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Standing Rock casino becomes refuge as winter storm hits pipeline protest camp

John Motter, left, talks to Stephen Stampka, right, Tuesday in a lobby in the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Both men came with veterans groups to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and were sheltered in the casino during an ongoing snowstorm. (Andrew Haffner / Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Vermae Taylor, of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, sat at the slot machines Tuesday as she waited for friends. Taylor left the Oceti Sakowin pipeline protest camps to shelter at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort during a blizzard.2 / 3
Terry Allan, front, David Sorich, middle, and Jesus Aguilar, left, came to Standing Rock as part of the call for veterans. The men were sheltered during a blizzard Tuesday at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.3 / 3

STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION—The Prairie Knights Casino and Resort on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is serving as a refuge for a growing number of Dakota Access Pipeline protesters seeking shelter through an ongoing winter storm.

Rooms in the casino's hotel filled rapidly. By Monday evening, a front desk attendant said the waiting list for a room had grown too long to justify adding any more names. In many cases, several protesters shared a single room, but those left without made alternative arrangements.

Miles Alty was among the people sleeping in the casino's pavilion, a large open space ringed with stadium seating and used for hosting concerts and other performances. The floor was lined with sleeping bags, blankets and the odd sleeper with no gear at all. Some slept between supports in the dark recesses beneath the seating structures. Others spread out and took to the lobbies and hallways of the resort's first floor.

Alty, who said he was a former Air Force medic who came to North Dakota with a group of San Francisco veterans, said he slept on the pavilion floor Monday night without a blanket or pillow.

The space was warm though, and with single-digit temperatures beyond the pavilion walls, Alty was in good spirits as he recounted his gambling losses.

"It could be worse," he said. "If you have to be stranded, a casino is a good place to be."

Blizzard conditions started around mid-day Monday. As the sun set, wind speeds gathered into gusts of up to 40 mph, driving snow into a needling haze that cut visibility down to an occasional whiteout. Some of the veterans huddled at Prairie Knights said the winds were strong enough to blow down a military surplus tent Monday night at camp.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault cited the severe weather in a Tuesday press release asking protesters to abandon their encampments between the reservation and the pipeline construction zone.

"We deeply appreciate all the people who supported us with their presence, but when this storm passes, it is time to dismantle the camp and return to our homes," Archambault stated. "If the camp stays where it is currently located, people are risking their lives."

Archambault described the ongoing blizzard as a "glimpse of what is to come" as winter deepens and temperatures fall.

Striking out

Just beyond that site, those who braved the roads beyond the Oceti Sakowin encampment found plenty of surface ice and drifting snow, both of which brought traffic to a crawl.

Throughout Tuesday, the North Dakota Department of Transportation listed a wide network of the state's roads as either closed or blocked, including Interstates 94 and 29. By Monday night, multiple cars had slid off the road between the protest camps and the resort.

A press release from the Morton County Office of Emergency Management stated the North Dakota DOT, in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, diverted snow plows Tuesday morning to clear segments of N.D. Highway 6, Highway 24 and Highway 1806 to address safety concerns around the protest camps. The BIA asked camp leaders if they needed help at the encampment, the release states, and were turned down.

According to the release, Morton County Emergency Services has not received any request for assistance from the camps, though the county's emergency manager coordinated with his counterpart on the reservation to send an emergency alert to the camps informing protesters of shelters at Prairie Knights and at Fort Yates High School.

Multiple stranded motorists and protesters were taken in at shelters in Mandan and Flasher, N.D., the release stated.

John Sanchez, a protester sheltered at the casino, said he spent the day with a crew of volunteers pulling stranded motorists from roadside drifts. Sanchez estimated dozens of vehicles had left the roadway, some in rollover incidents, over the course of the blizzard.

Julia Corbett, another veteran bunkered in the Prairie Knights pavilion, said a bus transporting veterans last night from Oceti Sakowin to the resort made the 10-mile drive in about five hours.

"Yesterday morning they said 'OK, if you don't get back on bus, we can't guarantee when you get out of camp," she said. "I work Monday, so I figured the responsible thing to do would be to get on the bus."

Helping out

Since arriving at the casino, Corbett and other stranded protesters volunteered services to help maintain some level of order and comfort for those coming in. A crew of about 20 people assisted staff directly to provide some relief from the needs of a packed house under the siege of the weather.

A large corner of the pavilion shielded by a tall curtain provided a degree of privacy for a medical station staffed by volunteers with relevant experience. Those volunteers kept track of medicinal needs as they addressed symptoms of hypothermia and other conditions among newcomers from the camps.

Corbett said vehicles with four-wheel-drive are making trips to the camp to bring more vulnerable individuals, such as elders and children, back to the shelter of the resort.

In sum, she described the effort as a success so far despite being made up of "a big hodgepodge of people from all over the country who've never met before."

"We don't have an official rank hierarchy, so it's going pretty darn good for what it is," she said. "It looks disorganized and it feels that way at times, but when you take in all the considerations it's going well."

While many of the people sheltering at the casino took advantage of its gaming floor, others were less interested in trying their luck any further.

Vermae Taylor and Amanda Fast Horse-Boyd, both of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, were sitting at the casino's slot machines Tuesday afternoon, though neither woman paid any attention to the flashing lights and occasional jingle. Taylor said they weren't gamblers, but rather appreciated a nice place to sit while waiting for friends.

Taylor had arrived at Prairie Knights the day before. Fast Horse-Boyd had pulled in around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

"My van isn't stuck there, but ..." Fast-Horse Boyd began saying. Taylor laughed and finished her sentence.

"The snow captured it," she said.

Fast Horse-Boyd explained that Taylor and other elders had been dropped off at the shelter of the resort earlier in the day. She had stayed behind at the camp and spent about three hours trying to dig her van out of snow drifts before giving up and getting a ride to Prairie Knights.

As of Tuesday evening, the two women and the rest of the Fort Peck group were trying to figure out a plan for the next few days.

The people marooned at the resort drew the available wireless internet down to the last bead of broadband. With little in the way of digital connectivity, they mingled with each other, many discussing the status of the Dakota Access Pipeline along with more personal stories of home and culture.

Many of the protesters brought along their canine companions, which led to ample opportunity to pet dogs during the long indoor hours. Lakota singers and drummers eventually filled the pavilion with traditional song Tuesday, and a powwow was scheduled for later that night.

Melissa Hill, a member of the Viejas band of the Kumeyaay nation in California, amused herself by reading palms while waiting in line for the resort's buffet. Hill said various members of her party had rotated in and out of line to keep their space over the course of a three-hour wait to enter the restaurant.

Though she had visited Oceti Sakowin previously, Hill said it was unlikely she would actually make it to the protest camps during this visit.

"We're making the most of it," she said. "We gambled a little bit, hung out and talked to people. This is the time for sharing and connecting right now since we're all stuck here."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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