Tania Aubid of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe raises a fist on her 10th day of a hunger strike in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. Credit: Jenni Monet

It took a night for the reality to sink in – that in a sweeping chain of events, the Dakota Access Pipeline had been approved for completion. But for the foot soldiers behind the protests, the battle isn’t over.

“We’re not done yet,” said Joye Braun, the Cheyenne River Sioux woman who was the first to erect a teepee at the Sacred Stone camp in April.

What’s hardest for Braun is accepting the fact that drilling already has begun. Her yurt is set up directly across the Missouri River from the pipeline drill pad.

“I could literally feel the vibrations in the ground,” she said.

A spokesman for Energy Transfer Partners, the operator of the pipeline, confirmed that work had indeed resumed.

The $3.8 billion oil pipeline is 2 miles from reaching the Missouri River and its reservoir, Lake Oahe – the primary drinking water source of the Standing Rock Sioux and and thousands of others downstream, many of them Native Americans.

The original route of the pipeline veered farther north across the river, near municipal water wells in Bismarck, North Dakota. But concerns about contamination that arose early in the planning process rerouted the pipeline about half a mile from the Standing Rock reservation’s boundary, stirring up accusations of environmental racism.

Braun, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, has been a strong voice throughout the protest. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ granting of the easement needed to move ahead felt like a personal defeat.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said, lifting up her glasses to stop tears from streaming down her face.

At the protest’s peak in early December, as many as 14,000 people gathered at the network of encampments sprawled across the borders of the reservation. The movement became a historic example of unity for indigenous people, as well as for individuals of all backgrounds, motivated by many different causes.

That momentum began to dwindle after an additional environmental review delayed construction and winter storms hit. Today, 500 or fewer people remain camped out on federal lands that the Corps of Engineers has ordered closed by Feb. 22. The stated concern of the agency, the tribe and state leaders is the danger of spring flooding.

The tribe has turned its attention to other targets, filing a preliminary injunction Thursday calling for a halt to construction and promoting its Native Nations March on Washington on March 10. 

Still, some protesters resolve to stay put.

“I received a calling from the Earth Mother to those lands,” said Tiffanie Pieper, 31, an environmentalist from San Diego who arrived in December. “I mean, no disrespect to the tribe, but I’m not going anywhere.”

Tania Aubid declared a hunger strike Jan. 31 and has started to feel the effects of malnutrition.

“A few days ago, I started feeling a tingling in my arms,” said Aubid, from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

This is her first hunger strike, but the 48-year-old is a seasoned activist who has protested numerous pipelines in the past. She intends to maintain her liquid-only regimen. She says she’s willing to die for this cause.

“Because when that pipeline breaks, it’s just going to decimate whatever’s in that river,” she said. “And it’s not if it’s going to break, it’s … when.”

Jenni Monet

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.