Standing Rock was never just about the pipeline. It’s about an existential fight against the corporate interests who would sacrifice people and the planet on the altar of short-term gain.
Most people at Oceti Sakowin are suspicious of the Army Corps’ announcement or consider it merely one battle won within a much larger war. The day after the news, on Dec. 5, there was a huge demonstration during which most of the camp marched against the wind into a blizzard, toward the bridge that the police had occupied.
The images below were taken by Christian Hansen at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock in early December.
There were fireworks the night the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the easement allowing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline—low, bright explosions lighting up the makeshift civilization on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. And then the protesters got back to work.
The Army Corps’ unexpected announcement on Dec. 4 has largely been hailed as a victory for the people who’ve spent months trying to block final construction of the pipeline. But at the camp, where members of more than 700 tribes have gathered with the Standing Rock Sioux—and have stayed, despite frigid temperatures—the news was received a bit more cautiously. Even when David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, told protesters it was time to go home and be with their families for the winter, many were reluctant. They know this decision is not conclusive—it’s more of a punt so the Army Corps can “explore alternate routes” and consider an Environmental Impact Statement “with full public input and analysis.” And the whole thing could be reversed by President-elect Donald Trump once he takes office.
We don’t know. But whatever happens next, the ideals that catalyzed the Standing Rock protest are not going away. The people fighting for them are in it for the long haul, because in a broader sense that’s what the protest was about—advocating for the long view amid the triumphal short-termism of our current political culture. The protesters in Standing Rock are eminently aware that this “victory” is not the end but rather another twist in a longer fight. And while others are lamenting how the Army Corps’ decision will make the process drag on, for the protesters, that’s OK. They’re committed to ideals that have a longer shelf life than the market cycle, or even a presidential term. “It’s more than this pipeline, on this land, at this time,” Daphne Singingtree, a protester who has spent weeks at Standing Rock and intends to stay, told NPR after the Army Corps’ decision was announced. “I see this movement continuing on.”
Pipeline supporters, by contrast, have short-term goals. They want to finish the pipeline, start pumping oil, and start making money. Their arguments for why it should go through rely on short-term considerations: The pipeline is mostly complete, and right now we’re shipping oil on trains, which is more dangerous. Plus, the government is about to open a gleaming new water-treatment plant, so, really, the concern that a pipeline break could contaminate their drinking water is actually unnecessary. Case closed.
These arguments hold up so long as you think about them only within the narrow framework of the short term. As soon as you consider the long term, they fall apart. The Standing Rock Sioux are not just interested in where they’re going to get their water right now. They’re worried about where they’re going to get their water forever. “As American citizens, we all have a responsibility to speak for a vision of the future that is safe and productive for our grandchildren,” Archambault wrote in the New York Times in August.
The long term is what brought the environmentalists there, too, even though the actual decisions made at Standing Rock so far have been more fundamentally about land rights than about climate change. (Pollution provides a bridge between the two issues.) Archambault connected these dots on Minnesota Public Radio on Wednesday: “If, for the first time, this nation can listen and hear us, they’ll understand that this is about climate change,” he said. “We all have to take a good look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we dependent on fossil fuels?’ If we say yes, we’re creating the demand for the Dakota Access pipeline and for future pipelines,” both of which threaten land and water.
These concerns intermingled at Standing Rock, and one lasting prize of the protests might be the alliances they produced, a sort of coalition of the long term: Sioux Indians worried about their drinking water. Environmental activists concerned about the viability of the planet and the way our fossil-fuel dependence gets consecrated in our infrastructure. Veterans showing up out of a wish to protect the Constitution. Black Lives Matter activists who saw their own long cause in the police brutality visited upon Native Americans at Standing Rock and across the country. Mainline protestants who want to acknowledge the injustices tribes have suffered in the past and wish to support them in this “spiritual battle” for their right to their sacred grounds.
Standing Rock attracted the politically engaged, but also the politically disaffected. Some there had grown so disillusioned that Trump’s upset win barely registered when the news reached them the morning after the election. Still, they were camping out in the Great Plains in the middle of winter for a cause. Much has been said about the Americans whose grievances have not been recognized or addressed by our current politics. Some took their dissatisfaction to the ballot box. Others took it to Standing Rock. And many there do not trust the permanence of the Army Corps’ decision, making them unwilling to leave. Veterans continued arriving even after the announcement. “I celebrate with caution,” Tara Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation, told the Guardian, when explaining her intent to stay. “We know that Trump is coming and with that, we know our fight will continue.”
The man now preparing to take office embodies the antithesis of the protesters’ vision. Trump is pro-pipeline generally, and he stands to gain financially from this one specifically. He will be the only world leader to deny the reality of climate change and the first president to have been elected without prior government experience. He is the short-termer–in-chief, having attained the office in part by running on his corporate experience, his supposed ability to get results. That’s what the protesters are up against: the elevation of the American belief that government ought to run like a corporation, one that prioritizes short-term results over long-term progress. On Wednesday, Trump named a climate change denialist to head his EPA. Oil executive Rex Tillerson is the leading front-runner for secretary of state. Short-termism is running the country. Standing Rock is not going away.
The perimeter of the Oceti Sakowin camp, Dec. 3.
Protesters—or protectors, as they wish to be called—look at the police blockade on a bridge on Highway 1806, just beyond the Oceti Sakowin camp, on Dec. 3. The bridge was the site of a dangerous face-off between protesters and police on Nov. 20, when protesters said water cannons and rubber bullets were used. Twenty-six people were taken to the hospital while another 300 were treated for minor injuries.
Protesters on horseback patrol the perimeter of the camp, Dec. 3.
A man runs up a hill overlooking Oceti Sakowin camp as a helicopter, likely surveying the camp below, flies low overhead, Dec. 3.
Oceti Sakowin at night, Dec. 3.
Fireworks were set off the night before the Army Corps announcement, Dec. 3.
A supply tent bursting with donations, Dec. 4.
Veterans head up to the road from the camp to protect the natives during a demonstration, prior to the Army Corps’ announcement, Dec. 4.
The Army Corps announced they would not grant the easement on Dec. 4. Most everyone in Oceti Sakowin formed a giant circle holding hands around the perimeter of the camp.
A group from Portland builds “Tarpees,” a new design to the teepee that’s made of tarp rather than cloth, Dec. 4.
Three men observing a large protest that occurred the day after the Army Corps of engineers made its announcement about rerouting the pipeline.
People march through a blizzard toward a bridge occupied by police, as part of Monday’s large demonstration.
Many veterans were still arriving on Monday, Dec. 5, even though the Army Corps announced it would not approve the easement on Dec. 4.
The weather was below freezing throughout the day, with a mean temperature of 22 degrees, Dec. 5.
The Army Corps had previously announced they would close the camp on Dec. 5 in part due to the extreme weather, but they later said they would not remove anyone from the land.
The veterans came to serve as a physical barrier between the police and the natives.
Nighttime at Oceti Sakowin, Dec. 5.
An International Indigenous Youth Council member, inside a yurt, Dec. 5.
Jacquelyn Cordova, left, and Theresa Martin play music inside a Youth Council yurt on Dec. 5. Friends of Youth Council members, they have been at Oceti Sakowin for months.
Members of the International Indigenous Youth Council inside a yurt, Dec. 5.
Don Turner, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council, has been at Oceti Sakowin for months, Dec. 5.
Susan Matthews is Slate’s science editor.
Christian Hansen, a photojournalist based in New York City, has been a regular contributor to the New York Times for 10 years, and was formerly a staff writer at the Gillette News Record in Wyoming. His photographic and journalistic work focuses primarily on American cultural issues.