By Gavin Menu
Harley Decker won’t be coming home to a warm house for the holidays. Nor will the Sag Harbor native, who graduated from Pierson High School in 2012, begin school at Colorado Mountain College, which he had planned to do earlier this month.
Mr. Decker instead will spend Christmas on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, living in brutal wintry conditions as a “water protector” and emergency medical technician alongside thousands of other protestors entrenched in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is proposed to cross underneath the Missouri River, which is the main source of drinking water for millions of Americans.
“I can’t see myself leaving anytime soon,” Mr. Decker said during a telephone interview from a casino near the reservation, where he was able to regroup for a night, sleep in a warm bed, shower and communicate with the outside world since he had spotty cell phone service at best on the reservation itself.
“This is the most peaceful and beautiful community I’ve ever been to,” Mr. Decker added, “but people came here that were unprepared for the situation and so we’re giving them the tools to keep them safe.”
Mr. Decker left for North Dakota on December 2 with friend and fellow Pierson grad, Laura Rinaldi, who has since returned home. Four days later he spent his 23rd birthday treating cases of bronchitis and hypothermia as temperatures plummeted to 20 below zero. The group Veterans For Standing Rock, which sent roughly 2,000 veterans to the camp and encouraged rescue or medical personnel to come along, inspired his trip, but Mr. Decker has since found his own path. He prefers to set aside politics and focus on his work as an EMT. He has also become enamored of tribal leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux, who run the camp known as Oceti Sakowin.
“I’m staying in a military tent to stay warm,” said Mr. Decker, who traveled west in a converted ambulance he purchased along with a generator and a full stable of supplies. “The camp has thinned out a lot, but there’s absolutely a large number here. There’s mechanics, lawyers, doctors and medics. This is a big undertaking here.”
Following weeks of tension and violent clashes between protestors and local law enforcement, word came down from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in early December that DAPL had been denied an easement to drill below the river. Tribal leadership asked protestors to close the camp in the wake of the decision and avoid brutal conditions, but thousands have stayed, as they fear the incoming administration led by President-Elect Donald Trump will support the project and overturn the decision by the Army Corps.
“I stand outside my camp and I look at the awesome amount of military personal being used against us,” Mr. Decker said. “We’ve awakened the beast and they’re intimidating.
“From my understanding, they have until January 31 to get all the information needed, but DAPL is spending $20 million a week and can’t wait that long,” Mr. Decker said about the project itself. “What I’ve seen with my own eyes is they have full manpower here, upward of 20 massive spotlights illuminating their site, with cranes and excavators moving. I cannot speak to any drilling, per se, but there’s a lot of heavy machinery.”
Mr. Decker and his fellow medics and EMT’s routinely sweep the camp to make sure people are safe and sheltered in the bitter cold conditions. Supplies are desperately needed, and Mr. Decker has set up a GoFundMe campaign for people to support him at gofundme.com/bt-help-me-stand-with-standing-rock.
“We really are facing some incredible resources that are trying to quiet our voice,” Mr. Decker said. “The conditions are bad and we’re busy, but it’s very much a community of giving. Buildings have been built with insulation and people are back home working on renewable funds. We’re here to stay.”