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The Standing Rock Water Protectors Aren’t Leaving

We asked water protectors around camp what they plan to do after Dakota Access Pipeline construction was halted.

Temperatures in Cannonball, North Dakota are now at lethal lows, dipping well below freezing, with winds reaching up to 50 miles per hour. On December 4th, thousands of US veterans began to arrive at Standing Rock to join the Water Protectors in solidarity. Veterans announced they would serve as security for the Water Protectors at the front lines, pledging to defend them in the case of police attacks.

As veterans began arriving by the busload, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that the Dakota Access Pipeline would not be granted a permit to continue pipeline construction. It's widely speculated that this announcement was strategically timed to persuade the veterans to leave Standing Rock and that DAPL will not in fact cease construction. As the weather worsens, many wonder what lies ahead for the Water Protectors.

Veterans march to the front lines on December 5th. Image: Avery White

I'm a photographer based in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the unchecked power of oil companies also threatens the life and health of our community. I've been at Standing Rock for weeks to bear witness to the strength and integrity of those putting everything on the line in a fight to protect the natural resources which are at stake for all of us. Here are a few of my encounters from this particularly intense week. Authorities have asked many people to evacuate and the whole camp is focused on immediate winterization responsibilities for survival, so it's rather difficult to grab someone's attention for more than a brief statement.

Shakes the Spear
From the Red Bottom tribe in Montana

Image: Avery White

What lies ahead for the Water Protectors?
This is winter…It'll get cold here. It gets about 40-50 degrees below zero. For the non-natives of this land, it's going to be hard. They'll have to leave. If you don't have it in your blood to stay and fight for what you believe in, you won't be able to take this kind of cold. I'm prepared for it, it's in my ancestral blood.

This weather, our bodies wait for it. Our bodies wait for the changes of the seasons. Our bodies wait for winter to kill all the bad, negative energy that's in our physical bodies, and that's in our thoughts and minds. Then in the spring, it all comes new again. I come new again, and so do you. A blade of grass, a little ant, you and me—everyone heals. We all grow. We get to start new.

Standing Still
From the Mille Lacs Band of the Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota

Image: Avery White

What do you think is the future of Standing Rock now that DAPL has been denied their permit?
The winters are very bad here. People are already leaving. Now we'll see who the real water protectors are. I'm staying. We should all stay, until it's over. We won a battle but the war is not over. We need to stop this black snake. It starts here and it needs to stop here. If it goes past this river it's going to affect 18 million people down the Missouri River. We're here for everybody. We're here for life. We're here for our women and children, our elders. We're here for our ancestors.

Kane Wolf
Apache descendent, from the South Side of Chicago

Image: Avery White

What do you think is next for this movement after the recent announcement from the Army Corp of Engineers that denies DAPL their permit?
We're going to stand with the water and protect it. We're going to stay here. Everyone got fooled, got tricked. There was no victory here. It's not OK to leave. I'm here to stay. I'm here to stay as long as I can. You know, "Mni Wiconi," water is life.

How has this experience changed you?
It hasn't changed nothing, I'm still the same person. There's nothing to change. If you're coming here for spiritual enlightenment you came to the wrong place. We're here to fight. We've been doing this for 500 years, and it's the same fight. Water or oil? You just gotta choose.

Sarah Shomin
From the Ojibwe tribe in Michigan

Image: Avery White

What do you make of that announcement from the Army Corp of Engineers?
I don't believe it for one second. This fight definitely isn't over. We're just hunkering down, and we ain't leaving. We ain't leaving until the black snake's dead. We ain't leaving 'til that pipeline's out the ground, those DAPL lights are down, they clean up their mess, and they're home with their families. Right now the black snake's got an arrow in him, he's hurting. He's still just as dangerous though. Maybe even more dangerous. We want him dead. That means we're camping out, we're gonna have to get ready for this harsh winter.

What does Standing Rock mean to the world?
We're letting people know that they're not alone anymore. That we do have a voice and it can be heard if you're willing to risk it. This hasn't been no walk in the park for us… I've seen a man get shot off his horse, I've seen a girl get her eye shot out with a rubber bullet by the police. If you're willing to risk it, you can be heard. It's scary. Don't get me wrong man, it's scary as hell. But we need this. Pretty soon we're gonna be so scared that we won't even be able to leave our house anymore. We can't let them control us like that.

Smoke comes out of a chimney of winterized camp shelters. Image: Avery White

Where will everyone go after Standing Rock?
I almost feel like I had no purpose before this. I was a walking zombie. Here I actually feel alive, like I'm living. Once you come to Standing Rock, you can't just go home to your regular life, watch TV, eat supper, go back to work. Me, I wanna go for more fights after this. This hasn't made me fearless but I'm damn near close. We ain't hiding. We are not hiding…nope.

The guns just don't scare me. All the weapons they're using against us, they just don't scare me. I don't know if it's in our blood to not be scared, but for some reason I just keep going back to the front lines. I just keep fighting. They can take everything I own, they can take everything I have, but they won't take what's in my heart, they can't.

Govinda Dalton
Co-Founder of Standing Rock Spirit Resistance Radio Station

Image: Avery White

What do you make of the news from the Army Corp of Engineers that DAPL will not be granted the permit to continue construction?
After the decision that no permit was going to be issued there began a rumor that DAPL will drill and take the hit with the fine. The fine is a nebulous term, what would be the impact on the Mississippi and Missouri River? I think basically what we're looking for is the pipeline to get ripped out of the ground and for them to take it all back. Then we'll leave.

What does Standing Rock signify for the rest of the world?
We are standing in the middle of a moment of transition for humanity—old ways are resurfacing in the new world. Indigenous values and traditional ways of governance will move forward a new time for humanity.

Correction: This story originally misspelled Sarah Shomin's last name. It is Shomin, not Shelman.