WILLIAMSBURG, Iowa — The last thing Iowa County farmers expected to crop up amid their well-groomed corn and soybean fields was a permanent pipeline protest camp, given that the county has no pipeline.
But after the collapse of the Dakota Access protest in February, Christine Nobiss of the Indigenous Iowa blog returned to the Hawkeye State and founded the Little Creek Camp, a collection of tents and teepees dedicated to keeping the spirit of Standing Rock alive.
Railing against the Dakota Access pipeline may seem futile, given that the $3.8 billion project is slated to go into service on June 1, but “the point of this camp goes beyond a pipeline, I can tell you that,” Ms. Nobiss said.
“This camp is a think tank,” she said. “This camp is long-term in terms of building an eco-village, a sustainable community. We’re here to help local farmers fight Monsanto.”
Not all of those farmers are interested in their help. Organizers describe Little Creek as a “prayer and healing camp,” a kind of pit stop for activists, but locals such as Lance Schaefer are worried that the encampment could blow up into the kind of melee that devastated south-central North Dakota.
“Some people say, ‘Give them the benefit of the doubt,’ but once the horse is out of the barn, you can’t get him back in that easily,” Mr. Schaefer said. “We’re warning you and telling you, ‘This is what happened in North Dakota. It’s very similar to what’s happening in Iowa, and you should not let them get a foothold.’”
At this point, however, the neighbors don’t have much choice. The 14-acre property is owned by Max Hilton, who lives elsewhere but agreed to allow Ms. Nobiss to set up the Little Creek Camp on his plot, which now houses as many as 20 activists.
Iowa County Sheriff Robert Rotter said he understands the concerns, but so far the campers have been “completely peaceful,” using the location as a base and taking their protest activity elsewhere, such as a recent demonstration at a Wells Fargo in Iowa City.
“I know that the people who live in the area are concerned because obviously you didn’t move out to the country to be surrounded by people camping in the grass there,” said Sheriff Rotter. “But from the sheriff’s office standpoint, they aren’t breaking any law right now. They are on the land with permission by the owner. And there’s really not a lot we can do.”
Little Creek looks like it’s here for the long haul. The activists have built a plywood gazebo-style structure for their “sacred fire,” turned an empty shed into a kitchen and planted small gardens around the property. Tents, teepees and campers are scattered throughout the woods.
Other camps formed in the wake of Standing Rock have appeared in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Dakota and Texas, with mixed results. The Crystal Water Camp in Florida has shut down.
Sheriff Rotter, who has visited Little Creek several times, said one of the biggest sources of irritation centers on Mr. Hilton’s decision to allow the camp, given that he lives in Johnson County and “doesn’t have to deal with it.”
“And I think the local neighbors have a right to be a little bit upset about that,” he said. “It probably would have gone better if it was in his personal backyard instead of everybody else’s, but that’s what he chose to do. It’s not illegal to do that.”
Ms. Nobiss doesn’t live at the camp either. She and her two young children live about a half-hour away, but she is still in charge. A Canadian who belongs to the Plains Cree-Salteaux tribe, she came to Iowa 10 years ago to earn her master’s degree and never left.
On a recent sunny spring afternoon, she buzzed through the camp with a long to-do list, including replacing the two portable restrooms with composting toilets, while a group of mostly young men sat on lawn chairs in a circle near the camp’s entrance relaxing and smoking.
Vanessa Dundon, a Navajo who goes by Sioux Z Desbah and whose right eye was injured during the Nov. 20 clash between protesters and police in North Dakota, said she is using Little Creek as a base from which to visit and speak at other camps.
Her typical day is quiet. “I wake up, I go to the kitchen, I start washing dishes, I start cooking breakfast for the men. Go up to the sacred fire,” she said. “There’s not too much work to do here.”
Still, even a small band of left-wing activists can cause a stir in Iowa County, a farming community of about 16,300. In the November presidential election, 59 percent of county voters opted for Donald Trump.
‘Why are you here?’
Ed Fallon, a former Iowa state legislator who joined some of the activists for an 85-mile walk to Des Moines for the People’s Climate March, said he understood that the neighbors are “afraid of some kind of chaos,” but he didn’t see that happening at Little Creek.
