelett: I'm standing on Media Hill at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, north of the Sanding Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

EW: Describe for me, what's it look like, what do you see?

NO: From the hill you can see the whole camp of Oceti Sakowin, there are defined roads, winding in between villages of teepees, and army tents. In front of me there's a massive white geodesic dome that glows pink in the evening. People are really busy. A lot of people are building semi-permanent structures, some look more permanent. Kind of little box cube houses. So a lot of activity in camp today.

EW: Give me a weather report. Tell me what it's like where you are now.

NO: It is bitterly cold right now. Although I bet it's only in the teens. It hasn't really been snowing, but it has been leaving this freezing mist that makes it very dangerous for driving, and makes it kind of hard to get anything done.

But today the sun is almost out, there are massive flocks of snow geese flying overhead. I can hear sounds of construction, generators running, vehicles, people are moving about, they don't seem to mind the cold too much.

EW: The weather's a real factor in North Dakota. Do you get the feeling people there are going to be able to withstand an ongoing presence at the camps?

NO: Well the storm that blew through here earlier this week left about 18 inches in Bismark, which pretty much shut the whole city down. But here, people seem to be enjoying the weather. Kids were sledding down Facebook Hill earlier, people started a massive snowball fight in the camp last night.

I mean it does make driving around very difficult, it makes everything move rather slowly, but people don't really seem too daunted by it. A lot of people I've talked to said this is how people have lived for centuries. Outside, facing the elements. We live in the north, this is a part of what we should be expecting.

EW: There's a deadline coming up Monday from the governor of North Dakota for people to leave. I believe he issued that order because, specifically because of the weather. He says he's concerned about people's safety, and that's why he issued that order. Are people there concerned about that evacuation order?

NO: People don't seem too concerned about the order. Governor Dalrymple's evacuation order actually went into effect on Monday, and a few people did leave the camp after that first storm, but many more have been arriving in preparation of the 2,000 veterans who plan to be here from the fourth to the seventh.

The Army Corps of Engineers also issued an evacuation order that's supposed to take effect Monday, but it's unclear how they're going to enforce that evacuation order. They've said they won't forcibly remove anyone from camp, and aside from the governor saying that the state will no longer provide emergency services to the camp, and they may potentially fine people for bringing supplies into camp, it's really unclear how either the state or the federal government is going to get people out of here.

EW: And like you said, people there don't sound like they're paying a whole lot of attention to that evacuation order. Their intent is to stay.

NO: Their intent is to stay. And the winterization that's going on at the camp in front of me right now very much proves that.

EW: You mentioned that veterans from all over the country are on their way to the camps. Have they started arriving yet, have you seen much evidence of that, and what are people there saying about that?

NO: Yeah, some of them have filtered in earlier this week. There have been prayer ceremonies, and blessings held in honor of the veterans and their arrival. People are really excited about the show of support from the vets.

But, there are also veterans who are not happy with this show of support. Today, there was news that a group of veterans in North Dakota is actually asking vets not to come to camp, and that it's the wrong thing to be doing in this situation.

So in camp, people are excited. Outside of camp, that might not be the case.

EW: You, like a lot of people, have been following the happenings at Standing Rock in the media. When you actually got there, was it similar to what you expected?

NO: Yes and no. I think that the media is quick to latch onto first reports without checking to see if they're really true.

For example, I was reading some posts that were shared on Facebook pretty widely that said the governor's order created a blockade that would block supplies from coming into camp. And that's just not true.

So yes, the camp looks like what I've seen circulating on social media, the feeling here is very much one of peace, and working together in collaboration. But there are some undertones of, I guess misinformation that have spread around. And even within the camp it's hard sometimes to tell what's actually happened versus what's just rumored.

EW: You've been out there for a week now. What's surprised you about visiting the camps?

NO: The amount of time that I'm on my feet has actually really surprised me. People here are working all day long. Every little thing that you do, I mean they're living outside in tents in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota.

So getting your breakfast in the morning is a really big ordeal. Someone who's been cooking for the Michigan Camp in the Oceti Sakowin larger camp, told me she's cooking for 50 people, and it takes her two hours just to get breakfast ready.

So everything little thing that you do just takes a lot longer, life's a lot slower. But people here seem to feel like there's a lot of purpose to everything that they're doing. And that's, it's easy to feel swept up in that, and just to become excited, just by everyone else's feeling.

EW: Have you run across many people from Montana there?

NO: I haven't yet. I know that they're out here, because I see a lot of license plates, but I haven't had a chance to find a Montana-specific camp.

EW: What else would you like to say about your week out there?

NO: I think what's been surprising mostly is, um, is the sentiment I've been getting from people in Bismark who are kind of ready for this to be over. Their businesses are sometimes overrun, the protests that are happening in the capitol sometimes obstruct daily life up in Bismark, and there's a bit of frustration there.

Even down at the casino, where I've been sleeping on another radio reporter's floor for the past couple nights, it's a very, it's very busy, it's very full, but they say they're not seeing a huge increase in actual business.

So there are some unseen and unanticipated impacts that the protests have had on people who are not wrapped up in the actual protest itself, and I found that very interesting.

EW: Nicky Ouelett thanks for joining us.

NO: Thanks so much for having me Eric.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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