It was an emotional closing prayer in front of the sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin camp, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, ground zero of the movement to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
For hundreds of people who lived here, Oceti Sakowin had become home. Equipped with medical facilities, kitchens, security posts, prayer lodges, a building supply depot, a school, and a town hall, Oceti was a Native-led community built by the NoDAPL movement.
On Wednesday, as many walked out of Oceti for the last time, smoke filled the air. Spiritual leaders chose to burn Native religious structures instead of allowing the police to bulldoze them.
The North Dakota police had given water protectors a 2 p.m. deadline to leave the camp. But more than 100 stayed behind, refusing to leave land they consider theirs.
At 4 p.m., the police advanced, targeting both water protectors and journalists. At least two journalists were arrested, charged with obstruction of a government function. As dusk approached, the police retreated, promising to return in the morning to finish the eviction.
The following day, a militarized force moved into Oceti. Dozens of military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees were accompanied by National Guard soldiers armed with automatic rifles.
Some water protectors were pulled out of ceremony as they were praying.
“This hurts,” said one Oceti resident. “It hurts to see everything gone. It hurts to be pushed back. This is treaty land. This is our life. This is how we live as Native people. And nothing has changed. It’s just gotten worse. They have bigger weapons to kill us with. And here we are, unarmed, facing an army in our own land.”
As the camp invasion was taking place, water protectors sang and prayed from the opposite side of the frozen Cannonball River. Some crossed the river in a final act of defiance. “You took us from our homes,” shouted a young woman. “Took children from their mothers and fathers. This is my home, this is my mother.”
Authorities said 46 people were arrested.
“To me, it looks like 1890, Wounded Knee,” said an elder. “They were all probably standing there like that before they started slaughtering our people.”
Now dispersed, the water protectors removed from Oceti Sakowin are regrouping in other protest camps near the pipeline. Meanwhile, court documents just filed by Energy Transfer Partners indicate that oil could be flowing in less than two weeks.
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