Petaluma native Miguel Elliott said he wasn’t sure exactly what he would uncover as he helped dig through the frozen North Dakota ground last month, advancing gradually through the icy surface to reveal, inch by labored inch, the softer earth beneath.
The stakes were high — as a long-time builder of earthen structures, Elliott was on hand at Sacred Stone camp near the proposed site of the Dakota Access Pipeline to offer his skills to shore up the area for an increasingly harsh winter. His constructions would be a bulwark against the cold, he said, and an affordable way to expand a camp that some hoped would become a permanent village.
It all hinged on what emerged from that frigid hole, and it turned out the earth piling up was unlike any he had worked with before, he said.
“It was a ready mix – we just added water,” Elliott said during a call from the snowy Standing Rock Sioux reservation last week. “We didn’t have to soak the clay. We didn’t have to add any sand to it. It was just ready to go.”
Using an ancient earth-and-straw building material known as cob, Petaluma’s Elliott is using his skills to help construction of warm and weather-proof structures on the North Dakota prairie.
His first project is an 800-square-foot school, which Elliott said was under construction in perhaps the coldest conditions in memory for cob-style building. Yet the project has been popular, he said, being “definitely the warmest place in camp.”
As the schoolhouse and other structures rise from the earth at Sacred Stone, Elliott said the camp could serve as something of a case study in cob, a construction material he champions that nonetheless generally hits a roadblock for larger structures due to modern building codes.
“It’s a really great opportunity here because, being on a reservation, no building codes are required. We can build houses, schools, community centers — build a whole village out — without having to go through the lengthy permitting process,” he said. “It really could be an amazing opportunity to demonstrate some good, energy-efficient, ecologically sound, permaculture principles.”
Elliott said he left for the Standing Rock Sioux reservation on Nov. 20, following reports of a need for structures that could house individuals who are remaining in the area through the winter to resist construction of the pipeline that would transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. It was there that he met up with other builders, and joined the schoolhouse project already underway.
Meant to replace a small tent serving as a makeshift schoolhouse for around 10 children, the building began as a straw-bale frame with a roof. Elliott said he led the work to plaster the structure with cob, after mixing the material with bare feet in frigid conditions.
The structure now features a wood-fired heater that runs under a cob bench, which warms the interior while helping to dry the plaster. Scaffolding used in construction has been converted to bunk beds, and the building can sleep 16 people.
“It’s pretty neat, sitting on a nice warm bench in the middle of a blizzard,” he said, on a day when temperatures hit a high of nine degrees Fahrenheit.
While some opponents of the pipeline have left the area after news that the Army Corps of Engineers would not grant an easement required for the project’s construction, at least 100 remain at Sacred Stone, Elliott said. It is one of three camps occupied by pipeline opponents, dwarfed by the largest, Oceti Sakowin.
Sacred Stone is on reservation land, he said, and the property owner has called for construction of a permanent village at the site.
The building method has at least one prominent example in Petaluma – the Petaluma Adobe, the historic two-story epicenter of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s Petaluma ranch. It was in modern Petaluma that Elliott started Living Earth Structures, with much of his work centered on building outdoor ovens, artistic benches and small shelters.
Examples of his work can be seen around the city, including a series of cob benches built with the help of students at Casa Grande High School and a memorial bench on Sunnyslope Road. Yet Elliott has also built larger cob structures elsewhere in the world, and is quick to espouse his beliefs on their merits.
“If we’re able to build a village here in these kinds of conditions, I believe a village can be built anywhere,” Elliott said. “This is really a great place to kind of demonstrate what’s possible in these emergency situations, to build winterized structures to accommodate people.”
Other Petaluma residents have recently spent time at Standing Rock. Having returned on Dec. 4, Lauren Fuhry was preparing last week for a debrief on the experience with fellow supporters at the city’s Aqus Cafe. Fuhry spent more than a week at the Rosebud camp, about a mile away from Sacred Stone.
Looking forward, she said the call for winterized buildings was significant.
There are lots of people at Standing Rock that will probably stay at Standing Rock. I know there is a big call for construction,” said Fuhry, who raised money to bring $3,500 in food, clothing and other supplies to the camp.
Another Petaluma resident, Anika Salguero, said she returned from the Oceti Sakowin camp on Thanksgiving. She raised around $17,000 to build yurts at the camp, including one that serves as a medical center.
“When I was there, they were fully winterizing. They are prepared to stay the winter,” she said.
Elliott said the long-term goal is for the school to become accredited and that he planned to remain to help with construction of additional structures in the area. It will likely take until the spring for the plaster to fully dry.
“Despite the harsh conditions, the kids really love it out here. They’re sledding, they have friends to play with. There’s a real sense of community out here,” he said.
A crowdfunding campaign to raise money for construction and winterization at Standing Rock is available at