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Standing Rock Tribal Council identifies land for possible camp relocation

BISMARCK – The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council has voted to set aside tribally owned land for Dakota Access Pipeline protesters to relocate from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land in southern Morton County, but Chairman Dave Archambault II stopped short of saying the tribe is moving the existing camp.

“We’re trying to work with everybody in the area and we’re trying to build consensus, and we’re trying to do the best we can to accommodate safety,” he said Wednesday, Oct. 19.

Archambault said the council voted 8-5 Tuesday to partition land about 2 miles west of Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to make it available to the roughly 500 to 1,000 people camping on both sides of the Cannonball River in protest of the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.

The tribe owns the majority of the 80 acres of designated land, but some is owned by individual tribal members, Archambault said. He said the tribe is looking at partitioning off 40 to 50 acres.

“Where the camp is now, there’s about 80 acres, but it’s spread out. I don’t think we need that much,” he said.

Much of the existing encampment along Highway 1806 sits in a floodplain, and depending on how long the pipeline protest lasts, “there’s a chance the majority of that land would be under water,” he said.

“What the tribe is trying to do is provide a safe place for campers,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive rather than reactive. When we have cold weather in North Dakota, and people who are staying in tents, they’re going to need a place to stay out of the elements.”

The Tribal Council is exploring what types of structures could be put up and how to pay for them, he said, adding, “There are a lot of organizations and foundations that want to support (us).”

The council originally set aside $500,000 for the tribe’s ongoing lawsuit filed July 27 against the Corps over permits issued for the pipeline. The tribe fears the pipeline will leak and desecrate sacred sites and contaminate the Missouri River at Lake Oahe as it crosses under the lakebed less than a mile north of the reservation.  

Archambault said the tribe has since received an additional $1.3 million in unsolicited donations to cover legal expenses and handling of waste from the camp, but he wouldn’t predict whether that money will be used for structures.

“We’re exploring all options,” he said. “The tribe does keep a record of the donations coming into the tribe, and we have always been transparent on the uses of those through tribal council action.”

Archambault said the council never said that its intent was to move the existing Oceti Sakowin Camp, an overflow camp of the original Sacred Stone Camp that formed on private land April 1.

“We’re not trying to dictate or control or ask. What we’re trying to do is work with people … and be prepared and be proactive before something bad happens,” he said.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp sits on Army Corps of Engineers land north of the Cannonball River that’s currently under a grazing lease with local rancher David Meyer. Campers don’t have the Corps’ permission to be there – though the Corps, citing free speech rights, hasn’t issued citations or taken any other action to try to evict them – and they can’t legally erect permanent structures on the land.

The Corps gave the tribe permission on Sept. 16 to allow campers to use 41 acres of Corps land south of the Cannonball River for a lawful free speech demonstration, though it didn’t actually issue the special use permit, Corps spokeswoman Eileen Williamson said. The permission was good for 30 days, “and that 30 days has run out and they have not reapplied,” she said Wednesday.

Williamson said moving the camp – which at times has hosted an estimated 3,000 or more people – would be “a good decision” for safety reasons with winter approaching. She said Meyer will not be held responsible for damage to the property, and the tribe has indicated its intent to restore the land to its original state.

Cody Hall, a member of South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and spokesman for the Red Warrior Camp within the Oceti Sakowin Camp, said Wednesday he expects some campers will move onto the reservation but the majority will stay on the Corps land, estimating 500 could overwinter there.

“It was about three weeks ago that people said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to wait on the tribe, we’re just going to make our long-term housing here for the winter,’ ” he said, adding the Cheyenne River tribe is going to take over waste removal and other services at the camp when Standing Rock pulls out.

Law enforcement and state officials have voiced concerns that the camp is being used as a base of operations for illegal protest activity at pipeline construction sites and expressed frustration with the Corps’ hands-off approach and the lack of federal manpower and financial assistance requested by the state to help manage the protests. Authorities have made 145 protest-related arrests since Aug. 11.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier told reporters Wednesday that he believes Standing Rock members don’t support illegal protest activity, and he called Tuesday’s vote “a good move and gesture by Cannon Ball and by the council to make that decision to try to get those individuals back onto tribal land.”

Archambault said he doesn’t believe the camp’s location will impact protest activities.

“Wherever we are at … our focus has been on the river and protecting of the water,” he said.

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