MORTON COUNTY — The Oceti Sakowin protest camp is history as of Wednesday and the camp’s ending was a visual drama of structures burning in a heavy wet snow with at least two propane-suspected explosions and a brief episode of defiant fireworks.
The camp established in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline was evacuated by order of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the governor’s office and negotiations between the camp and officials in recent days paved the way for a mostly peaceful departure.
Those still in the camp gathered for a ceremony at around 1 p.m. near where the camp’s sacred fire burned for months. They followed the song and drumming out of the camp, slogging through ankle-deep muddy slop, many in tears as they walked up flag road, where the brilliant colors of many other tribal nations once had been displayed.
Perhaps 70 refused to follow the official 2 p.m. evacuation deadline and at least nine people were arrested later in the afternoon in a skirmish with police. Police, led by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the North Dakota Highway Patrol, were well prepared for the possibility: At least 100 officers and equipment were staged near the camp throughout the day.
Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson said the operation would continue as the camp was emptied voluntarily or by force.
“This isn’t going to be over today, we all knew that,” Iverson said Wednesday afternoon. He said police would carefully clear the camp, structure by structure, looking for criminal evidence and possible weapons, before structures would be removed.
At least a dozen structures were intentionally set on fire, both Tuesday night and Wednesday starting early in the morning under a gray, cold sky. One fire caused a propane explosion, sending a 7-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl to a Bismarck hospital for burn treatment.
People in the camp said the structure burnings were ceremonial and a way to return prayers to the earth and sky; others said burning a plywood structure was simply easier than tearing it down.
People continued to move out of the camp right up until the deadline, using sleds and wagons to haul belongings to the highway. Mud made it impossible for almost any vehicle to maneuver in the camp, though at least two snowmobiles roared around on top of the sludge.
Cleanup operations were suspended for the day while the evacuation was underway. Police wanted to escort the equipment operators into the camp, but camp leaders rejected the idea of armed police entering before the deadline. About 230 loads of garbage and abandoned camp equipment already have been cleared out.
Tonya Olson, a Yankton Sioux, stood up on the highway and said she was leaving as ordered because she didn’t want to be arrested, a concern for some who simply wanted to avoid legal trouble or who have existing records. She said she left the camp with mixed feelings.
“I’m a little sad because we’re being removed. But this camp will always and forever be here. It will be in our prayers and in our minds; I’m so glad that I came,” Olson said.
Ray Kingfisher, who helped lead the departure ceremony, stood among the camp faithful at the very end.
“Remember this day. Thank you all for being part of history — it’s why we’re here until the very last second,” he told them. “This is a beautiful place. This is not going to stop us; we all know water is life.”
The Oceti Sakowin camp, once occupied since August by as many as 10,000 people from hundreds of tribal nations, people around the country and the world, will not be the last chapter in the pipeline protest, though it will be historic for being the largest of its kind ever formed in the country.
Many leaving the camp were headed to one of three other camps inside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Meanwhile, the $3.8 billion pipeline is nearing completion, following a Trump administration decision to issue the final easement to cross the Missouri River/Lake Oahe near the protest camp. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux continue to battle the project in federal court on grounds that the pipeline presents a threat to its water and sacred sites. The company says the pipeline is safe.
The camp floodplain is prone to high water in spring. Authorities want the land cleared and cleaned to prevent contamination in the event of any flooding. There is a chance of minor flooding in the camp area, according to the National Weather Service, though additional rain and snow could add to the problem.