Lee Plenty Wolf knows the government wants him to clear out of the snowbound tepee where he stokes the fire, sings traditional Oglala songs and sleeps alongside a pair of women from France and California who came to protest an oil pipeline in the stinging cold. But he and thousands of other protesters are vowing to make what may be their last stand at Standing Rock.
The orders to evacuate the sprawling protest camp on this frozen prairie just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation came down last week from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Dakota governor’s office. After four months of prayer marches and clashes with law enforcement officials who responded with tear gas and water cannons, the protesters now have until Monday to leave.
The government said it would not forcibly remove anyone, but could cite people for trespassing or other offenses.
At the camp, defiance is rising like smoke from the stovepipe of Mr. Plenty Wolf’s tepee. People are here to stay. They are building yurts and hammering together plywood for bunkhouses and lodges. The communal kitchen stops serving dinner at 9:30 p.m.; it reopens a half-hour later as a sleeping space.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Mr. Plenty Wolf said one night as he cradled a buffalo-hide drum and reflected on grievances that run deeper than groundwater among Native Americans here. “We’re getting tired of being pushed for 500 years. They’ve been taking, taking, taking, and enough’s enough.”
The approaching deadline to leave the camps and the dwindling days of President Obama’s term create a feeling that any opportunity to stop the Dakota Access pipeline is fading. The fight has drawn thousands of tribal members, veterans, activists and celebrities and transformed a frozen patch of North Dakota into a focal point for environmental and tribal activism.
The main camp sits on federal lands that people at the camps say should rightfully belong to the Standing Rock Sioux under the terms of an 1851 treaty. To Mr. Plenty Wolf, closing it amounts to one more broken treaty.
The Standing Rock Sioux’s concerns about an oil spill just upriver from their water source has resonated with environmentalist and clean-water groups across the country, and dozens have rallied to support the tribes. Climate-change activists who fought the Keystone XL pipeline have also joined the protests. “Keep it in the ground” is a rallying cry on banners.
Even as violent confrontations erupted in fields and along creeks and about 600 people were arrested, crews kept digging and burying the pipeline. Its 1,170-mile path from the oil fields of North Dakota to southern Illinois is nearly complete.
Since September, the Obama administration has blocked construction on a critical section where the pipeline would burrow underneath a dammed section of the Missouri River that tribes say sits near sacred burial sites.
The tribe and activists are pushing Mr. Obama to order up a yearslong environmental review or otherwise block the project before he leaves office. President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Friday that he supported finishing the $3.7 billion pipeline.
Nobody here knows what to expect. The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the federal land on which the main camp sits, says it wants protesters to make a “peaceful and orderly transition” out of the camps and to a “free speech zone” nearby. Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier of Morton County, a critic of the protesters who leads the law enforcement response, said his officers would not go into the camps to remove people.
The divide between law enforcement officials and the tribe and protesters now feels more brittle than ever.
Dave Archambault II, the Standing Rock Sioux chairman, has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations of civil rights violations. He criticized officers for using rubber bullets and sprays of freezing water against what he called unarmed, peaceful “water protectors.”
“I’m worried about the next confrontation,” he said. “The escalation has continued to rise. They have concertina wire all over the place. They’re almost daring the water protectors. That’s not safe.”
Sheriff Kirchmeier dismissed the claims.
“I reject it all,” he said in an interview in the basement of the county offices, where stacks of snacks, fruit and juice donated by the public sat beside scuffed riot shields. “The protesters are forcing police and us into taking action. They’re committing criminal activities.”
He said protesters had used sling shots to attack officers and thrown rocks and bottles. He and other local officials continue to criticize the federal government’s response. They say the decision to delay the pipeline created months of instability that have cost Morton County $8 million. They say federal officials have offered little in the way of manpower or money to help.
On Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she had asked Justice Department officials who handle tribal-justice issues and community policing, as well as the United States attorney for North Dakota, to help mediate.
In recent days, conflicting statements from local and state officials have stirred confusion about how vigorously officials will enforce the closing of the camps. A Morton County spokeswoman initially said people could face $1,000 fines for trying to bring supplies to the camp, only to be contradicted by a governor’s spokesman who said that North Dakota had no plans to block supplies.
The authorities are still enforcing a blockade of the fastest, most direct route into the camp. But other roads — and supply lines — were still open. Pickup trucks and U-Hauls carried in lumber and propane tanks, pallets of bottled water, firewood and food. A container truck managed to crawl down the icy, flag-lined ramp into camp.
Cusi Ballew, a Pottawatomie member from southern Ohio making his second trip to the camp, was up on a ladder drilling pieces of plywood together to make a bunkhouse for Sioux tribal members. “Humans have been surviving winters for over 250,000 years,” he said. “What’s important isn’t how we’re doing it but why we’re doing it. We’re here for prayer and for action.”
And more people were pouring in.
Veterans’ groups were hoping to bring 2,000 Native and non-Native veterans to Standing Rock over the weekend. The Bismarck airport was a hive one morning: the actress Patricia Arquette could be seen heaving a suitcase off the baggage carousel; the director of a clean-water group was on the phone figuring out transportation; California friends from the Burning Man festival arrived with $5,000 worth of turmeric and medicinal herbs and oils.
At the camp, children sledded down the icy hills and horses cantered through the snow, and as night fell and people clustered around campfires to cook chili and fry bread, Laurie Running Hawk made her way to a small camp by the banks of the river. In the distance were the sounds of Native men drumming and singing, and the sight of tall floodlights along a ridge that marked the path of the pipeline.
Ms. Running Hawk grew up on the southern end of the Standing Rock Reservation and said she had been home from Minnesota for a powwow this summer when she and her 7-year-old and 15-year-old sons chanced onto one of the first major confrontations to block the pipeline. They joined in, and four months later, she was back, sleeping in a yurt with four teenagers from Minnesota who nearly froze to death on their first night in camp.
“I’m here,” she said. “You’re not going to kick me out. This is my land.”