It started small.
Back in April, a few Standing Rock tribal members set up camp in a small valley where the Cannonball River flows into Lake Oahe. They were protesting a pipeline designed to carry oil 1,200 miles from the Bakken oil fields to a distribution center in Illinois.
Fueled by social media, the protest caught fire, and the camp is now larger than most small towns in North Dakota.
Standing Rock Tribal Chair Dave Archambault said he's been overwhelmed by the response to a carefully considered decision to fight the Dakota Access pipeline.
"This started with prayer, this started with ceremony," he said. "I think there's a spirit rising in all of us across this nation, across this world, saying, 'Enough is enough.' I'm not the one that's doing all of this. It's beyond people. It's the creator is taking over."
The protesters won a small victory late last week when the federal government announced it would review the Dakota Access permit and consult with tribes on the permit process.
"It's earth-shaking, something like this, where three departments come together and start to recognize and expand the jurisdiction for indigenous people and to look at what the wrongs are," Archambault said.
Tribal nations on the prairie haven't had many victories since the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and it's still unclear how significant this one will be.
The company building the $3.8 billion line says it remains committed to the project. Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren told employees in a memo this week that concerns about the pipeline's impact on the local water supply are unfounded.
The pipeline company removed its equipment near the protest camp Tuesday, but construction continued on other parts of the nearly 1,200-mile pipeline. Authorities arrested several protesters who were blocking construction work Tuesday.
The head of North Dakota's Petroleum Industry trade group said the protest is really an effort by environmental groups to shut down another pipeline project. Ron Ness pointed to the Keystone pipeline from Canada and the Sandpiper line from North Dakota across Minnesota. Both were scuttled after a controversial permit process.
Ness said the Dakota Access line is a huge infrastructure project. "It's the equivalent of maybe the interstate highway system." If the pipeline doesn't open as planned, he said, oil will keep flowing from the Bakken — moving by rail if necessary.
Preparing for a winter camp
A tribal official says protesters are preparing to support a winter camp to keep construction at bay. The local sheriff says bluntly that it can't stay open long term.
Standing Rock Chair Archambault is just as clear about his position.
"There's never going to be a time when the state or the federal government comes in and tries to dismantle this," he said. "That won't happen."
Yet, even as protesters dug in on the Dakota Access project, it became clear that the movement at Standing Rock is about more than one pipeline.
"It feels powerful," said Galeson EagleStar, of Pine Ridge, S.D., as he stood overlooking a second encampment that became necessary when arriving sympathizers outgrew the first. It sits on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Hundreds of colorful tents dot the landscape among motor homes, campers, cars and trucks. About three dozen traditional teepees are scattered across the campsite. There are rows of portable toilets, a camp kitchen, a tent school for children, dozens of horses and mountains of donated supplies.
And dozens of tribal nation flags flap in the breeze.
"I gathered information that there was over 100 different indigenous North American native tribes here camped out," EagleStar said. He's nearly 70, but he still proudly wears a T-shirt bearing the logo of the American Indian Movement, a protest group he joined in the 1970s.
EagleStar pointed to a large tent in the center of the camp. It houses the seven warrior societies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations.
"The first time the seven societies have come together in this way since the 1800s, during the time when this character named Custer committed suicide along with his flunkies," he said.
Occasional references to the Plains Wars notwithstanding, tribal leaders say they're not looking to start an armed conflict. The tactics they focus on today are legal action, the regulatory process and civil disobedience.
"Within the past seven years we have seen the indigenous peoples rising up in defense of our Mother Earth," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Bemidji-based Indigenous Environmental Network, which has been working with tribes on environmental issues since 1990.
Goldtooth sees the tribal engagement in environmental and social issues as a natural progression, building on a return to traditional culture, spirituality and language over the past 15 to 20 years.
Tribal nations at the camp have had some frank discussions, he said. There's not unanimous agreement on tactics and strategy, but there is a commitment to stand together.
"We pride ourselves on a sovereign nation like the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who's standing up recognizing their traditional heritage that defines what their responsibility is to be the guardian of the Unci Makha, Grandmother Earth," he said.
Campfire conversations by the dozens
Tribal elders are leading this movement, but it started with a push from younger American Indians impatient with the status quo.
One such young man calls himself WindCloud. He grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation but left to get an education. He wears a long black braid and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He's working security at the camp and dreaming of a better future for his homeland.
"So how to get rid of bullies? You create bigger and stronger guards. The bullies just check themselves at the door. Peace ensues," he said.
WindCloud's guards are metaphorical; he's talking about economic strength. He says the tribe can build a clean-energy economy and industries around industrial hemp.
He wants tribal leaders to stop expecting fair treatment from the U.S. government.
"It's not up to us to worry about them; it's about us to govern ourselves," he said. "As a sovereign nation we can manage ourselves. All we have to do is show them. The 1851 treaty allows us to trade with Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia. Any one of those countries. We can do it on our own. We have to practice it. That's the next step."
Conversations like this are happening around dozens of campfires.
Such discussions are what brought Devery Fairbanks back to the camp for a second time. Fairbanks is a member of the White Earth band in Minnesota and works at the Red Lake Nation College.
"It's hard to describe the feeling of it. It's emotional, spiritual. It is powerful," Fairbanks said. "You come here, your eyes are opened, your consciousness level is raised. You can't help but learn important things here."
Fairbanks brought a group of students to the camp. They will stay only a few days, but he expects them to return to Minnesota with a changed world view.
Something about this camp brought people from across the country, from California, Georgia, Colorado, Arizona.
Martin Coons, of the Onandoga Nation in upstate New York, spent five days in the camp before he and his partner had to head back to Buffalo. They felt compelled to come here and will leave with a desire to do more.
"This river ain't just here for us, it's here for everybody," Coons said. "And if it gets contaminated, it affects everybody. There's no Planet B. Once you screw this one up, you can't fix it."
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.