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Tensions Simmer In Standing Rock Protest Camps As Evacuation Nears

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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North Dakota may have a newly elected governor, but the state's position regarding the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and its resident 'water protectors' appears to have stayed the same.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued an emergency evacuation order for the largest of the Standing Rock protest camps last week, saying the few hundred remaining protesters have until Feb. 22 to pack up and leave.

The directive reinforces orders issued in November by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Burgum's predecessor, which were directed at "large populations" who gathered in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. At the time, the Corps stated that while it was calling for protesters to leave, it had no intention of forcibly evicting residents.

But that's all changed. On Wednesday, North Dakota's new governor said the arrival of the spring thaw makes the federal lands unsafe for the 300 or so water protectors still present in the camp.

“Warm temperatures have accelerated snowmelt in the area of the protest camp," the evacuation order reads, "and the National Weather Service reports that the Cannonball River should be on the watch for rising water levels and an increased risk of ice jams later this week."

According to the governor's order, North Dakota' early spring thaw will not only endanger the occupants of the largest camp, Oceti Sakowin, but could also increase risk that debris and belongings on the site will be swept into the Missouri River by floodwaters.

Officials maintain that the land is now littered with "debris and  the human waste" and that the area isn't being cleaned up quickly enough to avert an environmental disaster.

Tribal members concede that there is still a lot to clean up from protesters who have since left the camp, and say they are encouraging those still present to help the tribe return the federal site to its original condition. The tribe has not issued a statement affirming the actual condition of the public protest site or whether human waste is present.

The tribe has also asked protesters to go home. In a Jan. 21 Facebook post, the Standing Rock Tribe said it had passed a unanimous resolution calling for the closure of all of the protest camps.

"[We] ask the protectors to vacate the camps and head home with our most heartfelt thanks. Much work will be required to clean up before the spring thaw, which will flood the area. It is imperative we clean the camps and restore them to their original state before this flooding occurs."

On Friday, protestors met with state and federal officials and asked for additional time to finish cleaning up the area, but the state says it plans to hire private contractors to finish the work. Burgum also says he plans to ask the federal government to pick up the tab for the cleanup, which he estimates will be about $33,000.

And the tribe, which at times was forced to mediate tensions between outside protesters and police, now faces a new protracted legal battle. Tribal leaders say the Donald Trump administration's decision to green-light the Dakota Access Pipeline abruptly halted an Environmental Impact Statement still in progress. The tribe also faces the ongoing economic impacts of road closures and local tensions.

The Standing Rock Sioux may feel it is no longer in the position to defend protesters' right to use federal land as a camping area. According to a blog post published by Warrior Publications, the tribe's decision to close the various camps was the result of a tribal council meeting in which members discussed the various steps local authorities had taken to restrict movement of protesters. Those actions included the razing of a tipi that the tribe says was not within the construction zone and the closure of a bridge that tribal members used for daily transportation. The bridge closure sparked a protest in which a number of attendees were injured.

Last week the Bureau of Indian Affairs took steps to close down the first protest site, which attendees were initially told was on the private land of Lakota historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. According to the Bureau, Allard owns less than 0.10 percent of the land known as the Sacred Stone camp. The rest is held by the Bureau "in trust for the Standing Rock Tribe." Allard and her guests now face trespass violations and court dates.

The move is an awkward if not clear signal to protesters that their activism on the Dakota Access front lines was meant only to be temporary. The real fight, as the tribe has said all along, is encouraging companies and banks to divest from the oil sector and avert what would have far greater environmental impact than an abandoned makeshift campground: an undetected crude oil spill.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's journey to global activism carries lessons as well. It's tough to oversee thousands of concerned activists who turn up for your cause, use public lands as if they were their own, and have no real understanding of the environmental impact their actions will leave behind. At what point does the responsibility of ensuring there is adequate garbage and sewage disposal become an urgent mandate? Hopefully not at the end of a protest.

But the case also signals a lesson about the difficult path environmental activism may face in the future as it tries to marshal the support of the public on its own front lines.

Where do organizations draw the line when thousands -- or tens of thousands -- want to come out and show their support for a fragile ecology? How do you house them, how do you promote a culture of camaraderie and how, as the Standing Rock Sioux have struggled to figure out, do you diplomatically communicate goodbye when it's time?

Image credit: Flickr/ USFWS Mountain Prairie

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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