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Tribal chairman calls checkpoint removal overdue

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A North Dakota National Guard members works at the Highway 1806 checkpoint south of Mandan in September. 

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said Tuesday’s decision by law enforcement to remove the traffic checkpoint on North Dakota Highway 1806 is long overdue.

“It was always unnecessary,” said Archambault, noting that he’s been asking for its removal since it was set up in September.

Law enforcement has said the checkpoint between Mandan and the Dakota Access Pipeline protest encampments was critical to protect motorists driving down the highway as well as protesters camped near the road or walking along it. 

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said Wednesday there have been fewer people on the roadway, so he decided to move his limited resources elsewhere. Additional signage will remain at the former checkpoint site.

The two to three dozen National Guard members who were manning the checkpoint are being reassigned to community outreach, according to Guard spokeswoman Amber Balken. The soldiers will visit with residents in rural Morton County, listen to people's concerns and report any illegal activities to local law enforcement.

"We want to make sure we're taking care of those Morton County residents just like we've wanted to do all along," Balken said.

Initially, Highway 1806 was barricaded and traffic toward the reservation was redirected to North Dakota Highway 6 because of protest activities that started in mid-August. Later, the barricade was rearranged so people could drive through, though people were often stopped there.

Archambault said the checkpoint highlighted North Dakota’s overreaction to the pipeline protest, which also is active in other states in which construction equipment has been burned and destroyed.

“You don’t see those places declaring a state of emergency and sending up the Highway Patrol and National Guard. You only see that here, where people are trying to protect the water,” he said.

The chairman said he’s thankful that despite the “heightened threat brought by law enforcement,” no major incidents have happened.

“It’s pretty amazing with the number of people, and we continue to pray that no one gets hurt,” he said.

He said he has always emphasized that the action against the pipeline should be peaceful and prayerful.

“But we have a lot of guests from all over the world that are passionate about this, and they don’t always conduct themselves in the best behavior. We’re not all perfect, and it creates some disturbing results,” the chairman said. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe does not encourage wrongful behavior. We say, do this in prayer and peace.

Civil liberties groups also have criticized the checkpoint, though Morton County spokesman Rob Keller said this did not factor into the decision to remove it. 

In a statement released in September, Jennifer Cook, of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, said, "The state’s declaration of emergency, the highway roadblock and checkpoint, and National Guard call-up sets a tone of intimidation and signals its intent to silence and punish free speech."

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

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