There are two important, seemingly contradictory things to understand today about the Standing Rock saga. One: After the militarized police action, the hundreds of arrests and the thousands of veterans on the ground in solidarity, the Dakota Access Pipeline is going to be completed. Two: this is not a failure in the eyes of the movement.
“This is not going to stop the fight,” said Vanessa Castle, a water protector who came out in October and who’s featured in our Standing Rock documentary from last December. “There are many other pipelines and genocides that need to be stood up against.”
Yesterday at 2 p.m. CT, police were expected to raid the camps and arrest any protestors remaining. What was once a bustling village of tipis, tents and thousands of hopeful water protectors is now a desolate winter field dotted by the few remaining structures, some of them ceremonially burning, and the couple hundred people who remain. Since the night before last, they had been hugging each other good-bye, readying to leave the land that for many has been their home for months; the camp-in began in April. Others had come back in recent weeks just to help clean up.
For the past few weeks, Energy Transfer Partners has been drilling under the river to finish the 1,100-mile pipeline that will transport crude oil from the Bakken Oil Fields of North Dakota to Illinois.
“From my understanding, there are going to be people who remain at the camp who want to be ceremonially arrested,” said Ardy Raghian, press director with the Lakota People’s Law Project, who estimates there are between 100 to 200 people remaining at Oceti Sakowin Camp.
If we can’t protect the rights of Native Americans, the first people of this country, we can’t protect anyone’s.
What is supposed to be the final stand came after a long line of legal actions—questionable at best, state-sanctioned racism at the worst—against the protestors. Recently, North Dakota lawmakers proposed a bill that would make it legal to run over and even “accidentally” kill protestors on the road. Another would make it a crime to wear a mask at demonstrations, where police have tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed the crowd. And at the heart of the dispute is the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1898 that gave land to the Standing Rock Sioux—the same land through which the pipeline is now being built against their consent.
Once thousands of people left after the temporary easement denial in December and the presidential administration changed hands in January, law enforcement quietly ramped up their efforts to clear the site. Castle herself was arrested after she went to the Morton County Courthouse with the legal team on February 2 after the police tracked her from a Facebook Live update she had broadcast just a few minutes before, she said.
“They had a description of what I was wearing that day, and they held me on felony charges for inciting a riot,“ she said. "They admitted at 12:30 a.m. that night that there was no warrant.”
As she prepares for the long legal battle ahead, and as others begin their own paths back home, the water protectors consider it just one chapter closed.
“People around the world woke up,” said August White, an activist who spoke with me over the phone as he stood across the police barricades, two hours after the raid was supposed to happen. “If we can’t protect the rights of Native Americans, the first people of this country, we can’t protect anyone’s. Once you start fighting for them, you can start fighting for immigrants, LGBT, Black Lives Matter. It’s all tied to this.”
At the end of the day, it turned out the police blockade was mostly a stand-off, with only four to ten people arrested, White said. As the saga drags on and the pipeline continues to be built, people aren’t losing sight of the fact that Standing Rock is a milestone in American history.
“It’s brought 500 different Native American tribes [and thousands of other people] together to unify under a single cause,” said Raghian. “It hasn’t happened ever in the modern history of this country. It is going to keep on going.”
RELATED: The Prophecy of the Seventh Generation: A Report from Standing Rock