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Standing Rock chairman says talks under way about moving camp onto tribally owned land

Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, waits for an interview after his speech against the Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access oil pipeline during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

BISMARCK — The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says talks continue about relocating the main Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp from federally owned land to tribally owned land near Cannon Ball, N.D., but one camp spokesman says many plan to stay put.

Chairman Dave Archambault II said the topic was discussed during a roughly six-hour Tribal Council meeting Wednesday in Cannon Ball, attended largely by people from the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which sits on flood-prone U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land in southern Morton County bordering the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

With winter closing in and the self-dubbed "water protectors" unable to get a permit to camp legally on the Corps land or build permanent structures there because of an existing grazing lease, Archambault said plans are being explored to move the camp.

"To do anything to provide for good shelter in the wintertime, that is not a good location. What I'm more concerned about is the safety of people. When it gets cold here in North Dakota, people don't realize that it gets 35 below zero ... and that's not just one day. It can last for a week," he said, adding, "Camping in a tent when it's that cold is not realistic."

The camp's position just north of the Cannonball River offers little protection from the wind and is prone to heavy snow drifting, which officials worry could create access issues for emergency services. It also sits in a floodplain, Archambault noted, describing how the frozen river breaks up in the springtime and creates an ice dam that floods the area.

If the Tribal Council agrees the camp should be moved, it will start looking for suitable land, Archambault said. The council plans to hold another meeting in Cannon Ball on Sunday, this time only for residents of the community, who Archambault said want to ensure there's a plan for the organization, structures and security that a new camp would entail.

"We want to make sure the community is OK with this," he said.

He said it also will depend on whether people are willing to relocate from the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which lies less than a mile south of where the four-state, $3.8-billion pipeline will cross Highway 1806 and Lake Oahe and is an overflow camp of the original Sacred Stone Camp that formed in April on privately owned land.

Archambault hopes for a decision soon so if the camp relocates, they can reseed the ranchland, fill in the fire pits and pick up any trash before winter.

Cody Hall, a member of South Dakota's Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and spokesman for the Red Warrior Camp within the Oceti Sakowin Camp, said many of the roughly 1,500 campers are winterizing their temporary and semi-permanent structures and aren't waiting for a decision from Standing Rock.

"Some people are saying forget it, we're going to do our own things. Because every day that they wait is just a day that gets colder and colder," he said.

Hall said there's reluctance among some to move onto the reservation, where they fear they would be more subject to interference by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs or FBI. As it stands now, the Corps is leaving them alone and state and local authorities aren't interfering with the camps.

"People feel good. They're safe there. They don't have to be worried about being ratted out," he said.

Some have moved across the river to the smaller Rosebud Camp, which sits on Corps land where the agency has given permission to camp — though it technically still hasn't issued a special use permit, Corps spokeswoman Eileen Williamson said.

Williamson said Standing Rock officials have communicated their desire to move the camp.

"It's what's best safety-wise for everyone, but from a Corps of Engineers perspective, we don't have a role," she said.

Archambault said he also made it clear at Wednesday's meeting that the tribe doesn't support what he described as "verbal violence" by masked protesters caught on video threatening a KFYR-TV news crew with bodily harm during a protest at a Dakota Access construction site Monday that led to 29 arrests, a revised number from the 27 arrests reported that day.

"We're trying to be peaceful and prayerful," he said, adding, "That doesn't help our cause."

Archambault said he doesn't know who the masked protesters were, and he didn't talk to anyone at the camp about it.

"I just know what I saw was not right," he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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