Activists are threatening "mass resistance" to President Donald Trump and the Army Corps of Engineers on the hotly disputed Dakota Access pipeline — and it could be difficult for the White House to counter the movement.
Acting on an order from Trump, the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday said it would grant the easement that Energy Transfer Partners needs to finish the final stretch of the pipeline. It also canceled an environmental review the Corps said it would undertake while President Barack Obama was still in office.
That announcement amplified alarm among Native Americans and their allies, who oppose the pipeline because it would pass beneath Lake Oahe, a drinking water source and sacred site.
"The granting of an easement, without any environmental review or tribal consultation, is not the end of this fight — it is the new beginning. Expect mass resistance far beyond what Trump has seen so far," the Indigenous Environmental Network said in a statement.
What that resistance will look like is uncertain. The movement appears to be taking on a diffuse, leaderless structure, similar to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Such movements tend to have staying power.
Dakota Access pipeline route, source: Energy Transfer Partners
On the one hand, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council, whose reservation is half a mile south of the contested site, is mounting a legal challenge to the easement and promoting a march on Washington next month.
Standing Rock Tribal Council Chairman Dave Archambault II asked protesters to return home after the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the easement in December. He repeated that request again on Tuesday.
But other councils and camp organizers have sent conflicting messages, suggesting the chairman may not be able to control the flow of activists to the region.
The Cheyenne River Tribal Council of South Dakota invited a limited number of volunteers from the former servicemember group Veterans Stand to return to Standing Rock, Anthony Diggs, secretary of communications for the group, told CNBC.
U.S. military veterans associated with the group are on site assisting with clean up and other logistics. The group is currently forming a network that can deploy thousands of veterans to Standing Rock as needed, but stresses it will only do so in consultation with tribal leaders.
"Our plan is to send support where support is needed, and in light of the easement being granted over the next few days, we'll be able to better determine where that will be," Diggs said.
The website for the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, reads "ADVISORY: Don't travel during inclement weather. If you choose to come, be prepared for sub-zero temperatures." A section on the website still lists guidelines for living at the camps.
The Oceti Sakowin camp did not immediately return a request for comment.
Eryn Wise, a spokesperson for the Sacred Stone camp, confirmed it is still encouraging activists to travel to Standing Rock. However, only those prepared to handle punishing winter conditions, contribute to camp maintenance and face risk of arrest should come, she said.
The camp is also encouraging a campaign of local actions around the country and divestment in businesses associated with the Dakota Access pipeline.
In perhaps the most dramatic clash among protesters, Sacred Stone founder LaDonna Bravebull Allard publicly criticized Archambault and alleged the tribal council, working with local authorities, had sought to evict campers.
"Chairman Dave Archambault threw our people to the dogs when he said the camps' actions '...do not represent the tribe nor the original intent of the water protectors,'" she wrote in a statement. She also cast tribal councils as relics of colonialism.
In an apparent response, the tribal council stressed it is "cleaning the camps, not clearing them," and said it does not support raids.
"Rumors and conspiracy theories abound in any movement as powerful as this; we cannot let media and other governments manipulate our statements and actions into a narrative counter to the truth," the council wrote on its Facebook page.
A spokesperson for Standing Rock could not be reached.
Wise acknowledged the recent differences between Standing Stone and the tribal council and noted that the council was acting to protect long-term relations between Native Americans and the broader community.
Diggs and Wise both said local authorities were seeking to sow division and intimidation, in part by building a militarized presence. The Morton County Sheriff's Department has recently attempted to highlight its restraint following a series of clashes with protesters in recent weeks.