The Last Water Protectors Are Leaving Standing Rock

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images.
Activists sit around a camp fire as it snows at Oceti Sakowin camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 5, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
The last water protectors who remained at the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp in Standing Rock are leaving the site.

One group of protesters exchanged hugs and goodbyes after marching out of the camp ahead of a departure deadline set by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A bus from the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, along with four vans and a truck towing a trailer from the Standing Rock Episcopal Church, were waiting to transport the protesters. The state arranged for the bus to bring campers to a transition center in Bismarck.

Throughout the day, the remaining protesters prayed and set fire to a handful of wooden structures.

Some said burning the structures — which appeared to include a yurt and a teepee — was part of the ceremony of leaving. As heavy rain turned to snow, they said they expected no trouble during the eviction, despite a heavy law enforcement presence.

"People are being very mindful, trying very hard to stay in prayer, to stay positive," said Nestor Silva, 37, of California. "I am not aware of any plans for belligerence."

The Corps set a 2 p.m. deadline for the camp to be emptied ahead of potential spring flooding. Most of the campers have left, but some remain behind still.

A massive cleanup effort has been underway for weeks, first by protesters themselves and now with the Corps set to join in removing debris left over several months.

Wednesday's deadline for the protesters to leave also may not spell the end of the heavy law enforcement presence near where Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners is finishing the last section of the pipeline, which will carry oil from North Dakota through the Dakotas and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois.

The protest camp is on federal land in southern North Dakota between the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the pipeline route. It has at times housed thousands of people, though it's dwindled to just a couple of hundred as the pipeline battle has largely moved into the courts.

While some in the camp felt "under threat" by Wednesday's deadline, most focused on moving off federal land and away from the flood plain, said Phyllis Young, one of the camp leaders.

"The camps will continue," she said. "Freedom is in our DNA, and we have no choice but to continue the struggle."

Other camps are popping up on private land in the area, including one the Cheyenne River Sioux has set up about a mile from the Oceti Sakowin camp. Silva, the California protester, was among those who said he planned to simply move there.

"A lot of our people want to be here and pray for our future," tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said.

Others, including Dom Cross, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, said he planned to return home after living at the camp since September.

"There's a lot of sadness right now. We have to leave our second home," he said.

Authorities are bringing in buses to take protesters to Bismarck, where they will be offered assistance including water and snacks, a change of clothing, bus fare home, and food and hotel vouchers.

Once the main camp is cleared of people, the cleanup of trash and debris that's being coordinated by the tribal, state, and federal governments will continue. More than 1,000 tons of waste had been removed by contractors as of early Tuesday, though dozens of semi-permanent structures remained, according to Herr. Dozens of abandoned vehicles also remained, according to George Kuntz, vice president of the North Dakota Towing Association.

Law enforcement has maintained a staging area just north of the protest camp for months. With cleanup continuing, construction ongoing and protesters still in the area, it's unclear when the operations center will be shut down.

"That will be a tactical decision," said Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Gov. Burgum.

The group leaving the main camp sang songs and prayed as they walked along a highway and over a bridge atop the Cannonball River. Raymond King Fisher, a protester from Seattle, was one of the leaders of the march. He called it a difficult and emotional day.

He ended the parade by saying, "We go in peace but this fight is not over."
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