On December 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement to allow the 1,172 mile long Dakota Access Pipeline to be completed until a thorough environmental impact survey was conducted. Water protectors celebrated with drumming, song, prayer and fireworks. At the time, there were about 12,000 water protectors, representing 400 tribes and living in three camps.
I took this photo at the Sacred Fire that day, but it wasn’t until my second trip, over a month later, that I met the guy in the photo. His name is Sam, and he’s a nomad. He lives off the grid, no phone, no social media, and travels from Rainbow Gathering to protest camp to friends and relatives to secret camps in the woods. He’s one of the happiest, most optimistic and loving people I’ve ever met.
This is what Oceti Sakowin, the largest camp, looked like the evening of Dec. 4.
This is what it looked like the next afternoon.
On December 5, a major blizzard hit the camps. The storm coincided with the arrival of nearly 4,000 veterans, answering a call put out by a weeks-old organization called Veterans Stand. The veterans came as human shields, willing to place themselves between activists and militarized police.
On January 24, the Trump administration issued an executive order overriding the environmental impact study and effectively allowing work on the Dakota Access Pipeline to resume. The Army Corps of Engineers issued a February 22 evacuation date for the main camp of Oceti Sakowin (which began using a new name, Oceti Oyate), which still housed about 400 people. Bulldozers and work crews funded by the tribe and the government began to clear large piles of frozen trash—testaments to the thousands who fled camp during the early December blizzard.
New camps formed to host those who would be forced to leave Oceti. This privately held reservation would soon become the short-lived Rise of the Seventh Generation camp, but in early February, when I took this photo, it was still empty.
Water protectors, including Sam, loaded a truck with buffalo skins purchased from a nearby factory. They’d been storing the skins at the new camp, and under the guidance of a Native elder, they planned to dry and tan the skins. They only managed a few skins before all the camps were closed.
In it’s final weeks, Oceti Oyate was a jumble of abandoned structures, giant puddles and items left behind by a once-thriving community.
Stranded motorist were frustrated because tow trucks refuse to come into the camp. Many water protectors didn’t want to leave because they were unable to move cots, wood stoves, solar panels and generators, out of camp.
Read more about my time at Standing Rock at VICE: