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.