– A life-threatening blizzard that pounded North Dakota this week has prompted organizers of a monthslong oil pipeline protest to encourage activists to head home.

“Our first concern is safety. ... We ask all who can and want to leave, to return home,” Oceti Sakowin Camp organizers posted on Facebook Wednesday, when temperatures at the encampment on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation hovered near zero and windchills surpassed 25 below.

Dozens of people who gathered here over many months to protest construction of the Dakota Access pipeline have been treated for hypothermia since a blinding snowstorm pummeled Standing Rock Monday afternoon. Winds of 40 miles per hour or more over the past two days have added to their woes, flattening tents, buffeting cars and battering the protesters, prompting many to take shelter in a nearby casino.

“This is a hazardous situation,” said Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II, who represents the tribe but not the protest camp. “It’s the beginning of winter, and it’s only going to get colder. We don’t want to put any lives in danger.”

While the Facebook post by camp organizers urged protesters who want to leave to do so, it also encouraged those who want to keep up the fight against completion of the pipeline to stay. The proposed pipeline route runs beneath the nearby Lake Oahe reservoir on the Missouri River, which protesters say threatens the tribe’s drinking water.

“For those who can stay — and are prepared for arctic conditions — please do, we need people here.”

Camp organizers also put out an urgent call for firewood, snow-ready vehicles and essential life supplies, and for skilled volunteers willing to bear the conditions and help out.

“Be ready to contribute to the survival and safety of the camp in a significant way daily, be abundant in spirit and ready to share,” the Facebook post continued. “Bring wood, plan to work. We need cooks, medics, builders/repair-persons, people dedicated to the survival of the community, for the coming storms. Bring weather-ready vehicles ... be prepared for arctic conditions, we can’t stress this enough.”

On Monday, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not approve an easement to allow construction to continue on the part of the $3.78 billion pipeline that would pass under Lake Oahe, Archambault encouraged many here to head home, thaw out and enjoy the holidays.

On Wednesday, he repeated the call.

“The wind is really strong here,” Archambault said. “It’s creating snowdrifts everywhere and it’s making the cold even colder. I don’t expect anybody to, or wish anybody to, travel in these kind of conditions.

“It could take a couple of weeks [for people to leave]. It depends on the weather and how fast the camp is broken down.”

Despite that plea, many of the thousands of protesters who have gathered here over the past several months said they aren’t going anywhere, worried that the Corps will reverse its ruling when President-elect Donald Trump, who has expressed support for the project, takes office in January.

‘Got slammed’

Much of central North Dakota was under a windchill advisory through Thursday morning, with temperatures hovering around 0 and winds of 25 to 40 miles per hour. On exposed skin, that feels more like 25 below zero, said Ken Simosko, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

The temperature isn’t expected to rise in coming days either, though the winds should die by Friday, only to be followed by more snow Saturday.

“We kind of got slammed,” Simosko said.

Many of the estimated 5,000 or more protesters who have gathered here this week expected cold weather, but few anticipated the Monday storm that dumped about 6 inches of snow on the region.

Among those snowbound in camp are scores of military veterans and volunteers trained to respond to disaster. When the worst of the weather hit earlier this week, many sprang into action.

Gale-force winds howled around a green military surplus tent, shaking the thick canvas and sending flakes of frozen condensation drifting down like snowflakes on the men, women and support animals sheltering inside.

“It’s been rough,” said a Marine infantry veteran who identified himself only as Carlos, who, in the worst of it, tried to simultaneously coordinate coffee refills, hot meals, and sleeping conditions.

At one point, the wind blew down a nearby tent, which caught fire as the canvas hit the woodfire stove inside.

Carlos and other volunteers scrambled to pull people to safety. No one was burned, though a few sleeping bags caught fire and medics treated some people for smoke inhalation.

To ensure everyone is safe, teams of volunteers have fanned out across the sprawling camp over the past several days, banging on tents and vehicle windows to spot victims of hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning from snow drifting over tailpipes.

Those showing signs of distress are hustled into warming shelters, where medics, piles of cold weather gear and warm meals await.

A moment in history

Some, too, have taken shelter in the nearby Prairie Knights Casino, where they are sleeping on floors and on stairway landings.

In the casino’s crowded pavilion, Bemidji resident Angel Ricker, eight months pregnant, relaxed on a cot.

Ricker had traveled to the camp with her 3-year-old son and her parents, who live on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. She began having contractions during the hours her little Kia inched through the storm to camp. Later, after 10 people helped push the car up the snow-clogged hill outside of camp, medics at the casino settled her on a cot. She was feeling better by Tuesday — and still glad she came.

“I’m grateful we at least got to come out here. I’ve been trying to get out here since August,” said Ricker, whose father is a Marine veteran.

The first Lakota phrase Jeremiah Soft learned this week was “It’s cold.” Raised in Rochester, Minn., far from his relatives and roots on the Standing Rock reservation, Soft spent the first few days here meeting family and the next few days bundling up against the elements.

“They’re all just beautiful people here,” said Soft, walking past the flags of 300 tribal nations snapping in the wind. Volunteers approached, offering hand warmers or rides to the casino. “They all have a great heart.”

During the blizzard, Soft sheltered in one of the camp yurts, curled up in a drafty pantry. Eventually, he hoped to make it to a relative’s home to thaw out. Despite the harsh conditions, he said, he was glad to be here.

“This,” he said, “is a moment in history.”


Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.