Pipeline protest site a city unto itself

Published 9:18 am Friday, September 16, 2016

NEAR THE STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION, N.D. — Tribal flags, horses, tents, hand-built shelters and teepees dominate one of the biggest, newest communities in North Dakota, built in a valley on federal land near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers.

It’s a semi-permanent, sprawling gathering with a new school for dozens of children and an increasingly organized system to deliver water and meals to the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people from tribes across North America who’ve joined the Standing Rock Sioux in their legal fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline to protect sacred sites and a river that’s a source of water for millions of people.

“This is better than where most people came from,” said 34-year-old Vandee Kahlsa, referencing the oft-harsh conditions of reservations across the United States. The Santa Fe, New Mexico, resident, who is Osage and Cherokee, has been at the camp for more than a month.

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She joins Standing Rock Sioux members who have been here since April, people from other tribes and non-tribal members from as far away as Asia and Europe who’ve vowed to stay as long as it takes to block the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline’s construction. Though the Dallas-based pipeline company says it intends to finish the project, protesters have some hope: Three federal agencies are reviewing their construction-permitting process, temporarily blocking work on a small section not too far from the encampment site and asking Energy Transfer Partners to temporarily stop work on a 40-mile (64 km) span.

But given North Dakota’s brutally cold winters, people will need more than the campfires warming them these days.

“I’m pretty sure by winter there will be some buildings up,” said Jonathon Edwards, 36, a member of the Standing Rock tribe who lives in South Dakota and has been here since April 1, when snow was on the ground. “People who came here came here to stay.”

The encampment has averaged about 4,000 people recently, he estimated; only 25 of North Dakota’s 357 towns have more than 2,000 people. It’s been called the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century, and the first time all seven bands of Sioux have come together in since Gen. George Custer’s ill-fated 1876 expedition at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Edwards and others say.

Andrew Dennis, 42, called the encampment “creative chaos” that somehow seems to work. The California man, who has no tribal affiliation, arrived last week with supplies and food to donate.

Anchoring the camp is the Defenders of Water School, which uses two old army tents and a teepee as classrooms. Pupils learn the three R’s, thanks to donated books, as well as traditional crafts and language.

Melaine Stoneman, a Lakota Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said it’s been a unique learning experience for her 5-year-old son, Wigmuke, which means rainbow in English.

“This is a very different atmosphere that does not institutionalize the spirit,” Stoneman said.

Teacher Teresa Dzieglewicz said classes have averaged about 45 students in recent days. The 32-year-old St. Louis resident planned to be at the encampment for a few days, but has since put her graduate school studies at Southern Illinois University on hold indefinitely.