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CANNON BALL -- Clearing the anti-Dakota Access protest camp - the largest protest camp ever occupied in the country - is starting with baby steps this week.

Tuesday, loaders, dump trucks, an excavator and skid-steers and workers moved around the Oceti Sakowin camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where as many as 10,000 protesters had been living since August to protect the Missouri River water and the tribe’s sacred sites from a 570,000-barrel crude oil pipeline a half mile away.

News had not yet reached the camp that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been directed by Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer to issue the final easement so Dakota Access can drill its pipeline under the Missouri River/Lake Oahe.

Oblivious to political undercurrents but hoping to clear the land for potential flooding, people and big machines tore out camps and structures, concentrating on abandoned sites or where people say they want help.

Materials for salvage were set to the side, while loaders scraped up bucket loads of abandoned tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, food goods, and personal items mixed into slushy snow and ice. It all got poured into piles and dumpsters arranged around the camp perimeters and trucked to the landfill.

Hans Bradley, the brownfield coordinator for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is overseeing this initial phase of the cleanup that will last through Friday, when the teams will regroup and assess.

“We’re trying to identify what should be cleaned up by asking people and getting their perspective on where we should start,” Bradley said.

He said the idea is to move carefully and thoughtfully through the camp, where some 300 are still living, cooking and going about their days. He estimates that by the end of February, the area will be 95 percent cleared off. With that in mind, he said the tribe asked the the corps, which owns the land, and state agencies that offered help, to stand down while the tribe works its way through a difficult process.

Bradley was not immune to the emotion of the day. “In a certain aspect, I do feel sad, but there is always an end and there is always a beginning. This was about dreaming and building off of that; the reality is the world can be beautiful,” he said. 

Cleanup this week is being coordinated through the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. of Pine Ridge, S.D. and its Standing Rock counterpart, though the tribe itself will take the lead going forward.

Nick Tilsen, Thunder Valley executive director, said he’d been involved with the NoDAPL movement since day one. “We had a stake in this from the first, supporting the water. Now we’re putting our values into action to be good stewards,” Tilsen said. The two groups each had about 25 workers, some volunteers, some part of the community service corps, and are using donations and other funds to hire the contractors and the equipment.

“I don’t think the narrative is that this ended up in a trash dump. This was like a stone cast in the pond with a ripple effect all throughout the world. The reality is we inspired the world that together we could stand up to a powerful corporation,” Tilsen said.

He said the camp will eventually be commemorated and the unity and historic gathering of hundreds of tribal nations remembered in a prayerful ceremony.

Water and ice is already starting to collect in the lowest areas of the camp and navigating around is tricky by vehicle and treacherous by foot. The conditions are making it difficult to get to the camp goods stuck under hardened snow drifts of snow and ice.

Shelbie Dodt, of Detroit, was working to clear a camp she’d set up earlier, methodically shoveling snow to get to the ground tarps that had once kept ground moisture out of a light summer tent.

She said it’s been hard, thinking of a disposable society, of all that had been left behind, when not long ago resources donated from all around the world were being allocated so people could survive winter.

“Now we’re left with all these things that people wanted to contribute. Now we clean it up, trying to salvage what we can. I left and now I’ve come back twice. I’m not sure why I keep coming back - it’s breaking my heart,” she said.

Joe Britt, who was in charge of camp construction, now finds himself in charge of camp deconstruction, taking buildings apart for salvage or for moving to another camp location.

Snow is being cleared off a site just up the hill to the south of the main camp, where the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is leasing some privately owned land for an alternate camp site on Standing Rock.

Standing Rock called off its own plans to start up an official winter camp, but Britt says it appears several locations are in the mix if people choose to stay on.

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“We’re doing all this in preparation for the move,” he said, gesturing to neat piles of sheeting, wall frames and building sections on skids stored near the camp’s main construction building.

“There are properties becoming available, four different sites. It’s crazy right now,” he said. “I don’t think (the movement) will be all over.”

He said it is hard to see so much donated material and camp goods become fodder for the landfill.

“I came here to fight for the environment. A lot of this stuff was donated and used once and now it’s garbage. It’s like the aftermath of a hurricane,” he said, looking around.

Parts of the camp do look like that, partly because people in flimsy shelter fled in panic after the Thanksgiving blizzard. Other areas are neat and tidy, while an area close to the Cannonball River where cleanup is underway is regaining a natural open look.

The camp’s population was always diverse in its opinions and one is Matthew Borke, also of Detroit. He’s salvaging and reconstructing dock pieces, formerly set out on the Cannonball River, and plans to ride out any flood water on a floating camp.

“I’m building a raft so I don’t have to leave. I’ve got 11 of these (docks) for one big ark,” he said. “I’m not really in fear of a flood.”

Catka Winyan, an Ogalala Sioux, said she will move to higher ground, but she won't give up the fight. "America was built on stolen lands. DAPL is the squatters. I love it here. We have title to this continent, what we're standing on." 

Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II and the tribal council want the camp cleared out ahead of potential spring flooding, a concern that’s been building over the course of a hard, snowy winter. While the National Weather Service sees only a minor threat now, it warns that conditions can worsen before melt. 

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(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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