Since late summer, protesters have stood beside members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota who believe the $3.7 billion pipeline project, which would move 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day across four states, would affect its drinking water supply and place downstream communities at risk of contamination from potential oil spills.
In an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault said the protest would continue even though protesters have been ordered to vacate an area where they have set up camp
by next Monday.
"We are in for the long haul," said Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
On Friday, the US Army Corps of Engineers warned that activists who refuse to leave could face arrest. Since the statement's release, however, officials have backtracked, saying they have no plans to forcibly remove those who stay.
Now, less than a week before the deadline, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has ordered protesters to clear out immediately, citing a reason other than trespassing: harsh winter conditions.
In a statement, he said the protesters' temporary dwellings have yet to be inspected and approved, and failure to do so posed serious public safety concerns. He added that first responders would no longer be responsible for providing emergency services to those who remained.
Morton County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Maxine Herr said authorities will be "passively" enforcing the governor's order for protesters to vacate the area. Earlier Tuesday, she said law enforcement would immediately start blocking people and supplies from entering the protest campsite. She later amended that statement to say that anyone who enters the area does so at their own risk and will be subject to penalties.
In other words, there will not be a road block, but anyone entering the area will be notified that they are trespassing and penalized accordingly.
Native Americans reminded of past treatment
For Iron Eyes, the initial threats of arrest have brought back memories of the government's past treatment of Native Americans.
"You have a government agency trying to declare us trespassers on our own treaty land and threatening to penalize us, criminally charge us and possibly forcibly round us up if we don't return to the reservation," he said.
The pipeline was originally slated to lie north of Bismarck, North Dakota, in an area that did not cross Native American reservations. The current proposed route, however, would take it through four states, stretching 1,172 miles to connect areas with oil in North Dakota to southern Illinois.
It would cut through the Sioux Tribe's reservation, and the tribe says it could potentially destroy sacred lands and prevent access to clean drinking water.
"We're trying to stay strong through all of this," he said.
Six days left
Over the months of protest, the tribe has been joined by multiple groups and activists. They maintain that they have been peaceful, but at times violence has erupted.
The Morton County Sheriff's Office said protesters set fires while officers tried to disperse the crowds
with tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprayed from hoses attached to fire engines.
Archambault said the accusations against the protesters are false, and that it's police who are being violent.
"They are the ones who are bringing the aggression," he said. "They're the ones who are using weapons."
He said the letter from the Army Corps will only make things worse.
"By sending out a letter saying you have until December 5," he said, " ... It just escalates and causes more concern for safety for everybody."