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Protesters Leave Dakota Access Pipeline Area; Some Stay And Are Arrested

Snow falls on the Oceti Sakowin camp on Wednesday as structures smolder. Angus Mordant for NPR hide caption

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Angus Mordant for NPR

Snow falls on the Oceti Sakowin camp on Wednesday as structures smolder.

Angus Mordant for NPR

Local law enforcement officers have arrested some people who chose not to evacuate federal land near part of the Dakota Access Pipeline north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Most protesters had left earlier. At dusk, police moved back, and said they would not enter the camp at that time.

The governor of North Dakota had set Wednesday as the evacuation deadline for the largest protest camp, which is on a flat area north of the Cannonball River. He cited flooding concerns.

Protesters supporting members of the Standing Rock Sioux, many of whom believe the pipeline's route under a section of the Missouri River known as Lake Oahe will endanger drinking water, have been living on the land for six months or more. They have erected shelters and organized supply systems for food and water, even as winter brought freezing temperatures and feet of snow.

(Left) Campers set structures on fire ahead of the Army Corp's original 2 p.m. Wednesday deadline to leave the Oceti Sakowin camp. (Right) Mud has made traversing parts of the camp treacherous. The governor of North Dakota set in motion the current evacuation deadline citing flooding concerns. Stephen Yang/Getty Images hide caption

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Stephen Yang/Getty Images

As the 3 p.m. ET deadline approached, some demonstrators prayed while others took down some shelters and set fire to things they were not carrying out. Rain falling on law enforcement and demonstrators turned to fat snowflakes.

"It looks like a trash pile. But it's getting picked up and every spot is starting to look better and better as we work together," Dotty Agard of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe told Amy Sisk of Inside Energy while sorting through abandoned goods.

"One man used a four-wheeler to help get a car out of the deep mud, and another person rode a snowmobile through the dirt," The New York Times reported from the area. "Some semipermanent structures had been burned, apparently an effort to demolish them ahead of the deadline. A fire burned, black smoke rising in the cold air, while some people roamed the area."

The newspaper reported that "state officials have offered meals, lodging, a medical exam and a bus ticket to anywhere in the 48 contiguous states for protesters who left by Wednesday afternoon but needed help getting home."

Alex Redbear and Kateri Eagle Staff embrace during a prayer ceremony at the Oceti Sakowin camp earlier today. Angus Mordant for NPR hide caption

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Angus Mordant for NPR

Alex Redbear and Kateri Eagle Staff embrace during a prayer ceremony at the Oceti Sakowin camp earlier today.

Angus Mordant for NPR

According to live video posted to the Lakota People's Law Project Facebook page, a group from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, which borders the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, leased land a few miles away and were welcoming people who left the evacuated area.

Not far from the area being evacuated, crews for the company Energy Transfer Partners are drilling a hole for the pipeline to carry oil under the Missouri River. Construction had been stalled for months, as lawsuits challenging the permitting process for the pipeline made their way through the courts.

In December, the Obama administration announced it would not allow construction to go forward until the Army Corps conducted a full environmental review of the route. It was a win for the protest movement.

The Corps officially began the review process in January, opening up the pipeline route plan to public comments, but that process ground to a halt when President Trump signed an executive memorandum directing the Corps to expedite the permitting consideration.

Police make arrests (top, left) as they move south on highway 1806 (top, right), just outside the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin camp on Wednesday. (Bottom) Police vehicles line up at a roadblock ahead of Wednesday's evacuation deadline. Angus Mordant for NPR hide caption

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Angus Mordant for NPR

The Corps subsequently approved the river crossing on Feb. 7, and suspended its environmental review.

Construction resumed.

Even as protest camps clear out, the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have doubled down on their legal fight against the pipeline. Since the president's executive action, numerous lawsuits have been filed seeking to halt construction or block oil from flowing through the pipeline should it be completed.

Protestors including Fish Water, 53, (left, center) and Dan Nanamkin, 49, of the Nez Perce Nation (right, center) participate in a prayer march out of the Oceti Sakowin camp ahead of the evacuation deadline. Angus Mordant for NPR hide caption

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Angus Mordant for NPR

In an amicus brief filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month, the leadership of the 16 federally recognized Indian tribes located in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska — a group known as The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association — wrote in opposition to the pipeline.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, they argued, cannot be understood without considering the history of the federal government abusing tribal sovereignty:

"From this history, a pattern emerges wherein the United States consistently utilizes the legal narrative of the time to segregate, take from, and discriminate against Indian tribes. [The Dakota Access Pipeline] is simply the latest example of Native peoples of the Great Plains being subjected to varying legal standards and shifting political winds to justify the subordination of Indian treaty rights to non-Indian pecuniary interests.

"... In addition to the irreparable harm to the free exercise of Native religious beliefs ... there is also irreparable harm in the form of historical trauma and psychological distress which stems from the consistent failure of the United States to live up to its obligations under its Treaties with Indian tribes generally, and under its Treaties with the Great Sioux Nation here specifically. Treaties matter."

An upside-down American flag waves over a roadblock set up by protestors at the main entry to the Oceti Sakowin camp. Angus Mordant for NPR hide caption

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Angus Mordant for NPR