In response to the altogether shocking announcement the Army Corps of Engineers will be evicting water protectors from the Oceti Sakowin and any camps north of the Cannonball River, the Cheyenne River Tribe — co-litigants in a lawsuit seeking to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline — sharply condemned the plan as “a direct and irresponsible threat to the water protectors.”
On Friday — unironically, the day after Thanksgiving — Army Corps District Commander Col. John W. Henderson sent a letter to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier announcing the closure of Corps-managed land to all “public use and access” on December 5.
Henderson’s letter and the Army Corps’ plan is an affront to dignity and logic in multiple ways — most notably, the reason cited for clearing the peaceful camps.
“This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions,” he wrote.
All confrontations with officers thus far only occurred after police escalated the situation — deploying brute and wildly excessive force against unarmed water protectors — including an incident last Sunday in which a tribal elder nearly died after suffering cardiac arrest, twice, Vanessa Dundon’s sight might be lost thanks to a tear gas canister police launched at her head, and Sophia Wilansky is having her entire arm reconstructed after a concussion grenade tore it apart.
Further, in that same clash, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department conjured the specter of 1960s racism in spraying the crowd of 400 with a fire hose in temperatures hovering in the low 20s Fahrenheit — two days after voicing concern water protectors could suffer hypothermia in the camps if they stayed put through winter.
Henderson oh-so graciously explained a “free speech zone” has been demarcated south of the Cannonball River, and requested Frazier to “encourage members of [the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe], as well as any non-members who support you who are located in the encampments north of the Cannonball River on Corps lands to immediately and peacefully move to the free speech zone. . . .”
Frazier justifiably balked at this request in his response to Henderson, in which he copied in President Obama and other relevant Washington officials, saying,
“The area north of the Cannonball River is both the ancestral homeland of the Lakota people and inside the boundaries of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, a treaty that has not been abrogated and law that governs us all. The best of these lands have already been unjustly taken and flooded by the Corps in the disastrous Pick-Sloane legislation. We will no longer allow our rights as a Tribe or as indigenous people as a whole to continue to be eroded.
“This decision, coming on the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday, is not only disrespectful, but continues the cycle of racism and oppression imposed on our people and our lands throughout history.”
“We ask that the Corps and the United States reconsider this decision. Treaties are the supreme law of the land and the Constitution of the United States demands that they be respected. Removal from Sioux Treaty lands should be the choice of the Oceti Sakowin Camp north of the Cannonball River, not the United States, which has been violating our rights for hundreds of years.”
Archambault issued a press release shortly following the first reports of the Army Corps’ plans, also addressing centuries of horrendous mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the U.S. government, stating, in part:
“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. Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people. We have suffered much, but we still have hope that the President will act on his commitment to close the chapter of broken promises to our people and especially our children.”
To set the record straight and allay unfounded but oft-perpetuated rumors to the contrary, it must be noted Archambault reiterated the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe did, indeed, attempt to voice its concerns when plans for Dakota Access were first laid out:
“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. When Dakota Access Pipeline chose this route, they did not consider our strong opposition. Our concerns were clearly articulated directly to them in a meeting on Sept. 30, 2014. We have released that audio recording from our council meeting where DAPL and the ND Public Service Commission came to us with this route.”
Indeed, continued brutality and barbarism by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and multiple in- and out-of-state law enforcement agencies coordinating to defend construction of the enormously controversial pipeline has been likened to the slaughter at Wounded Knee 125 years ago on virtually the same lands.
International outrage over police treatment of largely peaceful water protectors led human rights observers to visit several encampments to monitor events.
But the news of mass eviction comes as a total shock to the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux and thousands of supporters around the world and at the camps — and is conspicuously timed to occur one day before a sizable delegation of U.S. military veterans is slated to arrive to defend water protectors.
First Nations peoples from around the United States and Indigenous peoples from every corner of the globe, as well as countless supporters, had planned to ride out the bitter winter and camp indefinitely on the open plains of North Dakota until construction of the pipeline can be halted for good.
Frazier keenly notes of the ill-begotten Army Corps plans:
“[Y]our letter dangerously and profoundly misunderstands the basic function and status of a tribal government and its elected leaders. I am the chief executive of a sovereign nation that is comprised of individual citizens with physical territory within the exterior boundaries the State of South Dakota. Under the laws of the United States, my government lacks jurisdiction at Cannonball; but more importantly, I no more control the acts and behaviors of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal members or non-member water protectors at the Cannonball site than you do, Col. Henderson.”
As the government of the United States would be well advised to consider, Frazier further explains individuals have the right to peaceably assemble “in prayerful protest against the cultural and environmental atrocity” and that he would not be so bold as to use the authority consensually granted by citizens to infringe on their human or constitutional rights.
Several details in Henderson’s letter announcing the eviction indicate the potential for the move to unravel atrociously at the expense of innocent water protectors facing the literal U.S. Army, as Frazier points out:
“Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of your letter is your acknowledgement of the stark reality that that the confrontation between our peaceful water protectors and law enforcement could result in death or serious injury, a fact demonstrated by the brutal attack on Sophia Wilansky by North Dakota police last week. But in the very next paragraph you guarantee that further confrontations will occur by promising that these peaceful people will be trespassing on closed areas and you threaten that they will do so ‘at their own risk’ and will ‘assume any and all corresponding liabilities for their unlawful presence and occupation of such lands.’
“I take your letter as issuing a direct and irresponsible threat to the water protectors. 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. We have pleaded for the protection of the United States. Your letter makes a grave and dangerous mistake. Federal efforts to de-escalate the violence should be aimed at the wrongdoers, not at our peaceful people.”
When the Army Corps of Engineers arranges to forcefully remove water protectors from the Oceti Sakowin Camp and others, they will almost certainly be met with prayer and civil disobedience, but not firearms or other weapons. Strict rules disallowing violence and aggressive tactics by anyone wishing to camp in support of the Standing Rock Sioux have been in place since the camps were first erected — and that policy has not changed.
However, as Frazier wisely explains, individuals often act as they choose — on either side of the blue government line. Without knowledge of the logistics for eviction, how, precisely, the government and law enforcement plan such a massive, systematic, and forceful plot remains to be seen December 5th.