Blizzard conditions in North Dakota have split the protest camp population in two, with thousands now fleeing the cold for the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort–about 10 miles south on State Highway 1806.
But that didn’t stop protesters from continuing to celebrate Sunday’s momentous victory with powwows and festivities in the casino, after the Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Everett Iron Eyes Jr., the General Manager of Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, talked with Wanderer News about efforts to keep guests fed and warm after those fleeing blizzard conditions at the Oceti Sakowin camp pushed the hotel past capacity.
The hotel had more than 60 people on a wait list for a room by 5 p.m. and they had stopped taking names.
“We’re open for everybody, whether they’re travelers or from camp or wherever,” he said. “When roads are shut down, we bring people in whoever it is.”
Iron Eyes said it’s the third time in the last 20 years he’s had employees who couldn’t go home and had to spend the night. Some employees have been in the hotel for almost 50 hours. Luckily, some have been able to come in to provide relief. He said there was no preparation for the influx.
“It’s all a strain,” he said. “It’s taxing the property.”
He said the casino is prepared to deal with the winter weather and has adequate food supplies and generators to make it through a power outage.
“The veterans have volunteered to do whatever we need them to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to use them in a few areas because we’re a gaming establishment and most casino duties require a gaming license.”
The hotel guests have been mostly civil, Iron Eyes said. However, some guests have caused problems by harassing hotel staff. He asks other customers to remain vigilant in helping police rude patrons.
“Some guests have tried to book a hotel room or order alcohol or get mad that they have to wait in line for food,” he said. “My staff is doing its best to provide haven for these guests too. We haven’t kicked anyone out.”
Prairie Knights prohibited guests from leaving during the Monday night blizzard for their safety. The camp has paid for all guests to receive free food from the hotel’s buffet.
“These are bitter cold temperatures and it’s not safe for anyone to be walking outside with exposed skin,” Iron Eyes said. “Anytime there’s a disaster, people come to Prairie Knights because we have power, fuel, food and warmth. We become a collection point.”
An assistant general manager said he had been helping plow the casino’s parking lot most of the day.
“On a normal day, it can get this busy if we have a concert or event,” he said. “But it’s a lot louder then because every seat will be full with people at the slots, because that’s what they’re here for — gambling,” he said. “Now people are just here to stay warm.”
Karen Little Wounded worked a table set up at the casino entrance. She said that after a powwow, about 800 people would be able to sleep in the Pavilion event space. Others are set up to stay at the Cannon Ball Gym. The rest are at camp.
Camp leaders brought food to the hotel. Winona Kasto, the main camp chef, is using a spare cooking space at the hotel to feed guests, taking strain off the casino’s two restaurants. Kasto feeds more than 600 people every day at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Tuesday night’s menu included soup, bread and wojapi — a traditional berry soup.
“We set up the Oceti Sakowin Emergency Kitchen for our kitchen staff to provide meals and snacks. Medics are providing medical attention and hot tea,” Little Wounded said. “This is all organized by the camp.”
Little Wounded said the camp also brought its legal tent into the building because those arrested still have court appearances.
“There’s even childcare set up at the building’s coat check just to keep them safe and entertained,” she said. “But there aren’t that many kids here.”
Little Wounded expects everyone will be able to return to camp or leave town by tomorrow. About noon, hotel staff for volunteer duties to assist picking up garbage and other hotel duties. There are more than 1,000 veterans at the hotel — and an unknown number of protesters.
“All the veterans stepped right up,” Little Wounded said. “They’re like our big brothers and sisters now.”
Spencer Mendivil, a Cheyenne native from Weatherford, Okla., was a specialist fourth class in the Army and served from 1958-1961.
“We’re just sitting around downstairs and we’re here to help, if tis on the bridge, at the camp, at the casino—wherever we’re needed,” he said. “These are our brothers and sisters and they need our help.”
He said the group he came with from Phoenix are “young strong hearts” who’ve been working around the clock to make the lives of the natives here better.
Natives have also gone on rescue missions to help stranded vehicles of those trying to leave North Dakota or make it to the hotel from camp.
The Morton County Office of Emergency Management issued a press release that said it had set up shelter for protesters who refused its help.
“North Dakota always comes together to help those who need it,” said Morton County Commission Chairman Cody Schutz. “After months of unlawful activity taxing our resources, law enforcement and emergency management continue to serve the people with professionalism and restraint.”
The North Dakota National Guard is prepared to assist if needed with six buses ready to transport people from the camp.