North Dakota officials are encouraging hundreds of Dakota Access oil pipeline protesters to respect a directive to leave a sprawling, months-old encampment on federal land, but one organiser says that is not likely.
According to Standing Rock Sioux tribal leader Dave Archambault, the US Army Corps of Engineers sent him a letter on Friday that said all federal lands north of the Cannonball River will be closed to public access starting on Dec. 5 for “safety concerns,” including the oncoming winter and the increasingly contentious clashes between protesters and police.
The Oceti Sakowin camp is on Corps land in southern North Dakota and is where the vast majority of the several thousand people fighting against the four-state, $3.8bn pipeline have created a self-sustaining community and put up semi-permanent structures in advance of the harsh winter.
The encampment is near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, and more than a mile from a Missouri River reservoir under which the pipeline will pass.
That final large segment is yet to be completed, held up while the Corps consults with the tribe, who believe the project could harm drinking water and Native American cultural sites.
“They’re saying this is their land and they will stay on this land, that they have a right to it because there are burial rights here… There’s about 8,000 people here, staying in tents, teepees and also wooden structures,” Al Jazeera’s John Holman said, reporting from the Oceti Sakowin camp.
The Corps’ letter, according to Archambault, said that those who stay on the land after the deadline may be prosecuted, and that there’ll be a free speech zone south of the river.
But Dallas Goldtooth, a protest organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, believes many people will chose not to move to another site, and that protesters are building shelters and teepees to prepare for the winter.
Goldtooth said the government’s request is likely to escalate already rocky tensions, calling the directive “an atrocious example that colonization has not ended for us here as indigenous people”.
On Friday, Archambault, whose tribe offered protesters land on its reservation south of the river earlier this fall, said “our resolve to protect our water is stronger than ever”.
Representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t immediately return multiple messages on Friday or Saturday seeking comment and verification of the letter.
Last month, the Corps said it would not evict the encampment, which started as overflow from smaller private and permitted protest sites nearby and began growing in August.
President Barack Obama raised the possibility of rerouting the pipeline in that area earlier this month, something Kelcy Warren, CEO of Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners, told The Associated Press news agency is not an option from the company’s standpoint.
Obama said his administration is monitoring the “challenging situation” but would “let it play out for several more weeks.”
Some of the protests have resulted in violent confrontations and more than 500 people have been arrested since August.
It’s the federal government’s job to peacefully close the camp because it allowed people to stay there in the first place, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalyrmple said in a statement Saturday.
“Our state and local law enforcement agencies continue to do all they can to keep private property and public infrastructure free from unpermitted protest activities, and its past time that the federal government provides the law enforcement resources … to enforce their own order to vacate,” the Republican said.
Republican US Senator John Hoeven and Democratic US Senator Heidi Heitkamp said the protesters need to move for public safety.
“The well-being and property of ranchers, farmers and everyone else living in the region should not be threatened by protesters who are willing to commit acts of violence,” Hoeven said in a statement Friday.
He also called on the Obama administration to let work on the pipeline move forward, saying, “this difficult situation has gone on too long and we need to get it resolved.”
Heitkamp said the Corps’ order is “a needed step to support the safety of residents, workers, protesters and law enforcement.”