Standing Rock activists wait out heavy snowfalls with ‘fire cider’ and songs

Despite below-freezing temperatures and a victory to reroute the pipeline earlier this week, people were still out and about at the main encampment

The sun came out over the Standing Rock encampments on Wednesday, after two days of snowstorm dumped a fresh blanket of snowfall on the tipis, army tents and shelters still standing here. But in North Dakota, the snow does not fall just once.

Fierce gales whipped through the prairie scenery, creating changing snow floats and momentary whiteouts. A steady river of snow blew across the roads like rushing cloud, and the flags that line the main thoroughfare through Oceti Sakowin, the main encampment, snapped and cracked like a lash.

Despite temperatures that hovered simply above 0F and windchills at -2 0F and despite the fact that Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault asked campers to go home after Sundays announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers would not grant work permits for the Dakota Access pipeline to drill under the Missouri river people were still out and about at Oceti Sakowin.

The sacred flame that stands in the center of camp was still being tended, and singers lifted their voices against the wind.

The television trucks were gone, the lightweight summertime tents were run, and most of the hundreds of US veterans who traveled here to support the water protector movement were run. But inside the canvas tent of the California Kitchen, stew was still being dished out, with frozen strawberries on the side.

Campers huddled around the wood stove for warmth, discussing how much longer they thought they could survive in this cold.

Outside, Semar Prom, a teacher at the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, worked with a small crew constructing a wooden building with a pitched roof. Once the structure is complete, the builders will be able to continue crafting wooden hogans away from these components. The team had continued working throughout the snowstorm, though Prom lost some of his tools in the snow.

This was Proms second journey to Standing Rock, after biding for a week over Thanksgiving.

I didnt want to come unless I was required, he said. They need builders.

Though some people were leaving, Prom said that the shelters were for those who were determined to stay.

Despite the news, people still need to stay here, he said. Everyones still running, twice as hard now.

The healers yurt in the medic and wellness region might be one of the warmest places at Oceti Sakowin. The round Mongolian structure has a gaily painted red doorway and sheaf of herbs hanging from the ceiling. Light snuck through a small window at the apex of the round roof, but most of the healers inside wore headlamps as they offered hot tea and herbal remedies to the steady stream of guests ducking through the door.

The wood stove may warm up visitors thumbs and noses, but the proffered shootings of fire cider apple cider vinegar suffused with ginger, garlic, cayenne pepper, and other spices warm you up from the inside out. It burns going down, leaves a road of heat through your chest, and is supposed to help boost your immune system.

You never forget your first shot of flame cider, Linda Black Elk said. The Standing Rock Healer& Medic Council has an entire house full of jars of the stuff, she said.

Black Elk is a member of the Catawba nation, but shes lived on Standing Rock Sioux reservation for much of their own lives. An ethnobotanist and healer, she has helped coordinate the Healer& Medic Council, responsible for everything from everyday aches and pains to the mass casualty event the night of 20 November, when hundreds of protesters were doused with water guns and hit with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Linda Black Elk helped coordinate the Healer& Medic Council, responsible for everything from everyday aches and pains to the mass casualty event when hundreds of protesters were doused with water cannons and hit with tear gas and rubber bullets. Photograph: Julia Carrie Wong for the Guardian

Water guns may have been unexpected, but Black Elk and her squad have been preparing for blizzard conditions. As the storm howled on Monday and Tuesday, medics ran tent to tent checking on people.

There were a few cases of hypothermia, Black Elk said, but most were resolved by moving people to warmer spaces. One person was taken to Bismarck but did not necessitate hospitalization.

As she sat on a low bench in the toasty yurt, Black Elk conveyed her pride in the volunteer medics who maintained people safe during the blizzard.

If you think of the lack of infrastructure and the situation were in, the fact that no one succumbed and there were very few issues I would say we were as prepared as any local clinic or hospital, she said.

Like many of the water defenders here, Black Elk disagreed with Archambaults request for people to leave, and she is prepared to continue her work helping them make it through.

We always say cyclones like this separate the women from the girls, she said. A plenty of the girls have left, and thats not a bad thing. But I do not believe the warriors should leave.

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