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Army Corps changes course and closes land to #NoDAPL encampment






Residents of Oceti Sakowin, the largest #NoDAPL encampment in North Dakota, have been building more permanent structures on public land near the Dakota Access Pipeline but they will be considered trespassers starting on December 5, 2016. Photo courtesy Morton County Sheriff's Department

A Thanksgiving week that started off with a brutal crackdown ended with major upheaval as the Obama administration closed off public land to the largest #NoDAPL campsite in North Dakota.

Come December 5, anyone who remains at Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) will be considered "trespassing," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a letter to Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. While no one will be forcibly removed, the agency's action leaves hundreds or perhaps thousands at the mercy of a county whose sheriff has shown no remorse in employing violence against resisters of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

"I am genuinely concerned for the safety and well-being of both the members of your tribe and the general public located at these encampments," John W. Henderson, the colonel of the Omaha District, wrote on Friday.

The agency's directive comes just days after Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier allowed his forces to use stinger grenades, water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and other less lethal weapons on hundreds of pipeline resisters. Upwards of 300 people were injured, including Sofia Wilansky, a young woman whose left arm and hand were shattered by what witnesses said was a grenade employed by authorities under Kirchmeier's command.

Chairman Archambault, who has welcomed thousands of supporters and representatives of hundreds of tribes to Oceti Sakowin since early August, said his people were "deeply disappointed" by the decision. He noted that the camps, as well as the pipeline, are located on lands promised to the Sioux Nation by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

"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 in a statement. "Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people."

Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe offered a more urgent reply in a letter to Henderson. He witnessed last Sunday's assault on pipeline resisters and underscored the dangers they will be facing once the Army Corps opens them up to prosecution in Morton County.

"I take your letter as issuing a direct and irresponsible threat to the water protectors," Frazier told the colonel. "It appears to further empower the militarized police force that has been brutalizing and terrorizing our water protectors while imposing the blame and the risk on unarmed peaceful people."

Equally defiant were the Sacred Stone Camp, the International Indigenous Youth Council, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor The Earth was Although Sacred Stone is located on land belonging to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, not the Army Corps, organizers there stand in solidarity with those living and working at Oceti Sakowin.

"The Army Corps’s eviction notice is an aggressive threat to Indigenous peoples," the coalition said in a joint statement. "It further empowers and emboldens a militarized police force that has already injured hundreds of unarmed, peaceful water protectors, and continues to escalate its tactics of brutality against us. It adds fuel to the fire of an ongoing human rights crisis."


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it is establishing a "Free Speech Area" south of the Cannonball River in North Dakota while closing public land north of the river to the largest #NoDAPL encampment. Source: U.S. ACE

The combined populations of Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone and related #NoDAPL sites swelled between 5,000 to 8,000 as the #NoDAPL movement gained steam in late summer. Estimates currently range between 1,000 and 2,000, although supporters frequently travel in and out of the general encampment.

At one point, the Army Corps granted a special use permit for public lands south of the Cannonball River. But Oceti Sakowin is located north of the river and that's the area that will be officially closed next Monday.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is being built north of the river, primarily on private property. A crucial portion, however, crosses land managed by the Army Corps and goes under the Missouri River, also managed by the Army Corps

The Obama administration has declined to finalize an easement that would allow Dakota Access to drill under the river and complete the costly project. An answer is expected to be issued after further talks with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe but there is no indication of when that might happen.

Despite the uncertainty, the wealthy backers of the pipeline say they have a right to drill under the river. They have asked a federal judge to make a decision early next year, perhaps before Republican president-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office on January 20, 2017.

Although Trump hasn't talked about the pipeline, he has vowed to lift "roadblocks" to large infrastructure projects like Dakota Access within his first 100 days in office. His top energy adviser is Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), a major champion of the project.

Trump also has invested his own money in the companies that are financing and operating the controversial pipeline. And Kelcy Warren -- the billionaire CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the project -- was one of the top five individual contributors to the Republican's campaign, according to the Capital Research Center.

Sheriff Kirchmeier hasn't issued an official statement in response to the new directive from the Army Corps. In the past, he has defended his crackdowns by saying the agency asked him to protect federal land from "trespassers."

His office shut down its Facebook page over the weekend after facing intense criticism for its handling of the crisis.

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