FORT YATES, North Dakota — A blizzard and freezing temperatures created disorder this week for protesters intent on celebrating their partial victory over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
Many roads were closed due to dangerous driving conditions and some protesters were stranded along streets in cars. Volunteers searched tents, teepees and makeshift lodgings in the main resistance camp to make sure no one was snowbound.
“The weather conditions are real. You could die,” said John Shirley, a veteran from Anchorage, Alaska, who’s been at the protests for a week. “The wind is the big thing. It feels like there are needles going through you.”
Months of uncertainty turned to joy on Sunday at the main protesters’ encampment when the Department of the Army announced it would not issue a permit to complete construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe while it undertakes a time-consuming environmental study.
But a winter storm of heavy snowfall and strong winds nearly brought the area to a standstill beginning Monday. Bitter winds persisted through Tuesday night though the snow had stopped. The high temperature Tuesday was reported to be in the single digits.
Karen Little Wounded, who’s lived at the camp on federal land since August, awoke Tuesday morning to find a wall of snow several feet deep against her tent. She used a bowl to dig out.
“That was scary for me. I mean, I was by myself,” she said. She hitched a ride to Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, where she reunited with her boyfriend, who’d left camp earlier.
The volunteers had turned the casino hotel into an impromptu shelter for members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies who’d been living at Oceti Sakowin camp, some of them for months.
The medical workers said that they’d treated more than 100 patients for dehydration, hypothermia and other conditions. Medics needed supplies to treat roughly 100 other patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and high-blood pressure, according to Rupa Marya, a doctor coordinating medical care.
Despite the inclement conditions, the festive atmosphere hasn’t been completely subdued. Native American protesters, who prefer to call themselves water protectors, led a celebratory powwow lasting hours during the blizzard.
Some protesters have vowed to stay even though the prospect of the pipeline going forward has been delayed by the Army’s decision. The chairman of the Native American tribe leading the opposition urged protesters to depart from the camp when the storm lifts.
“We deeply appreciate all the people who supported us with their presence, but when this storm passes, it is time to dismantle the camp and return to our homes. If the camp stays where it is currently located, people are risking their lives,” tribal chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. “Once one person is hurt or property is destroyed, that will lead to more outsized actions by law enforcement. The longer the camp stays, the greater risk we run of seeing further violence at the hands of law enforcement and potential injury to our supporters.”
State and local officials plowed roads leading to the camp, set up shelters and brought buses for potential emergencies, according to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. So far protest leaders have turned down offers to help, according to a sheriff’s department statement.
As part of their opposition to the 1,172-mile pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux had sought a thorough environmental impact statement, because they feared leaks from the pipeline could contaminate the water source of their nearby reservation. The tribe had also contended that the project would disturb sacred ground and violate a treaty with the federal government.
The Army will now begin a review that will also explore rerouting the pipeline, though developer Energy Transfer Partners has said it’s opposed to the idea.