'We Don’t Go Until They Do': Cautious Celebration and Skepticism At Standing Rock

Photo by Tod Seelie for Jezebel
Photo by Tod Seelie for Jezebel

STANDING ROCK—On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they won’t allow a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline to be drilled under the Missouri River, near tribal lands belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux. In one sense, it’s a triumphant end to the standoff that the Standing Rock tribe and their allies have waged near the pipeline site since August to protect their land, their drinking water, and their sacred sites. But on Sunday night, even as they celebrated, for now, no one at Standing Rock was going anywhere.


When the announcement went out that the pipeline was being blocked, a huge roaring cheer went up from the crowd at Oceti Sakowin, the main encampment of water protectors. People prayed, wept and sang. Some lined up for a procession on horseback. A few hours later, after the sun went down, fireworks streaked across the sky.

“It’s wonderful,” Dave Archambault II, the Standing Rock tribal chairman told the crowd, according to the New York Times. “You all did that. Your presence has brought the attention of the world.”

But not an hour after the initial announcement, a concern—more than a rumor, less than a substantiated fact—started spreading through the camps. People had reason to think that Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, planned to keep drilling in defiance of the order.

And sure enough, ETP issued a furious, aggrieved press release around 11 p.m., along withsubsidiary Sunoco Logistics. In it, they all but vowed to keep drilling, accusing the Obama Administration of halting the project to “curry favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency”:

The White House’s directive today to the Corps for further delay is just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.

As stated all along, ETP and SXL are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.

And so, as night fell and puddles of snow re-froze into sheets of treacherous black ice, tents and tipis stayed up. Despite temperatures threatening to drop into the single digits this week, many people seemed resolved to stay.

“Not ‘til the lights turn off and they take down that roadblock,” said Richard Bluecloud Castaneda, 46, an artist from San Francisco. He gestured in the direction of ETP’s equipment in the distance.


Castaneda is an artist and photographer originally from the Salt River community near Phoenix, Arizona. He was there with a friend, Spencer Keeton Cunningham, also an artist and a member of Washington state’s Colville tribe. Both men agreed that they weren’t budging.

“We don’t trust anything they say,” Castaneda explained pleasantly. He first arrived at Standing Rock in October, and stayed through most of November before returning home for a spell. He returned this week. Cunningham and a friend, social worker Kyla Ferguson, had been here since mid-November. All three noticed a sudden absence of law enforcement drones hovering over the camp on Sunday. The peace and quiet, they pointed out, coincided with an influx of media and celebrity supporters, not to mention thousands of veterans who arrived to support and defend the water protectors. All three worried that ETP and law enforcement were merely behaving themselves for now.


“Once the media and the vets leave, they’ll start acting out,” Cunningham said. That’s what happened in late October, when seven different police agencies converged on the 1851 Treaty Camp, which stood in the pipeline’s path. Castaneda watched as tipis and tents were destroyed. People were sprayed with rubber bullets or dragged from where they were praying in a sweat lodge and arrested. Some 140 people were taken into custody in all. It was a scene he found hard to forget.

“Native Americans have been sold a bill of goods a million times,” Cunningham added. “There’s a lot of mistrust.”


“Plenty of people are staying,” agreed Philip George, a U.S. Army veteran who now lives in Canada, and who arrived at the camp on Sunday with a contingent of 50 other veterans. “This isn’t just about a pipeline. It’s about everything that’s been done to us. The first people of this land need an actual say in what’s going on in this country.”

The water protectors and veterans, he said, would go when the Standing Rock Sioux asked them to, and not a moment before. “This is treaty land. We respect the nation-to-nation relationship.”


“We don’t leave until they leave,” a woman sitting at a campfire with her children said briefly, gesturing at that spot in the distance where ETP’s machines hovered, silent for now. She turned back to her children. “Until they pack up their drilling equipment and go.”

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.



If ETP and SXL start drilling again in defiance of the Army Corp of Engineers, then the Governor of North Dakota and the local sheriff will surely have to go after them with water cannons, dogs, rubber bullets, and orders to evacuate, right? Right? Because they care about laws and stuff.