Authorities are trying to clear out people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although most demonstrators left the camp, some holdouts dug in for a last stand.
A phalanx of armored vehicles and law-enforcement officers descended on the main Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp Thursday morning to rout the remaining opponents of the pipeline project who had dug in overnight.
On Wednesday, police had made 10 arrests of pipeline protesters for failing to follow orders to leave the camp by 2 p.m. local time.
Authorities estimated the holdouts at 50, but activists estimated double that number.
- Background stories: Here's a primer on the pipeline project, including the key players on all sides, a brief history of broken treaty promises and a closer look at the courtroom battle. And here's what we're reading related to the controversy.
- March 28: What the completed Dakota Access pipeline means for key players.
- Feb. 23: Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp closed; 46 holdouts arrested.
- Feb. 22: Preparing to leave, Standing Rock protesters ceremonially burn camp.
- Feb. 13: Judge rejects tribes’ bid to halt Dakota Access Pipeline; feds plan to shut down protest camp.
- Feb. 1: Hundreds rally as the Seattle City Council considers divesting from Wells Fargo because of its role as a Dakota Access Pipeline lender.
- Jan. 24, 2017: Donald Trump signs executive orders advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says it will push back.
- Dec. 4, 2016: Tribes celebrate as Corps rejects Dakota Access pipeline easement
- Nov. 21: Washington tribes urge that Obama stop, reroute Dakota Access Pipeline
- Nov. 12: Hundreds rally in Tacoma against Dakota Access Pipeline
- Live updates from from Seattle Times journalists on the scene Oct. 26, 27 and 28.
- Oct. 25: Tribes in Washington state call on President Obama to improve federal consultations over infrastructure projects
- Oct. 24: Citing treaty claim, protesters occupy land a rancher recently sold to pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners.
- See photos from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Most had left earlier Wednesday, marching arm in arm out of the camp, which was so muddy officers could not enter it with their cars. Surrounded on all sides by roadblocks and under threat of arrest, demonstrators burned their tents and shelters rather than see them destroyed.
Chase Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said so many fires were burning and so many teepees reduced to ashes that it triggered an eerie memory. “It reminded me of pictures, or maybe memory in my DNA, of the massacres, when you see teepees and structures burned; it was extremely traumatic, a heavy feeling.”
Despite the passing deadline, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said the remaining protesters could leave Thursday without fear of arrest. Law enforcement moved in Thursday morning from a ridge overlooking the camp.
At its peak in December, the camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., was home to more than 10,000 pipeline opponents, including veterans from around the country who came to help the Standing Rock Sioux and other opponents make their stand. Not in modern times had so many native nations gathered.
The tribes — including many from Washington — and their allies oppose the pipeline because of concern it could leak and pollute the Missouri River, used for drinking water by millions of people downstream. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux also argued they were not adequately consulted before construction that also destroyed and put at risk sacred sites.
A 24-hour checkpoint is in place to block anyone coming back to the camp, from either the north or south on the main highway. Officials said they want the camp empty as soon possible to get it cleaned up before expected seasonal flooding of the Missouri River. But some people remained.
“There were probably 100 people that stayed, and those 100 are still on the ground; they are not leaving,” Iron Eyes said, after leaving the camp at the deadline. “They are making a final treaty stand, as they see it.”
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department reported 20 fires in the course of the day and two explosions. A 7-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl were taken to a Bismarck hospital with burns.
Iron Eyes said that to native people, the removal felt not only like history repeating itself but an effort to crush the movement against the pipeline. “They are trying to create a chilling effect on those who seek to exercise their constitutional, human and treaty rights.”
For many, the closure of the camp was the destruction of what had become a second home since August. Leaving was emotional, even wrenching.
“People have said their last prayers, and offered cedar to the sacred fire and are also burning these structures we have ceremonially built, so they must be ceremonially removed,” said Vanessa Castle of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “They cannot be bulldozed; no other hands or malice of bad intentions can touch them.”
Castle had been at the camp since October, except for one week home where she was given her Indian name by her tribe — meaning Strong Woman — for her work fighting the pipeline. She took some of the cedar used in that ceremony with her back to the protest camp, where she burned it as she readied to leave for the final time.
“It is very sad; these are the places where I danced. The places where I prayed,” Castle said.
For weeks, demonstrators have been working toward cleaning up and vacating the camp to get out of the way of potential flooding.
The sheriff’s department promised to enforce the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ threat of issuing fines or prison time to protesters who resisted the order to vacate the camp by the deadline.
The Corps manages and claims ownership of the land, which the Sioux tribes regard as contested territory, never ceded by treaty.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribal leaders had asked protesters to leave the camp, to turn their focus to their legal battle against the pipeline. Other leaders see it differently; the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has leased land for a new protest camp near the one being closed, in addition to fighting the pipeline in federal court.
The sheriff’s department is offering bus transport, food, hotel vouchers and amnesty bus rides to Bismarck on Thursday and Friday.
Far from ending their protest, many people are moving camp to higher ground. Their struggle against the pipeline — and other fossil-fuel projects — is far from over.
Organizers are turning their attention to the TransMountain Pipeline in Canada, where First Nations, Washington tribes and environmental groups on both sides of the border have filed lawsuits and are working to stop it.
In that way, Standing Rock is a first draft of the history soon to play out in the Northwest, where activism against coal ports, oil terminals and coal trains helped spur the push back at Standing Rock.
Many Washington tribes helped support that effort not only with money but traveling to camp repeatedly and staying for months. Many have paid a heavy price, with more than 700 demonstrators from around the country arrested since August, including Castle, who is fighting a felony charge of inciting a riot.
Police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and fire hoses in freezing weather against demonstrators seeking to stop the pipeline, which is close to completion, after an executive order from President Trump last month to restart the project.
The Obama administration in December stopped further construction pending an environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux have been joined by 11 tribal organizations and 30 tribes in their lawsuit to stop the project and resume the environmental review.
Authorities in North Dakota on Tuesday issued restrictions on media covering the camp evacuation, for the first time imposing a requirement for credentials issued by police. Criteria for credentials included agreement to follow instructions from police, to only work in designated areas, and submission of a letter of assignment from “legitimate” news outlets, excluding any free-lance reporters or photographers without such a letter. The requirements were issued under threat of arrest and revocation of the credential.
The restrictions were protested by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations representing the working media.
“It is so sad that we are watching this in the 21st century,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “What we witnessed in the 1960s civil-rights protests, we are witnessing again.”
The developer of the project, Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas, has maintained that the pipeline across four states from western North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, is the safest, cheapest way to transport oil, and completion of the project is long overdue.