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The Standing Rock 'Water Protectors' Vow to Stay No Matter What the Government Does

The government has ordered the protesters to move by December 5 or face potential trespassing charges, and lots of them seem prepared to go with the latter.

by Cole Kazdin and Duy Linh Tu
Nov 28 2016, 5:00am

Despite a government order to vacate, tribal leaders as well as demonstrators camped out in Standing Rock, North Dakota, say they are staying put.

In a letter sent Friday to Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the Army Corps of Engineers said they will be closing a portion of the land north of the Cannonball River on December 5, and that anyone on that land will be "considered trespassing and may be subject to prosecution under federal, state and local laws."

It's unclear if the Corps will take steps to arrest or remove people who stay. The Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to my request for comment. One thing's for sure: It would take a major effort to remove the estimated 5,000 encamped to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Update: The Corps released a statement late Sunday clarifying that they have "no plans for forcible removal." Instead, they say, they are "seeking a peaceful and orderly transition to a safer location." How exactly that would happen is unclear.)

"Our Tribe is deeply disappointed in this decision by the United States, but our resolve to protect our water is stronger than ever," said Archambault in a statement. "We ask that all everyone who can appeal to President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the future of our people and rescind all permits and deny the easement to cross the Missouri River just north of our Reservation and straight through our treaty lands."

In the letter, the Corps included a map, specifying what they call a "free speech zone" on the land south of the Cannonball River, where anyone peacefully protesting is permitted to stay. Citing safety concerns, the Corps says the decision to close the lands north of the river is "necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area." The letter also mentions liability, saying that anyone who stays on those lands "does so at their own risk."

"It is both unfortunate and ironic that this announcement comes the day after this country celebrates Thanksgiving—a historic exchange of goodwill between Native Americans and the first immigrants from Europe," Archambault said. "Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people."

"The letter was kind of devastating for a lot of people," a man named Graywolf, who is director of the Southern California chapter of the American Indian Movement, told me. He's been living at the Oceti Sakowin camp. "I don't expect anything positive from the government. What treaty have they honored? Why should we believe anything they say today?"

Reports from activists at Standing Rock as well as amateur video on social media has shown police violence against the demonstrators, who refer to themselves as "water protectors," intensifying.

In the early hours of the morning last Monday, a 21-year-old woman named Sophia Wilansky was severely injured during a demonstration.

Wayne Wilansky, the victim's father, told reporters outside a Minneapolis hospital that the injury was a result of police throwing a concussion grenade into a group of demonstrators. "Even she's lying there with her arm pretty much blown off, she's focused on the fact that it's not about her, it's about what we're doing to the country, what we're doing to native peoples," Wilansky said.

The Morton County Sheriff's Department did not return multiple requests for comment, but in a statement to the Los Angeles Times denied using concussion grenades.

Activists are still calling on federal officials to step in on their behalf. In a press conference at the Oceti Sakowin Camp Saturday in response to the Army Corps' letter, Archambault told a crowd of activists and reporters, "If they want public safety, the best thing for the federal government to do is to deny the easement."

Eryn Wise, with the International Indigenous Youth Council, said that President Obama himself should get involved. "Right now our land is to be left unprotected if we are to leave this space," Wise said. "The indigenous youth are calling upon the United States government for protection. They're begging for people to start caring for them."

No matter what the government does or doesn't do, there seem to be at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people willing to risk arrest.

"Most people are staying," said Victory Lonnquist, an EMT from Washington who arrived at the camp in September and has no plans to leave. Her Facebook Live video went viral last week after she was tear gassed by police. She was treating other protesters who had been injured from police firing water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas into a crowd.

"I will stay as long as it takes," Lonnquist, who left her job in the fall to be here, told me. "These people are my family now. As medical, I'm concerned. I have no doubt after what I've seen the police would and might kill people. When I worry, I go back to what is true: This movement was created by the children, in prayer. In the end, love always wins."

"As long as we continue to stay in prayer and in peace, we can accomplish a lot of things in life," Archambault told a crowd gathered at Oceti Sakowin Camp Saturday afternoon. "It's important that we continue to stand together."

"The federal court has never been good to Indian communities," Archambault said. "We never have a successful record. If we continue to wait for the federal court to rule in our favor, it probably won't happen."