BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA - Hundreds of veterans who came to North Dakota to stand show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe were heading an evacuation mission Tuesday to help those stuck in a blizzard that immobilized most of the state.
Hundreds of cars poured into the Oceti Sakowin camp Sunday and Monday following the decision of the Army Corps of Engineers to deny an easement needed to route the Dakota Access Pipeline under a Missouri River reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. That section is the last major part of the pipeline that hasn't been finished.
Security officials at the camp, however, have not let anyone leave, citing safety concerns. Thousands of protesters have been stuck since the blizzard began Monday.
"It's mostly involving helping people get back on the roads … people who have slipped off the road, and getting people to Prairie King," Iraq War veteran Johnathan Engle told VOA, referring to the casino about 15 kilometers from the Oceti Sakowin camp. Thousands of "water protectors" have been staying at the camp while they protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they see as a threat to drinking water and cultural sites.
"[The casino] has a large open area" and has offered it as a place to stay, "so people are kind of spread out on the floor along the sides of the auditorium. They have their sleeping bags and other gear with them," Johnathan said. The casino is the nearest establishment of any kind to the camp.
Though multiple news agencies have reported that Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault II has asked the camp to disband, saying its mission is over, the message has not spread throughout the Oceti Sakowin camp, where many who are prepared with long-term tents and winter gear are planning to stay. Though the Army Corps announced its decision on the easement Sunday, many "water protectors" are wary that officials in the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump could reverse the decision after he is inaugurated in January.
"Between the tribal elders, communication is moving very slowly here," Kevin Basl, another member of "Veterans Stand for Standing Rock," told VOA. "Some people are very ready for this, and there are some people who were just coming for the weekend who weren't so well-prepared. But the roads are closed, so no one will be leaving for now."
The majority of interstate Highway 94, which runs across the state, has been closed, and the North Dakota Department of Transportation issued a "no travel" advisory for the majority of state highways, including all routes to and from the Standing Rock reservation.
Basl and Engle both came to the camp over the weekend, when activist and veteran Wesley Clark Jr. organized nearly 2,000 veterans to show their support for the water protectors at Standing Rock.
"We've all signed up to sacrifice our lives to help people," Clark told VOA near the Standing Rock camp on Sunday. "I know a lot of veterans take the oath very seriously, like I do. I put the call out to vets, and everybody answered. It's awesome," he said, visibly emotional over the sheer number of veterans present.
A GoFundMe page set up to support veterans coming to Standing Rock this weekend raised over $1 million.
Clark, who spoke alongside U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sunday, cited both environmental concerns as well as a continuous history of mistreatment of the Native American people.
"The United States has broken every single treaty it's ever signed with native peoples. Every one. And native peoples have broken no treaties with the federal government," he said. "So it's time this country actually starts living up to its word."
Both Clark and Gabbard, who rose to popularity when she endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president last year, spoke to what they said was a misrepresentation of the issue. They said oil companies — who say they support the pipeline for efficiency, safety and economic reasons — are not actually taking people's lives into consideration.
"Some who are talking about this issue are trying to pit two sides of our community and our country against each other — those who are choosing to support so-called economic development and jobs pitted against those who are standing for protecting water," Gabbard said. "It's a false narrative; it's a false question. Unless we protect our water, there is no economy. There are no jobs. There is no life."