CANNON BALL, N.D. — The greeting is familiar in the tropical heat of Hawaii, but here, in the bone-cracking chill of a deepening Dakota winter, it feels out of place.
Andre Perez yelled his native salutation from a snow-blanketed field not far from the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
He was addressing a group of about 50 people, many of them clad in parkas, snow boots and anything else that might trap their precious body heat before it wisps away into the unforgiving Midwestern cold.
The response was automatic, even enthusiastic, almost as if Perez were back at home on Oahu. In unison the crowd brought a smile to Perez’s lips: “Aloha!”
Perez is a Native Hawaiian activist who traveled 3,500 miles to help protest the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access oil pipeline, a project that the Standing Rock Sioux says threatens their water and terrorizes their culture.
He’s one of many Native Hawaiians who came here out of a sense of solidarity with other indigenous people. He also feels a sense of reciprocity, especially after last year’s protests at Mauna Kea on the Big Island over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Perez was arrested during one of those demonstrations. But he said he’ll never forget the many Native Americans and Maori who came to stand alongside Hawaiians, such as himself, as they fought for their cultural rights.
“I know that within Hawaiian culture water is sacred,” Perez said. “We know that water is sacred and that water is life. So I came here with that understanding that we’re here to protect the water and we’re here to stop the pipeline.”
Perez first arrived in Standing Rock in October. He flew back to Hawaii after a short visit, and was about to start a new job at Leeward Community College when he was called back to action. Perez was asked to help train demonstrators in the art of nonviolent protest.
Each day he spends several hours working with new arrivals on how to build soft blockades and hold their space by interlocking their bodies. On Thursday, he was introducing the latest crop to those techniques.
Tensions here are high, especially at Oceti Sakowin Camp, which is on the front lines of the pipeline protest as the only physical barrier left to construction.
Clashes have already resulted in the arrest and injury of hundreds of people, including one woman who might lose her arm after an explosion severely damaged her limb. Many believe that more melees are imminent.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction notice for those who are camping on federal lands, telling them that they must evacuate by Monday. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued a similar declaration, citing severe winter weather conditions.
Both the state and the federal government have said they do not plan any forcible removal of protesters.
There are indications, however, that some officials are willing to make life as miserable as possible for the demonstrators. For example, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has said that it will begin fining people for bringing supplies into the camp.
But it’s clear that the demonstrators have no plans to leave.
Each day more and more protesters are moving to the camp, which some estimate has grown to about 6,000 people, many of them from Native American tribes from across the U.S.
This weekend is expected to bring thousands more protesters to the snow-covered camp as part of a large veterans rally that’s being held in support of the Standing Rock Sioux.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is scheduled to attend the event in which more than 2,000 veterans have offered to act as human shields for protesters as they face off with law enforcement and private security for Dakota Access.
Gabbard took to the U.S. House floor Thursday to again urge President Barack Obama to stop the pipeline project. She voiced her concerns about the pipeline’s potential environmental impacts along with expressing worry about the Corps of Engineers’ apparent lack of communication with the Standing Rock Sioux when it approved the permits for the pipeline.
“Growing up in Hawaii, I learned the value of caring for our home, caring for our planet, and the basic principle that we are all connected in a great chain of cause and effect,” Gabbard said. “The Dakota Access Pipeline is a threat to this great balance of life. … Just one spill near the tribe’s reservation could release thousands of barrels of crude oil, contaminating the tribe’s drinking water.”
The looming eviction deadline combined with months of doing little else besides demonstrating have some at the camp paranoid. They worry that imposters have infiltrated their ranks in an attempt to undermine and thwart their efforts, including leaking information to the police or sabotaging peaceful demonstrations with violence and vandalism.
Ashlar McNeil was on security detail at the camp Thursday as the sky began to darken and the light rains turned to snow. McNeil recently left her job and home on Maui’s north shore to join the Standing Rock Sioux and others at the growing encampment.
McNeil is white, but she says she empathizes with the the struggles of indigenous people, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. She grew up on reservation land near La Connor, Washington, home to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, where she witnessed first-hand the interactions between Native Americans and local governments.
“I grew up on reservation land with reservation friends,” McNeil said. “I’ve seen a lot of the dynamics that happen between natives and non-natives, and the dynamics that happen with the law and tribal law and sovereign nation law.
“And I knew that if there weren’t a lot of people out here that they (the government and pipeline builders) could do whatever they wanted.”
McNeil said she plans to stay in North Dakota as long as she can, even as the snow builds up and the temperatures dip below zero.
She takes her new job seriously, and keeps a watchful eye on both the visitors going in and out of the camp and the law enforcement officials and private security detail that are parked on hilltops in militarized vehicles shadowed by the ever-present glow of floodlights pointed at protesters.
“There’s nothing more important than this right now,” McNeil said. ““If people don’t come and stand here, then these other people can do what they want. There’s power in numbers.”