Here's How Standing Rock Looks in the Brutal Dead of Winter

Tipis in the snow at Oceti Sakowin. All photos by Tod Seelie for Jezebel

On Tuesday afternoon, Oceti Sakowin—the main camp for water protectors at Standing Rock—was full of people and activity, yet eerily quiet. The temperatures had dropped precipitously: it was about four degrees outside, and with wind chill felt like negative 20. By 4 p.m., gusting snow and a darkening sky were making it difficult to see more than a few hundred yards. Everyone was in survival mode: unloading firewood, pulling on extra layers, battening down tents against the wind. A woman on a loudspeaker announced that the portable toilets would soon disappear.

“The toilets are being taken,” she announced, by Spiffy, the company who provided them. They hadn’t been cleaned in quite some time, although it wasn’t clear whether that was because they were frozen solid or because the company had decided to stop servicing them. But the woman on the loudspeaker saw it as a tactic to try to move the water protectors out. She asked for able-bodied veterans at the camp for help digging latrines and completing compostable toilets.


“If they create a sanitation hazard, that’s a way for them to shut us down,” she warned. “But they don’t have a clue about the spirit of this camp. They don’t have a clue about who we are.”

This is the determined face of the people who have decided to stay at Standing Rock through the long, punishing North Dakota winter. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault III has said that the people there have “an opportunity to go home” now that the Army Corps of Engineers has blocked Energy Transfer Partners from completing work on the disputed section of pipeline.

But several different tribal governments and organizations are represented at Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone Camp, just across the Missouri River. Not all of them have agreed to leave.


“We’re not moving,” said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. She owns the land where Sacred Stone is located and has been a central organizer in the Standing Rock movement. “We stand. We stay. The black snake is not dead.”


The Indigenous Youth Council also announced Wednesday that they’ve taken a vote and decided to remain:

Last night we had a meeting for the first time in a long time and came to a unanimous decision:

We will not be leaving until the snake is dead!

We respect our elders but respect our Unci Maka the most and are here first and foremost to honor her. Please continue to pray for the water protectors and spread the word that we are still here and in need of your continued support.


That decision came after a difficult week, in which some people at the camp— particularly older veterans—were temporarily evacuated following a surprise blizzard.


There have been substantial donations to camp funds, intended for this type of weather emergency, and meant to pay for things like snow plows, food and housing. But water protectors and allies wanting to get to safety indoors were hampered when M&T Bank refused to release extra donation funds, beyond the daily withdrawal limit, according to a Baltimore-based organizer named Michael A. Wood Jr who’s been providing support to Standing Rock. After several hours of vigorous public shaming from Wood on Twitter, M&T agreed to release the additional funds.


A number of people who weren’t prepared or ready for the brutal cold also left after the evacuation, a steady stream of cars proceeding down state highway 1806. Those who remain will face wind chills that could drop down to negative 40 degrees this week.


People remaining at the camp were careful to cover every inch of exposed skin, wearing balaclavas and ski goggles to cover their faces. People without adequate cover for their faces emerged with chapped, heavily windburned skin. Facial hair, eyelashes, and our photographer’s camera sprouted a layer of frost.

A deer carcass in the snow at Oceti Sakowin.
An all-terrain vehicle equipped with snow chains sits on the ridge known as Facebook Hill, so named because it’s one of the few spots in camp that gets cell reception.

Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone sit on opposite sides of the Cannonball River, which has frozen solid. Every small county highway leading to the camp is also icy and treacherous: on Wednesday morning, proceeding into the camp, I spotted 13 stranded cars on the side of the road. Even in the places where the highway was passable, incredibly strong wind gusts blew the snow across the road, limiting visibility at times to just a few feet in front of the car.

The portion of Oceti Sakowin that sits next to the frozen Missouri River.
A cow skull tied to a pole in front of a tipi at camp.

On the whole, tipis and yurts at Oceti Sakowin were faring better than tents, many of which had collapsed in on themselves under layers of snow and ice.


There is simply no understating how difficult and potentially deadly the conditions at Standing Rock will be this winter. You can donate supplies to Standing Rock water protectors here and here. Donate to a legal fund here. 

Update: In an Instagram post this afternoon, Oceti Sakowin asked anyone planning to come to the camp to stay home, saying the weather conditions made it too dangerous for anyone new to join the camp.

A view down the Flag Road at Oceti Sakowin, where flags from some of the 250 tribes who joined the water protectors are displayed.

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About the author

Anna Merlan

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.

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