SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other Native American protesters have been trying for months to block completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It's designed to transport half a million barrels of shale oil out of North Dakota each day, and the tribe fears that a leak could threaten tribal drinking water. Protesters have been camping on land now owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But yesterday, Army Corps issued a deadline for protesters to move to a new site. We're joined now by Doualy Xaykaothao of Minnesota Public Radio.
Doualy, thanks for being with us.
DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.
SIMON: I know you spent several days at the encampment earlier this week. What's it like?
XAYKAOTHAO: First, the place is called Oceti Sakowin Camp. It's more than an hour south of Bismarck. And this place - it's almost mystical. When you drive into it, volunteers say welcome home. And there are hundreds of signs and messages, flags representing tribes or independent groups. There's even a school for children, a mental health building, a medic tent.
At night, people gather at what is called a sacred fire. They talk stories. They sing. People go to sleep to the sound of drums, and they wake up to the sound of prayers. And one morning, I heard cow bells ringing and volunteers shouting, wake up, water protectors.
SIMON: Protesters have been camped out there for several months. Is there any indication why the Army Corps of Engineers decided to act on the Friday after Thanksgiving?
XAYKAOTHAO: Well, that's a complicated question to answer. Late Friday, we saw a letter circulating on social media from a district manager with the Corps to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe chairman. NPR verified that letter to be authentic. And basically, it gave the chairman until Dec. 5 to call supporters and tribes to leave federal land for safety reasons. The official said, quote, "this decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement officials," which have occurred here in this area even up to the last week.
Now, the letter did state that the protesters could relocate to a free-speech area on the south side of the river. But also, it's an area where if people are going to stay through the bitter cold North Dakota winters, it would be easier access for emergency vehicles. One thing, though, I should say, Scott, is that the timing of the closure of the camp on Dec. 5 coincides with a planned visit by some 2,100 veterans. They've been fundraising to travel from across the country to this camp from Dec. 4 through the 7, and the group has already raised more than $350,000 to pay for this event. So people are obviously making the connection that the closure is connected to the arrival of the veterans.
SIMON: And what does the tribes say about the closure?
XAYKAOTHAO: Well, Standing Rock Sioux tribe Chairman Dave Archambault said in a statement that he's disappointed. He said the news is saddening and not at all surprising given, quote, "the last 500 years of the treatment of our people." He says, 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.
Now, you can imagine that the mood in the camp is, you know, dark. I mean, people are trying to figure out what is going to happen next. And the number of protesters out there is estimated to be between five to 10,000 strong this holiday weekend.
SIMON: Doualy Xaykaothao of Minnesota Public Radio, thanks so much for being with us.
XAYKAOTHAO: You're welcome.
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