CANNON BALL, N.D. – Pipeline opponents sang prayer songs and exchanged tearful hugs as they vacated the main Dakota Access resistance camp Wednesday, but they said they were not leaving in defeat.
“It’s a victory because this has inspired a movement that will continue,” said Tim Scott, a camp medic volunteer from Massachusetts.
Most of the remaining residents of the Oceti Sakowin camp left voluntarily Wednesday ahead of the governor’s 2 p.m. deadline, walking together on the highway and holding a ceremony on the bridge over the Cannonball River.
Some returned to the camp, knowing they could be subject to arrest as Gov. Doug Burgum and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers emphasize the need to accelerate cleanup of the camp ahead of potential spring flooding.
Officers in riot gear made 10 arrests as of early Wednesday evening after issuing an order to vacate Highway 1806 in the area of the camp. They face possible misdemeanor charges of obstructing a government function.
“From a top-level standpoint, the operations today went very smoothly,” Burgum said in a news conference Wednesday night.
Residents of the camp set fire to several structures throughout the day, which some said was meant to be ceremonial. Law enforcement also reported at least two explosions occurred.
A 7-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl suffered burns Wednesday, though the cause of the incident was unclear. The 17-year-old was “severely burned” and airlifted to Minneapolis, Burgum said.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said officers are following up on a reported hip injury on someone who was arrested.
Cleanup efforts will be underway in the camp at 9 a.m. Thursday in a coordinated effort with the state, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Corps.
Between 25 to 50 people may be staying overnight at the camp, Burgum estimated. Those who obstruct the cleanup efforts are subject to arrest.
“They’ll have every opportunity tomorrow again to leave the camp without arrest,” said Burgum, emphasizing that law enforcement did not go into the camp Wednesday. “It’s our desire that people leave voluntarily.”
North Dakota agencies and other organizations offered travel assistance to help people return home, including providing bus fare, hotel lodging for one night, a food voucher, health assessments and other support.
Four people were taken to the state-sponsored travel assistance center Wednesday. The services will be available through 5 p.m. Thursday.
Some residents planned to leave the area and others are moving to new camps that have been established on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Dan Nanamkin, of the Colville Nez Perce in Washington, said he viewed Wednesday’s deadline as a transition rather than a closure. Nanamkin, who helped lead prayer songs as the “water protectors” left the camp together, said they left peacefully and with courage in the face of possible arrest.
“Under that duress, we had to leave but we did so with dignity,” Nanamkin said. “I think our ancestors are proud of what we did.”
Pipeline opponents fear the Dakota Access Pipeline will contaminate drinking water sources and disturb sacred burials and other sites.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken to Illinois, says the pipeline will be safely installed at least 92 feet below Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River, and will include several safeguards to prevent and detect leaks.
Rain, snow and extremely muddy conditions have slowed cleanup efforts this week. Many at the camp pushed for a deadline extension so they can finish removing their belongings themselves.
Some bulldozers and other equipment have worked in the camp to scoop up tents, abandoned food and other items that have been hauled away. But camp leaders did not allow contractors with heavy equipment to enter the camp in recent days, said Levi Bachmeier, policy analyst for Burgum, who was on the ground handling negotiations.
Burgum said in an interview earlier this week that the pace of cleanup needs to be accelerated.
“There are people there that are obstructing every day our ability to clean up the camp. That is something that has to stop,” Burgum said. “If this whole thing started around the idea of being water protectors ... it's just an unbelievable irony that there are people who are preventing access to federally owned lands to conduct a cleanup of stuff in a floodplain.”
As her grandchildren and volunteers helped pack up her temporary home Tuesday and move to a new camp on higher ground, Dorothy Sun Bear wished residents of the Oceti Sakowin camp had more time to clear out.
“This wasn’t trash. Everything was useful here until they came and bulldozed it,” Sun Bear said.
Nearby, construction of Dakota Access is proceeding under Lake Oahe after President Donald Trump directed agencies to expedite approval of the pipeline rather than complete the additional environmental review ordered by the Obama administration.
“I’d like to give Trump a bottle of oil and make him drink it,” Sun Bear said.
The pipeline will be complete and ready to flow oil between March 6 and April 1, Dakota Access said in a court filing this week.
Even as the pipeline completion date nears, many at the camp were still hopeful construction could be stopped through the courts.
“The prayer is not dead,” said man packing up his camp site who identified himself by his Lakota name, Wanbli.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe continue to challenge the project in federal court, arguing violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The next court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 28.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault and other tribal leaders had joined in asking for protesters to leave due to potential flooding and environmental hazard if the area is not cleaned up.
Standing Rock Tribal Council members did not respond to an interview request from Forum News Service this week. In a statement on Facebook, the tribal leaders said they are closely monitoring law enforcement activity at the camp.
“No matter what happens, we encourage everyone to remain peaceful and reiterate that our utmost concern at this time is the safety and wellbeing of all parties,” the statement said.
The first pipeline opponents began camping in April, with the movement gaining more momentum and visibility in August as pipeline construction progressed. The main camp, known as Oceti Sakowin, attracted at times thousands of supporters, including tribal members from around the world.
Residents of the camp were surrounded by a large law enforcement contingent as the deadline approached, including some set up in the hilltops with bright lights shining onto the camp overnight.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, with assistance from other agencies, had two checkpoints south of the camp on the reservation and was no longer allowing traffic to travel to the camp.
North Dakota Highway Patrol and other law enforcement set up to the north of the camp entrance on Highway 1806, which continues to be closed to non-emergency traffic.
Sen. John Hoeven, who joined Burgum and other officials at the news conference, said law enforcement has shown “incredible restraint” in difficult circumstances.
Ron Starr, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who was on the camp cleanup crew, said he was sad to see the camp close.
“I met a lot of good people here,” Starr said. “Everybody came together here.”
Madeline Merritt of Los Angeles was among volunteers helping to clean the camp this week. She returned after supporting the camp in December and participating in demonstrations in Washington, D.C., to oppose the pipeline.
“I have been completely moved by this cause. I believe we the people have to protect
our waters, our land,” Merritt said.