Photograph: Terray Sylvester/Reuters
Clarence Rowland returned to Standing Rock in the dark of night.
The 26-year-old Oglala Sioux tribe member arrived to his solar-powered hut at 1.30am on Wednesday, knowing that within several hours, Dakota Access pipeline workers could start drilling.
“I came back to stand for our people,” Rowland said, as he prepared a large stew inside his family’s wooden hut. Around him, young children took shelter from sub-zero temperatures outside.
Rowland – who arrived at Standing Rock last August, but went home in January – is one of a number of Native Americans who rushed back this week to the camps in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to fight the $3.7bn pipeline. The activists, who call themselves “water protectors”, are now planning demonstrations, prayer walks and other resistance effortsa day after the US army corps of engineers announced it was approving the final phase of construction of the pipeline. On Wednesday, the army corps formally granted Dakota Access the final permit it requires to drill under the Missouri river. “We plan to begin drilling immediately,” a spokeswoman for the company said. Huddled inside tents, tipis and other shelters scattered throughout camps near the construction site, indigenous and environmental activists on Wednesday said they would not give up their battle despite the government’s aggressive efforts to greenlight construction.
“This is the most important time to be here,” said Laura Hinman, a 24-year-old member of the Kumeyaay tribe, who has been at Standing Rock for months.
Federal authorities have worked quickly to follow through with the executive memorandum Donald Trump signed during his first week in office, which called for expedited approvals of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. The memo reversed Barack Obama’s decision in December to deny a key permit for Energy Transfer Partners to complete the buildout of Dakota Access across the Missouri river. The rejection, a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, directed the government to complete a full environmental impact study on the pipeline, which could have delayed the project for years.
But Trump, who has invested in Energy Transfer Partners and received donations from the corporation’s CEO, ordered the army corps to cancel the lengthy environmental review and fast-track the permit. This week’s announcement means the corporation may immediately start drilling, though the tribe has argued that the decision is illegal and is fighting in court to halt construction. Native American activists from across the country first flocked to Cannon Ball in the spring of 2016, arguing that the pipeline threatened the regional water supply, sacred sites and indigenous treaty rights. Though Obama’s decision led many to leave the camps, a core group remained through the frigid winter, preparing for the expected battle with Trump.
While tribal council leaders have urged activists to leave the camps and let the fight play out in the courts, many on the ground have put out pleas for people to return in large numbers. Frank Archambault, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe from Little Eagle, South Dakota, sat on a small cot inside a packed tent on Wednesday afternoon where a group was cooking pancakes. The 45-year-old father of five noted that the construction site is heavily guarded and that he was fearful it would be impossible to thwart without a massive crowd.
“They are so well fortified up there,” said Archambault, who wore large goggles and binoculars around his neck. “It would take thousands.”
He vowed to stay in place, but admitted it was hard not to be pessimistic. “I feel very disturbed. I feel cheated. I feel lied to. I feel betrayed. I feel alone.” If the pipeline is completed, he added, environmental harm is certain: “If you look around the nation at statistics of oil spills, it’s inevitable.” Although there’s a greater sense of urgency, Rowland said he was hoping people would remain peaceful and focused on prayer. “It’s nothing new to us. We’ve been fighting the US government for years.” His aunt, Jolene Rowland, sitting by a warm stove, said she felt it was important to return – even if the future is uncertain. “I had to come back. I hope that other people come back.” Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed, who is Apache, Lakota, Mexican and African American, said she hasn’t left Standing Rock since November, even remaining through the holidays when many took a break.
“I feel like I made a commitment to the land and the water, and I found a lot of soul family here,” said the 21-year-old, who grew up in Oakland, California. “This is about our safety in this country as people of color and as people indigenous to the land … If the water gets sick, everyone gets sick.” The Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, Dave Archambault II, flew to Washington DC on Tuesday to meet with Trump administration officials. But he said he canceled the meeting when he landed and learned of the easement approval.
“We have asked for a fair, balanced and lawful environmental impact statement directly to President Trump and through the courts,” the chairman said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. “We encourage our allies to exercise their first amendment rights to remind President Trump where we stand.”
Supporters organized solidarity actions across the country, labeled as the “last stand” against the pipeline. Hinman said it was great that people were raising awareness in their own communities, but that she hoped that attention returned to the ground effort at the camp.
“I haven’t been scared until now.”