Some Standing Rock protesters undeterred by Trump's pipeline order

"There's nothing stronger than prayers," says Standing Rock protester Travis Harden, undeterred by Donald Trump's executive memo ordering expedited approval of the Dakota Access pipeline. Protest numbers in North Dakota have dwindled, but many continue their fight against a project they say would threaten drinking water and cultural sites.

Sioux tribe chair says it's time for the fight to move to legal action, lobbying Washington

At the main camp opposing the Dakota Access pipeline north of the Cannonball River, the number of protesters of the $3.8-billion U.S. project have fallen from thousands to hundreds. But many remain undeterred despite U.S. President Donald Trump's executive memo asking that finals approvals for the pipeline be expedited. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

Travis Harden has spent five months fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline, even composing four songs about protesters' fight against the multibillion-dollar project near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Inside his camp tent, where there's a cozy wood-burning stove in the corner, the man from the nearby Cheyenne River Sioux tribe welcomes visitors with drumming and songs about the "Black Snake" (i.e., the pipeline) and the people he has met in the fight against the pipeline. 

Harden says that while his resolve to defeat the pipeline project has not weakened, his confidence has — a little. 

"There's nothing stronger than prayers," he begins cautiously. "But I don't know. Fifty-50 now, because of Trump." 

One of the first moves by Donald Trump since his swearing-in Friday as U.S. president was to sign an executive memo asking the U.S. Department of the Army to quickly grant final approvals for the $3.8-billion Dakota Access pipeline.

The fight is still on and we're calling everybody back.- Travis Harden, protester from Cheyenne River Sioux tribe

The move looks set to reverse the Department of the Army's decision last month to explore alternate routes for the four-state, $3.8-billion project.

The decision was seen as a direct result of the actions of the hundreds of demonstrators, who had set up protest camps near the site to oppose the project and maintain pressure on the Obama administration over several months. They argue that building the pipeline under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir near the Standing Rock reservation, would threaten drinking water and Native American cultural sites.

'We're calling everybody back'

Despite the army's announcement in December, some of those protesters never left, and now say they will resume their fight.

"I'm not going to just go home and not think or worry about it," says Harden. "I'll stay here and try to make a stand. 

Travis Harden has been living at the Standing Rock camp for five months, and says he plans to stay until the pipeline project is stopped. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

"The fight is still on and we're calling everybody back."

But that idea, as well as the future of the camps, seems increasingly fraught. 

Harden is among those who say the fight here must continue in the face of the new Trump administration, while others, such as the tribal leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux, are insisting yet again that it's time to go. 

But the main camp that started with thousands of people has been whittled down to a few hundred.   

Makeshift roads once plugged with vehicles have become much quieter. 

Neby Ceeneby of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation helps move donated goods out of the path of potential spring floods in the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Tuesday. (Terray Sylvester/Reuters )

Still, in light of Trump's executive action, North Dakota law enforcement, for one, says it is has to prepare accordingly. 

"We understand it's going to create some more headlines and potentially the influx of people in to the camps," said Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. 

But he conveyed a certain weariness. 

"North Dakota law enforcement has been tapped. We are stretched thin," Iverson said, noting that backup has come from other communities and states. 

Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says it is time for the Dakota Access fight to move thousands of kilometres away — to Washington, D.C. 

For months, Archambault has said staying in the protest camps represents a safety risk to people facing both a frigid North Dakota winter and potential flood risk come spring.   

"It's imploding and it's sad, but it is what it is, and we're gonna deal with it the best way we can," says Archambault of the trajectory the movement has taken. 

Archambault spoke to CBC News from the tribe's administrative building in Fort Yates, N.D. He says the main camp is not on Standing Rock Sioux reservation land – the land is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.   

Sioux chair says it's time to fight D.C.

Still, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is willing to take on the responsibility of cleaning up the debris that may be left behind, he says. 

"If it's in the best interests for safety and health and if we know there's a flood coming, it's OK, they can evacuate and we can take on that responsibility. We have to be ready to expend resources so that it can get done." 

It's a fine line: thanking people for an outpouring of support, while at the same time asking them to leave. 

"I'm not their leader," he says. However, he adds, "Our membership have put me in this position so I can look out for the best interests of them." He was referring to a recent broader tribal council resolution reiterating a deadline for people in the camps to leave.

Archambault says the Dakota Access pipeline fight will continue, but there are many other potential future front lines to consider as well. 

A sign at the Standing Rock site urges people to leave the structure alone. Many protesters remain undeterred by Trump's move to get the Dakota Access pipeline work moving. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

"Here we are, standing up and coming together in prayer, and we're addressing one issue when there are many issues that plague our people," he says. 

"When are we going to stand up against meth?" he says about the illegal drug. "When are we going to stand up against homelessness? When are we going to stand up against poverty, the symptoms of poverty?"

For the immediate future, Archambault says the tribe will focus on challenging the pipeline through legal fights, and by continuing to reach out to the new president. 

"This is not about 'making America great,'​" he says, referring to Trump's Dakota Access memo, and referencing parts of his campaign slogan. ​"It's making ​A​merica bad and it's about trying to contaminate this Eart​h​."


Angela Johnston

CBC Manitoba

Angela Johnston is a network producer with CBC News based in Winnipeg. Email: