Assistant secretary for civil works Jo-Ellen Darcy announced the decision on Sunday, with the army saying it was based on “a need to explore alternate routes” for the crossing.
“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Darcy said in a statement. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
The army corps will undertake an environmental impact statement and look for alternative routes, the tribe said in its own announcement.
“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama administration for this historic decision,” tribal chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement.
While the news is a victory, Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the tribe, cautioned that the decision could be appealed.
“They [Energy Transfer Partners] can sue, and Trump can try to overturn,” Hasselman said. “But overturning it would be subject to close scrutiny by a reviewing court, and we will be watching the new administration closely.”
“We hope that Kelcey Warren, Governor [Jack] Dalrymple, and the incoming Trump administration respect this decision and understand the complex process that led us to this point,” Archambault said.
The announcement came just one day before the corps’ deadline for thousands of Native American and environmental activists – who call themselves water protectors – to leave the sprawling encampment on the banks of the river. For months, they have protested over their fears that the pipeline would contaminate their water source and destroy sacred sites, and over the weekend hundreds of military veterans arrived at the camps in a show of support for the movement.
As word spread in the main camp, protesters broke out in jubilant celebrations, and with nightfall a few fireworks burst above the tents and campfires.
“I just cried when I heard the news,” said Sylvia Picotte, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who travelled to Standing Rock every weekend since August. “We have been stepped on for so long, all I could do was hope.”
Many gathered around the central fire to sing and cheer, while others marched through camp carrying mirrored shields above their head.
“It’s the silver water serpent coming from the air to beat the black snake,” said Jake Damon, a member of the Navajo Nation from Albuquerque, New Mexico, referring to a prophecy of a black snake that many have interpreted to mean the pipeline.
“This wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the unity of the tribes.”
Alice Brown Otter, a 13-year-old from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said that she was one of the Native Youth who ran from Cannon Ball to Washington DC to draw attention to the protests. “A lot of people didn’t believe in us that we were going to change the world, us 13-year-olds and 15-year-olds,” she said.
But others voiced caution, noting the incoming Republican president and hints that the energy company will appeal the decision. “It’s a trick. It’s a lie. Until that drill is shut down it’s not over yet,” said Frank Archambault, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who moved his entire family to the encampments in August. “Everybody needs to stay in place.”
“We’ve been lied to and deceived this whole time,” he said. “Why should this time be any different?”
“We know DAPL can appeal,” said Danny Grassrope, a member of the Lower Bruce Sioux Tribe. “This battle is won but the war isn’t over.”
Grassrope added that the tribes would not give up either. “We’re not done yet. This is just the beginning of something extraordinary.”
Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the 1,720-mile pipeline, has nearly completed the project. But the decision to move the pipeline’s path south from Bismarck, North Dakota, through a route less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation provoked protests and the army corps review that have so far thwarted it.
In April, members of the tribe established the first “spiritual camp” on the banks of the Missouri river. Members of hundreds of other indigenous tribes answered their call to join in the struggle, resulting in the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century.
The tribe’s decision to fight back against the powerful oil industry captured the attention of environmental activists and celebrities, as well. Thousands have travelled to the encampments, and over the weekend a contingent of veterans began arriving to serve as a “human shield” for the protesters, who have been subjected to rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas from local law enforcement.
On Sunday, congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard joined the veterans at Standing Rock, where they planned to hold a prayer ceremony at the main encampment. “Unless we protect our water, there is no economy,” she said, arguing against what she called a “false narrative” that a rerouted pipeline is bad for the economy.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell praised the army’s decision, saying it “underscores that tribal rights reserved in treaties and federal law, as well as nation-to-nation consultation with tribal leaders, are essential components” of discussions in infrastructure projects.
In a statement, Dalrymple said that the army’s decision did not resolve the pipeline question, and that it would prolong challenges for law enforcement officers in a standoff with protests. Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Main Coalition, said the group of energy industry interests remains “hopeful that this is not the final word on the Dakota Access Pipeline”.
Attorney general Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department would continue to monitor and mediate between protests and police, who had fired rubber bullets and pepper spray in past clashes.