At Standing Rock, the day went from bad to worse. In a single day, campers, who call themselves water protectors, were targeted with eviction notices, stricter laws proposed against them, and a formal reminder that the physical fight against the Dakota Access pipeline was coming to an end.
At the center of the Cannon Ball Bridge, a bright morning sun shone down upon planned talks between the water protectors and members of a government coalition set to remove them from historic Treaty lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The conversation on the bridge turned into negotiations. The Army Corps wanted to assess the sprawling network of camps that it said now posed an environmental risk to the Missouri River. Unseasonably warm temperatures had accelerated concerns about spring flooding across an estimated 200 acres where dozens of abandoned structures, cars and cast-off goods such as donated clothes and food remain.
“The Army Corps of Engineers said that it would not raid until after February 22,” said Chase Iron Eyes into a megaphone bullhorn, referring to a Corps-issued deadline to close the lands to water protectors.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribal member stood at the center of dozens of people circled around a popup card table holding a stack of large, colorful maps. The aerial photographs were exactly the kind one would expect to see from the USACE—grid-like, numbered, and intended for some sort of technical operation.
Among the crowd were those who are still living at the network of encampments behind the nearly yearlong movement to try and stop the Dakota Access pipeline from being routed under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. An estimated 300 people are believed to be the last resisters remaining from a high of as many as 14,000 people who had journeyed to the reservation’s edge to stand with Standing Rock at the height of the conflict.
Now, those resolved to stay and fight are being accused of threatening the integrity of the very river they had aimed to safeguard from a potential oil spill, judged by the piles of debris and abandoned cars and dwellings that clutter the camps.
“We are all concerned about getting out of the floodplain and onto high ground,” said Iron Eyes. He explained to Corps officials that some people had requested to remain atop a rising slope in the camp known as Media Hill, a nickname stemming from its strong cell phone reception.
But Corps officials told campers that anyone refusing to leave the site after February 22 would be issued citations. Meantime, a policy advisor for the governor’s office also warned campers that calling on law enforcement to assist in crowd control would be a possibility.
“The Army Corps of Engineers, after the 22nd, has the authority to request the assistance of Morton County to remove people for trespassing,” said Levi Bachmeier, referring to the sheriff’s deputies who have for months led the militarized response to the movement.
On Wednesday February 15, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum had stepped up a previously imposed February 22 deadline to clear the camps by issuing an emergency evacuation order, which include the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, plus its sister site, Rosebud, and portions of the Sacred Stone Camp. The order calls for police checkpoints into and out of the campsites, and an accelerated clearing of the land by up to 50 industrial-sized dumpsters a day.
“The current pace of cleanup is not on par for where we need to be,” said Burgum during his Wednesday evening press conference.
The day of his announcement, temperatures had reached into the mid-40s. The next day, when officials from the governor’s office, the Corps and the National Guard turned up to inspect the lands, the forecast called for highs in the mid-50s—almost 25 degrees warmer than the seasonal average.
Across the bridge to the east, the main Oceti Sakowin camp continued to thaw. In recent days, snowmelt had steadily churned into vast, shallow pools of water flooding out campers’ tents and teepees. Thick, paste-like mud was forming, too. But instead of moving, many water protectors compensated by lining the earth with hay and wooden pallets to continue their resistance campaign, even though for weeks they had been warned that the area is a known floodplain.
The talks soon ended with private negotiations carried out between Iron Eyes; a second camp representative, Holy Elk Lafferty, and members of the Army Corps. The water protectors called for an extension of the deadline in exchange for allowing inspectors to assess the land. But by midday, the negotiations had failed, and the Corps entered the camps anyway.
Starkly absent from talks were tribal leaders from the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes who continue to battle the pipeline in the courts. Also absent were spiritual leaders and elders who had helped guide the movement at its peak. Even Iron Eyes noticed the independence the movement had taken on.
“The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is here to clean up, but they’re not here to assert any kind of our rights in Treaty territory,” said Iron Eyes, referring to the bulldozers contracted by the tribe to begin the cleanup effort. “They’re not here to evict DAPL. They’re not here to stand strong. They’re here to tell us that we need to leave.”
Across the reservation border, a different land dispute was playing out. Agents with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) handed out trespassing notices to people who had started setting up a new camp just south of the Missouri River, near the Sacred Stone Camp. The two-page document, signed by the BIA Superintendent of the Standing Rock Agency, Sheila White Mountain, alleged that people camped on the tribal trust lands lacked the proper leases to be there.
“Individuals unlawfully occupying the subject property have 10 days to show cause why BIA should not find them in trespass,” White Mountain said in the letter.
A similar notice was reportedly issued to LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, the originator of the Sacred Stone Camp. The site is where the first teepee was erected last April. While initially it was once believed that the camp was entirely situated on Allard’s private land, Tuesday’s trespassing notice suggests the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe owns 66 percent of the property and the Army Corps manages an estimated 20 percent. Allard did not immediately return a request for comment.
Meanwhile, at the North Dakota capitol, late Thursday on February 16 the state senate passed three bills directly targeting the protests at Standing Rock. Lawmakers approved measures, nicknamed DAPL bills, that would increase penalties for protest-related activities such as “rioting” and “trespassing.” All of the bills have emergency clauses, meaning they would take effect immediately if signed by Burgum.
As day turned into night, the sound of power tools could be heard on Media Hill. A woman nicknamed Chase said she was helping build a new structure—an art space—that might also be used as a tea room.
When asked about whether she was worried about the Army Corps’ intentions to clear the land by next Wednesday, the spindly, 27-year-old woman just smiled and laughed. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
That night, news had surfaced that the U.S. Department of the Army would formally publish in the Federal Register its termination of the environmental impact statement to review the Dakota Access pipeline—the latest sign that the battle at Standing Rock was drawing near its close.
Yet those who remained seemed to have a difficult time accepting this hard truth—either that, or their reasons for staying behind remained unclear.