Even though most of the protesters fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota have left, hundreds still remain here atop what is essentially a sheet of ice.
One group of campers say there’s a change taking hold at camp, which was once overrun by thousands who felt a sense of excitement about the gathering.
Byron Shorty, who lives on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, says now that the Army Corps of Engineers is temporarily halting pipeline construction, the protest camp is calm.
“I want to be here to reflect, and I want to be here to help clean up our abandoned campsites that I still see,” he says. “And we’re in the process of cleaning those up and repurposing the things that people left behind.”
Others, like Jacob Chamberlain, who came here from Scotland, are doing daily chores like chopping firewood.
“It’s not about taking selfies and saying that you were out here anymore. At this point, it’s about being hearty, surviving in the cold,” Chamberlain says.
Earlier this month, the Army Corps said it would conduct a lengthy environmental review of this project, even as a fossil fuel-friendly administration is coming to Washington. Standing Rock council member Chad Harrison attended a recent meeting between tribes and the Trump transition team and was pleased that could even happen.
“My hope is that that’s an indicator of how serious he’ll be when it comes to Native American issues,” he says.
But Doug Burgum, North Dakota’s new governor, is urging President-elect Donald Trump to approve the project. He’s doing that even as he recently met with Standing Rock leaders in an effort to rebuild frayed relationships.
A community divided
Demonstrations have caused gridlock, disrupted businesses and severely stretched police resources.
“It really kind of makes me sad when I see the picture that is being painted across the nation, this narrative that it’s this bad cop thing happening. And that’s not here in North Dakota. Not at all.” says Shelle Aberle of Bismarck, N.D., who runs a Facebook page supporting law enforcement. “Our law enforcement are there to protect both sides.”
Other residents back the pipeline opponents. The Unitarian Universalist congregation has supplied food to camp and shelter.
In this protest, both sides often seemed to speak right past each other. Minister Karen Van Fossan says that should be changing.
“We aren’t often talking about the things that are on our minds, and now we really are,” Van Fossan says.
Kay LaCoe hopes that’s true. The Bismarck resident recently called on residents to support businesses targeted by protesters. But soon after, hateful messages flooded her Facebook. She even received death threats and just wants a final decision on the pipeline to end all this tension.
“Whatever the government and the tribe and the energy companies decide to do with that pipeline, I’m good with it. Just give me my hometown back,” she says.
But the legal battle over the pipeline will likely continue to play out in 2017 as North Dakotans grapple both with the protesters and the fallout from their continued presence.
Amy Sisk reports for Prairie Public Broadcasting and for Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues.