FORT YATES, ND – In a unanimous vote, Standing Rock Sioux tribal council members voted to close the network of encampments behind the Dakota Access Pipeline protests within 30 days, including the main Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, and Sacred Stone camps. Council members also voted against providing any temporary camps or shelters to individuals who should remain at the camps after the February 19 deadline. The decision was made in an emergency meeting held on Friday, January 20 at the tribe’s headquarters in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
The talks were scheduled following a motion approved by tribal members of the Cannon Ball District two nights earlier on Wednesday, January 18. In that meeting, residents voted in favor of closing the sprawling network of camps where an estimated 1,000 people remain living on lands bordering the reservation.
“The main objective of the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been achieved to a degree,” said Cody Two Bears, the district representative from Cannon Ball.
“All the individuals at all the camps in and around Cannon Ball need to leave,” Two Bears continued, a directive that would be repeated in eight out of the ten points his constituents had raised, Wednesday.
The evacuation decision was made following a week of renewed clashes between police and pipeline protesters who call themselves water protectors. Since Monday, January 16, 35 people have been arrested from demonstrations, or actions, carried out at various sites blocking access to the pipeline drill pad, bringing the total number of arrests to 624 since August 10.
The scene of many of the week’s confrontations was carried out at the Backwater Bridge, the heavily fortified blockade slightly north of the main Oceti Sakowin camp, named for the Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation.
Wednesday night, police crossed the blockade to raze a tipi that had been erected by water protectors. The incident sparked a violent stand-off by police who shot bean-bag rounds and sprayed chemical gas on dozens of people. One water protector who remains unidentified was hospitalized with injuries to the face, according to officials with Morton County.
“What’s that bridge got to do with the DAPL,” asked the Kenel District representative, Frank White Bull. “We need that bridge.”
State officials closed the Backwater Bridge October 27 following the massive militarized sweep on the prairie where two vehicles were set ablaze near the river crossing. Last week, January 12, state transportation officials declared the bridge was structurally sound and could be re-opened. But North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier applied concessions: the clashes at the bridge had to come to an end.
In a meeting with campers held January 5, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II called on protesters to practice restraint from further actions on the bridge. He told them that the blockade needed to be removed. The bridge is on Highway 1806, the main route Cannon Ball residents use for work and access to services. Its closure has led to financial hardships at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, its main economic engine. According to the Chairman, the shortfall has cut into tribal programs for children and elders. Meanwhile, to make up for the loss, the tribal council recently voted to dip into its $6.5 million raised in donations to its legal fund to help offset some of the financial burden.
Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, Edward Black Cloud criticized the tribe. “I know how much money is involved, what’s in the pocket of the council,” said Black Cloud. “You guys are wrong for sending these guys home. They gave their heart to you.”
Less than a dozen water protectors were present at the meeting and many were tribal members like Black Cloud. But among those who spoke before the council, most expressed respect for the council’s decision.
JoBeth Brown Otter shared her views and personal camp experiences with the council. “What’s been going on at the frontlines has shocked me,” she said, relaying concerns about misappropriation of ceremonial songs, the mistreatment of elders and women, but also an increase in verbal and even physical assaults on the police. “We have got to get back to square one. This movement has lost the spirituality that it once had.”
Meantime others complained about how elders and women no longer felt safe in the community due to an increase in crime, alcohol and drug use, a concern also raised by residents of the Cannon Ball District.
During Monday’s confrontation at the top of a bluff known as Turtle Mountain, video shows a protester punching at the shield of a police officer – one of the first violent interactions of its kind to be documented from the movement. From this action, it was also the first time a water protector had been arrested on drug charges, in this case, possession of marijuana, according to Morton County officials.
“Where’s the leadership?” asked Archambault, expressing the absence of many of the people who have actively been promoting and organizing the movement for months.
LaDonna Tamakawestewin Allard, founder of the original encampment, the Sacred Stone camp, was in Park City, Utah for the release of the documentary series RISE at the Sundance Film Festival, which features the struggle at Standing Rock. In a brief telephone interview, she said the encampment on her private land would stay intact but did not clarify whether the campers living there would remain.
Meantime, Chase Iron Eyes, who recently ramped up a donation campaign through his Last Real Indians website while renaming the main camp to Oceti Oyate (the People’s Camp), posted a brief post on his Facebook Page in between anti-Trump demonstrations in D.C.
“Many are committed to standing strong in the liberated zone, that's where my heart is,” Iron Eyes wrote, referring to lands that are not managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “I have a duty to help them. I can't be someone everyone likes, I have to follow my conscience.”
But for one organization that has helped swell the movement from the start, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the decision by the council was a timely one. IEN’s leader, Tom Goldtooth (Diné), wrote on Facebook in support of the directive and mentioned “…record snow in the region, that will melt, causing the river to flood the camp.” His point about flooding echoed recent concerns of tribal and state officials.
He also signaled new political realities and how that might impact the movement. “With the Trump Administration in office now, the bigger picture requires all water protectors and Native nations to be in solidarity to insure treaty rights, environmental laws and the preservation of historical and cultural resources and sacred sites are fully recognized and protected."
Grandmother and activist Tunwin Faith Spotted Eagle also weighed in with a public statement. "Wopida to Oceti Winyan Okodakiciye for providing sensible leadership and being the voice for elders and medicine people while we are on other front lines. Hollering at the bridge and throwing snowballs is not helping where the spirit and prayers are guiding us,” said Spotted Eagle, who last month famously became the first Native to receive an electoral college vote for President. “We continue to pray for Ina Maka and Mni Wiconi but sensible leadership is needed. The bridge needs to be opened through strong leadership not agitation by anyone. Standing Rock OYATE severely need that bridge open for emergency and economic reasons so stay away from the bridge please and pray in camp, at ceremonies and together because it is working. Please younger generation stay off the bridge, Turtle Island and Turtle Hill. Respect."
Meantime, Archambault reminded council members about the Environmental Impact Study that was entered into the public register last week, another small victory in the tribe’s greater battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“I’m worried that our most recent behavior, these actions on the bridge, are going to give reason for the incoming president to do away with what we worked so hard for, in getting the EIS.”
Archambault’s concerns were validated on Friday when Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said he expects the Trump Administration to rescind the EIS as soon as Monday, according to statements made on a Fargo radio show.
“I would expect that Dakota Access could begin finishing that line within a week,” Cramer said. “That’s my hope, and that’s my expectation."
What Cramer’s predictions may spell for water protectors now stuck in the middle of a battle that’s carried out for months remains to be seen. The tribe has called for a January 30 start date to begin clearing out the abandoned debris at the camps.
But the situation near the drill site and the struggle over it could dramatically change by then.