On Thursday, as North Dakota police moved in with a fleet of bulldozers, Humvees, and armored MRAP vehicles, Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law four bills that would bring harsher punishment for protest-related activity in the state. The bills, his press statement said, were meant to protect landowners’ rights. But for the 46 people arrested that day, their stand was about defending historic treaty territory.
“We’ve always been around this river, and that’s why we’re here to protect this river,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the sister nation to Standing Rock. “That river brings life to the people.”
Frazier has become a vocal supporter in the ongoing yet shifting movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Despite Thursday’s razing of the main demonstration camp, Oceti Sakowin, he and dozens of water protectors, or protesters, have vowed to continue the fight to guard the Missouri River from a potential oil spill—if and when the pipeline is completed.
As police slashed teepee-like structures open and arrested peaceful resisters, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer signaled that the $3.8 billion energy project was on its way to completion.
“We feel very confident we will get the pipeline moving,” said Spicer.
Less than a week after taking office, President Donald J. Trump advanced the Dakota Access pipeline through an executive memorandum. It’s unclear whether he still owns stock in the energy project. Staffers claim he relinquished his investment, yet no evidence has been produced to substantiate these claims. Meanwhile, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the operator of the pipeline, had donated more than $100,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign.
With this knowledge, some water protectors say they knew this day would come.
“This isn’t the end by any means,” said Wasté Win Young, as she walked to the Cannon Ball Bridge during a final prayer ceremony held moments before the evacuation deadline on Wednesday.
“This is the spark. The whole world is waking up now,” said Young, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member.
The Cheyenne River tribe has joined the Standing Rock tribe in its continued legal battle against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently reversed an environmental impact statement that had halted construction of the project.
During the three hours it took police to dismantle the sprawling stretch of remaining teepees, tents, and yurts, Chairman Frazier stood on a bluff overlooking the razing of Oceti Sakowin.
“We will be back!” he shouted. The moment captured the sadness, but also the resiliency, permeating the reservation.
Jenni Monet wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Jenni is an award-winning journalist and tribal member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. She’s also executive producer and host of the podcast Still Here.