“There’s always a risk of things getting out of hand, but they have some really good people there, and they have a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish,” said Mr. Fallon, who serves as director of Bold Iowa, an anti-pipeline group.
At the other end is Defend Iowa, a Facebook page that monitors the camp and has raised concerns about waste disposal issues, drones and drug use. A sign in front of the camp gives notice about ban drugs, firearms and alcohol.
Mr. Schaefer said he has repeatedly asked the protesters on Facebook why they have come to Iowa County, but “all I hear is crickets.”
“I am not aware of any pipeline in Iowa County,” he said. “I am not aware of any water disaster that has occurred in Iowa County. I am not aware of any Nazi fascist governmental regime that’s oppressing the people in Iowa County. Why are you here? And they can’t answer me.”
Defend Iowa has consulted with Nate Netizen, who produced a documentary about the impact of the Standing Rock protest on the Bismarck community. The group has pointed to posts from activists encouraging others to come to the camp, raising fears about crowds of protesters descending on the area.
Standing Rock drew thousands to the wide-open North Dakota prairie, but Little Creek as configured would be lucky to hold 100. Matthew Gordon of California, the camp’s gardener, said a more sustainable number would be 25 to 30.
“We’ve got structure here. We’ve got community,” said Mr. Gordon, who spent time at Standing Rock. “We’re trying to build something here. We’re not just sitting on a piece of land and squatting and planning direct actions and hiding out in the woods. We’re building a community.”
In some cases, however, the activists have been their own worst enemies.
Defend Iowa has posted videos from Little Creek that have fueled alarm, such as one in which an activist showed off his bulletproof vest. A fundraising plea from another asks for money for night-vision goggles.
In one video, a woman declares that she would rather live at Little Creek for free than be a “wage slave.” In another, Ms. Nobiss called Mr. Trump a terrorist.
Eddie Simpson, an Oregon activist living at the camp, posted an expletive-filled rant this week in which he threatened the Iowa Utilities Board, saying he would go “bitch-slapping all the utility members.” He also blasted the “United States terrorist government.”
After Defend Iowa reposted the video, along with his arrest record, Mr. Simpson followed up by saying, “I do not speak on behalf of Little Creek. I’m going to make that clear.”
Fueling suspicions was the vandalism this month of the Dakota Access pipeline in Ottumwa, about an hour south of Williamsburg. Authorities are still investigating.
As with Standing Rock, the philosophy on nonviolent versus militant activism is fuzzy. Ms. Nobiss described Little Creek as “a more gentle approach to this fight” but said she wouldn’t turn away those involved in direct action.
“We don’t necessarily want to engage always in direct action, but if people do engage in direct action through our camp they do so willingly and on their own free will,” said Ms. Nobiss. “And also if they’re arrested, we will support them both emotionally and financially, however, while simultaneously remaining independent from their actions.”
The camp depends on fundraising, but so far crowdfunding on sites like GoFundMe has been slow. On Indiegogo, the camp has raised $1,415 in three months toward its goal of $15,000, as opposed to the millions of dollars that poured into Standing Rock.
Locals have pointed to crimes since the activists arrived, including a break-in at Elwood’s Implement and the theft of some calves, but Sheriff Rotter said such incidents are not unusual and that there is nothing to link them to the activists.
Iowa County may not be a hub of pipeline activity, but the same can’t be said of Iowa. Before the Iowa Supreme Court is a lawsuit filed by 14 landowners challenging the use of eminent domain to build the underground pipeline through their property.
The court ruled Thursday against an appeal by Dakota Access LLC to dismiss the case.
Thanks to environmental groups like Bold Iowa and Iowa Citizens for Community, “There’s like something we can do every day here. There’s an organization doing something every fricking day,” Ms. Nobiss said.
One neighbor who has befriended the activists is Roxanne Larsen-Veigelt, who lives across from the camp. She said she took in two young women during a windstorm this year and recently came by on her Kawasaki four-wheeler to drop off marigolds and zinnias.
In her opinion, the fuss over the camp has been overblown.
“If something happens and it does get funny, I would be the first one here to say, ‘You know what, you guys got to go. Because if you’re going to put me in danger, you’ve got to go.’ But they’re not putting me in danger,” said Ms. Larsen-Veigelt. “They’re very nice.”