Snowmelt at Oceti Sakowin Camp, where temperatures rose to the mid-30s a week before a Feb. 22 deadline to clear the lands as ordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Credit: Doug Mclean

Religious harm once seemed a promising defense in attempts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline before up to 570,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil starts to flow beneath the Missouri River, the Mni Sose as it’s called in the Lakota language.

But the temporary restraining order, jointly filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its sister nation, the Cheyenne River Sioux, was denied by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg on Monday. A new hearing calling for a halt in construction of the last leg of the energy project is scheduled for Feb. 27. Many believe it may be the tribes’ last legal hope.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the two nations had claimed that the $3.8 billion pipeline violates federal statute because it threatens the waters of the Missouri and its reservoir, Lake Oahe. The Lakota argue that water source is sacred to their religious ways.

Boasberg ruled “there is no immediate harm,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying during Monday’s hearing.

In response, Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier vowed to continue the fight: “The wolves are near and we must unite to defend what is right,” he said.

Frazier is among those who support the anti-pipeline movement that brought tens of thousands to lands near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation last year. The Cheyenne River Sioux share mineral rights to the Missouri River from construction of the Oahe Dam and other projects in the 1940s and ’50s. The dam project swallowed up the Sioux’s most fertile bottomlands, displacing tribal members, and throwing many into chronic poverty.

Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal elder and former councilwoman, remembers her grandfather’s log cabin being swallowed by the rising waters when she was 10. It was a story I have heard Young recount many times since first meeting her in September.

“They forced us off our land in the dead of winter,” she recalled again, after hearing about Boasberg’s decision. “We’re used to being beaten down, but we don’t give up.”

As we talked in the quiet lobby of the tribal headquarters building, Young pulled from her bag a flier for an upcoming event: the Mni Wiconi River Summit, a three-day gathering starting tomorrow at Standing Rock of the 29 river nations situated along the Missouri River.

I couldn’t help but think about all of the tribal leaders who came to stake their flags in the ground last summer at the main Oceti Sakowin protest camp;  more than 300 indigenous nations were represented. Young’s summit was the first attempt I had seen to nurture this unprecedented show of tribal unity since the camp population began to decline steadily in December.

Today, many of those flags have been removed from the camp. Recently, while I was in jail after being arrested while reporting on a demonstration, veterans came to remove them from where they lined a dusty road, in preparation for the Feb. 22 camp closure ordered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Now that road is covered in snowmelt.

The vast and growing pools of water have increased the urgency for protesters, often called “water protectors,” to flee the camps.  Many tents and teepees already have been flooded.

“It’s been pretty hard these past few days,” said Carla Jishi, a Diné woman from Arizona. “We’re just trying to figure out what we’re gonna do and where we’re gonna go.”

As options dwindle to try to stop the pipeline, so too do the resources – such as food – that have sustained many of the protesters. On the night I met Jishi, 30, water protectors had gathered in one of the camp community kitchens to give thanks to their latest benefactors. People from around the world had pitched in for a pizza party after someone posted on Facebook that campers were going hungry.

“We gotta keep praying and do whatever we can from wherever we are,” Jishi said. “You know we don’t have to be here at Standing Rock. Anywhere we are, we can choose to make a stand; be awake for the people.”

But while Jishi considered how to keep the fight alive elsewhere, others resolved to stay put. New camps are being established on the reservation as fast as construction crews toil away at the pipeline.


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Jenni Monet is an independent journalist reporting for PBS NewsHour, PRI The World, Al Jazeera, High Country News, and Yes! Magazine. She is executive producer and host of the podcast Still Here and is a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo.