Ten arrested in final evacuation of Dakota Access protest camp

A campsite burns as protesters leave the Oceti Sakowin camp
A campsite burns as protesters leave the Oceti Sakowin camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. Feb. 22, 2017. The structures there were burned as a form of cleansing as campers and work crews tried to clean up the site.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Updated: 8:00 a.m. | Posted: 6:00 a.m.

Ten people were arrested Wednesday when they refused final orders to leave the protest camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota that attracted thousands of people who challenged completion of the Dakota Access pipeline.

The Oceti Sakowin camp had dwindled from a peak of nearly 10,000 people to a couple hundred by this week. Many left as the Wednesday deadline approached, some dragging their personal belongings across snow and mud on sleds or in big bags.

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The arrests were part of a final act of defiance by some of the protesters. After the arrests, an estimated 25 to 50 people remained, but officers did not enter the camp to pursue them.

In the hours leading up to the deadline, some people burned buildings and tents, sending columns of black smoke to mix with the falling snowflakes. One protest leader described it as a cleansing act.

North Dakota officials say a 17-year-old girl suffered severe burns in one of the fires and was flown to a Minneapolis hospital.

A building burns at the Oceti Sakowin camp
A building burns at the Oceti Sakowin camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. Wednesday. The structures were burned for ceremonial reasons.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

As the deadline neared, Genevieve Houck, who came to the camp from Pittsburgh, spray painted a welcoming sign for law enforcement on a tent.

Houck spent four months at the camp and was having a hard time leaving the sense of community behind.

"There's no going back to Babylon and living with being comfortable with living in the system the way I was before," she said

Houck says the end of the camp only strengthens her resolve to continue fighting the 1,200 mile pipeline, which is nearly complete, save for a section under the Missouri River just north of the camp.

"I'm not going to stop until the black snake is dead, until we get off oil, and I still won't stop after that," she said. "It'll be something else after that. Our food is poisoned as well and nobody is really going after that, so it's probably the next step."

As the Oceti Sakowin camp was being closed because of anticipated flooding, new structures were being built a half mile away on high ground.

Mathew Robie, of Santa Cruz, California, came to the North Dakota prairie in early December and says he has no plans to leave.

"I'd like to see what the summer looks like here," he said. "As long as there's a fight to be had here, I'm willing to stay and work and be a part of it. Cause the people that have been arrested, that fight isn't over with. The lawsuits, the legal battles, they haven't succeeded yet."

While construction continues on new campsites, cleanup of the Oceti Sakowin camp will kick into high gear.

Heavy equipment will move in Thursday to remove debris.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum says there's no more time to waste.

"Anybody that's there is trespassing, so anybody that's there is breaking the law, and anyone who obstructs our ability to do cleanup will be subject to arrest," he said, adding that anyone who willingly leaves the camp without getting in the way of cleanup this week will not be arrested.

The Army Corps of Engineers says the cleanup bill could top $1 million.

The goal is to have the camp site cleared of all debris before the nearby Cannon Ball river overflows its banks and floods much of the area this spring.

Editor's note (Feb. 23, 2017): The story has been updated to clarify that it's not known if those arrested were involved with earlier discussions with law enforcement.