North Dakota has never experienced anything like the battle over the 1,200 mile Dakota Access Pipeline. Thousands of people from across the globe flocked to a remote grassy field this year, building a village of tents and teepees from scratch.
Protests near construction sites and in the usually sleepy state capital of Bismarck led to clashes with police, whose armored vehicles and pepper spray played out on Facebook streams broadcast live to the world.
Now, hundreds of people still live on the plains of North Dakota atop a sheet of ice and those that remain say a change has taken hold at the camp.
Weeks ago, when it was still overrun by thousands, there was a sense of excitement about the gathering, but also anxiety. Surveillance helicopters circled overhead, and those below feared a police raid.
“Before, it would just be rumors going back and forth, people trying to get people kicked it. It was just a lot of internal conflict,” said Byron Shorty, a 24-year-old from the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
But many have left camp in the wake of the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to halt the pipeline. Shorty said it’s now calm, and those who remain join in conversation reflecting on the movement.
“I feel like I haven’t had that before,” he said.
He’s sticking around for a bit to clean up abandoned tents. Others have taken on jobs like chopping firewood to ensure the camp’s longevity.
“It’s not about taking selfies and saying that you were out here anymore,” 22-year-old Jacob Chamberlain said. “At this point, it’s about being hearty, surviving in the cold.”
He flew to North Dakota from Scotland after seeing video of law enforcement spraying protesters with water in freezing temperatures.
These clashes with police were broadcast live around the world on Facebook, showing armored vehicles, pepper spray and mass arrests. Police responded to dozens and dozens of demonstrations staged by protesters, who caravanned from camp to pipeline construction sites and to cities like the state capital of Bismarck, an hour north.
Though the chairman of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux recently asked protesters to leave, some camp leaders encouraged them to stay. Chamberlain, for one, said he’ll be here as long as there’s a pipeline left to fight.
That could be a while. The Corps of Engineers announced earlier this month it would open a lengthy environmental review on the project.
But the pipeline’s future is also uncertain because there’s a new, fossil fuel-friendly administration about to take over in Washington.
Standing Rock council member Chad Harrison attended a recent meeting between tribes and the Trump transition team. He sees efforts like that forum as a good signal from the president-elect.
“My hope is that that’s an indicator of how serious he’ll be when it comes to Native American issues,” he said.
But North Dakota’s new governor, Doug Burgum, said he’ll urge Donald Trump to approve the project.
Still, the new governor met with Standing Rock leaders this week. It was an effort to rebuild relationships.
Local residents say it’s about time. Demonstrations stalled traffic in town this fall and disrupted businesses, prompting a robust police response.
“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,” said Shelle Aberle, who runs a Facebook page supporting law enforcement. “That’s not here in North Dakota, not at all.”
Officers are just trying to prevent worse clashes and protect property, she said.
Some locals support the pipeline opponents’ peaceful actions, supplying food to camp and shelter. The Unitarian Universalist congregation has been active in collecting donations.
The protests have prompted locals to communicate in new ways, the Rev. Karen Van Fossan said.
“We aren’t often talking about the things that are on our minds, and now we really are,” she said. “I think that gives us an opportunity to listen and to grow and to change.”
Another Bismarck resident, Kay LaCoe, hopes for that dialogue as well. She recently spoke to the local paper about the importance of supporting businesses targeted by protesters.
After the article was published, hateful messages flooded her Facebook, calling her racist and derogatory names. She even received death threats.
“At what point in time do one of these faceless people become one of the faces in the crowds?” she asked. “You just never know. And that’s where it gets really, really concerning.”
She would just like a final decision on the pipeline to bring an end to the tension.
“Whatever the government and the tribe and the energy companies decide to do with that pipeline, I’m good with it,” she said. “Just give me my hometown back.”
But that decision has been stalled for months. The sides will continue their legal battle in 2017 and face January deadlines to file additional court documents.