“It was freedom for everyone who came here and freedom from the way we lived our everyday lives at home.”
A few hundred holdout protesters have been ordered to leave the camp they set up to battle the Dakota Access Pipeline and that captured the world’s attention for months.
The camp, Oceti Sakowin, must be cleared by 2 p.m. local time Wednesday to avoid health and safety risks, according to orders from the Army Corps of Engineers and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R). Melting snows could flood the area and contaminate nearby rivers if debris and human waste at the camp aren’t hauled away, the officials have said.
At its height in December, the camp on federal land near the Missouri River bustled with the presence of thousands of Native Americans, military veterans and other environmental activists resisting the construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation. The tribe has argued that the 1,172-mile oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois violates their territorial rights from an 1851 treaty and that federal authorities failed to properly examine the pipeline’s environmental risks.
Images showing clashes with law enforcement and pipeline security workers motivated thousands of Americans to support the tribe by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars or joining Oceti Sakowin and the other “water protector” camps.
It also provided a model for environmental protests that essentially went viral as camps sprang up to halt pipelines in Texas, Florida and other spots around the country.
“The camp was the light in the middle of the dark,” said Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth. “It was the fire that fueled so many fights across the country,”
Former President Barack Obama’s administration handed the Standing Rock Sioux a momentary victory in December when the Army announced it would not allow the developer to build the pipeline near the tribe’s reservation.
Following the Army’s decision, people began leaving the camp in droves. The Sioux officials also asked them to leave in January as the tribe shifted its strategy from the campsite to the courthouse and worried how protesters would endure a harsh winter on the Great Plains.
The tribe stood by that approach in recent weeks as the Army Corps, under President Donald Trump, reversed course and issued a permit allowing Energy Transfer Partners to build near the Sioux’s water source.
Before Trump gave the upper hand to the pipeline company, many people went home, though smaller numbers relocated to other camps. They left behind hundreds of tents and other structures and an allegedly hazardous amount of human waste.
A cleanup began weeks ago. More than 230 truckloads of garbage had been hauled away as of Monday, according to The Associated Press.
But the task was still far from complete on Tuesday night. A Huffington Post reporter at the scene saw tattered tepees standing in the muddy, water-logged encampment. The remaining water protectors hurried around the camp, packing up their belongings. Some people said they planned to set fire to the empty structures to speed up cleanup.
Some protesters were unhappy to leave and believed the claims about flooding were overstated. Lewis Grassrope, 39, had been at Oceti Sakowin since August, but returned to his home on the Lower Brule Sioux reservation in South Dakota days ago. He worried that authorities would damage his tent and other property if he waited for the deadline to pass.
He marveled at the collaborative decision-making process in the camp and thought that it had been run well, with huge kitchens, security, a medical clinic and other services.
“It was freedom for everyone who came here and freedom from the way we lived our everyday lives at home,” said Grassrope. “People have been portraying it as an ecological disaster, but it’s still a beautiful place.”