On Saturday morning, Nia Amoruso will get in her car – packed with non-perishable foods, fresh produce from a community garden that she tends and sleeping bags – and start driving west. If she’s lucky, she’ll complete her trip, its end more than 1,700 miles away from her Norfolk home, within 48 hours.
Her destination? Standing Rock, North Dakota.
For months, several Native American tribes and their non-Native allies – or “water protectors” as they call themselves – have made camp in Standing Rock. Unified by the Standing Rock Sioux, their purpose is to stop construction of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline.
The pipeline would run underneath the Missouri River, which serves as the primary source of drinking water for the tribes. Their fear is that construction of the pipeline would endanger their safety and threaten their water supply.
With winter weather in full effect in North Dakota, the safety of the protesters is a concern of many, including Amoruso. The high temperature in Standing Rock on Thursday afternoon is a chilling 28 degrees and the ground is covered in several inches of powdery snow.
Amoruso said she woke up on Nov. 9 in a daze. She felt much like a deer in headlights, unsure of how to respond to the outcome of the presidential election the night before.
On Nov. 10, after watching tense events at Standing Rock, Amoruso decided to put her frustration into action.
“I just woke up and said I can’t just sit here,” Amoruso said. “I have to do something. I have to help support Standing Rock in a meaningful way.”
Amoruso said she had been following the story of a Native American nurse who was assisting people at Standing Rock when Amoruso noticed that she didn’t have adequate shelter to withstand the grizzly weather conditions.
“The nurse – she was really sick at the time. She wound up with pneumonia,” Amoruso said.
Inspired to act, Amoruso set up a GoFundMe fundraiser – a website that allows anyone to donate funds to any of the site’s user-created campaigns – to purchase first aid supplies and a medic tent for the nurse to use and sleep inside.
Slowly, donations started to trickle in from people who had seen the campaign shared on social media sites. Soon, Amoruso had raised more than $2,000 – enough to purchase a shelter.
Amoruso soon discovered that money wasn’t the only problem she faced. She didn’t know how to get the shelter to North Dakota.
“I spoke with her and told her I wanted to get her a shelter,” Amoruso said, “but I had no idea how to get it to her. She only had a P.O. box, and you can’t send something so big to a P.O. box.”
By a stroke of luck, Amoruso was introduced to a woman named Mera Rose Doe who lives in Northern Virginia. A set designer, Doe wanted to use her talents to help provide shelter to those in need at Standing Rock but needed funds to make it happen.
“It was just by pure grace that I was able to connect with her,” Amoruso said.
Doe had also created an online fundraiser but hadn’t been able to raise enough money to build the structures. Combined, Amoruso and Doe now had everything they needed to build tiny houses.
According to Doe’s fundraiser, the winter dwellings will sleep up to 12 people. The houses will have finished floors, solar panels on the roofs and working stoves. As of Thursday evening, more than 25 people had volunteered to travel with Amoruso and Doe to help build the houses. Amoruso said they hope to construct three of the structures next week.
On Thursday evening, Standing Rock supporters gathered at the intersection of St. Pauls Boulevard and City Hall Avenue in downtown Norfolk. About 25 people lined the sidewalks holding signs with messages of solidarity with those in North Dakota.
Kim Williams held a sign that read “water is life.” Williams said she understands why Native Americans in North Dakota are opposed to the pipeline.
“If the pipeline is built, they won’t benefit from it at all. They’ll be harmed by it,” Williams said. They’re trying to prevent their own death. They have a right to live, and it supersedes the rights of the oil companies.”
Atsuko Biernot said she also believes that the pipeline is a threat to the tribes and that officials must “think beyond the immediate dollar value of the pipeline” and consider the impact it could have on future generations.
Biernot spoke of another pipeline that concerns her – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – which would run from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina.
“Most people don’t even know that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is going to come through here,” Biernot said. “The coal dust is bad enough here. The pipeline would only make matters worse.”
Pipeline advocates said the construction of the pipeline will make the transfer of crude oil more environmentally friendly, citing that it will result in fewer spillage incidents and personal injuries than road and rail, according to Kelcy Warren, CEO of Texas Energy Transfers – the company that is building the pipeline.
Construction of the pipeline could also create thousands of jobs which would boost the economy of the states it would run through, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois and Iowa.
Before protestors in Norfolk dispersed on Thursday evening, Amoruso told the group about her plan. One supporter, eager to hear updates about the fundraiser, shouted out, “Are you going to Standing Rock?”
“We’re going,” Amoruso said, a smile spreading across her face. “We are going to Standing Rock.”
Poulter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org