One of the dwellings at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, tagged with the protesters' mantra, which means "Water is life." Credit: Jenni Monet

There’s a hand-painted sign inside the Oceti Sakowin camp that I still marvel at after all these weeks, and even more so now that the encampment is rapidly closing.

“Grandma’s Kitchen: Will return 2017. Please keep out.”

Scrawled in black spray paint across the ribs of a square wooden pallet, the words capture a more hopeful moment, when the movement at Standing Rock was still strong.

This week, new realities about the nearly yearlong demonstration started to be realized. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped up its cleanup operation of federal lands where the network of camps had once thrived during the campaign to try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The action was prompted by an emergency evacuation order issued by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who said the existing cleanup efforts, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, were not “on par” with the Feb. 22 deadline imposed by the Army Corps earlier this month.

“With unseasonably warm temperatures, people should be aware of the flood threats coming and moving out of the flood area,” Burgum said Wednesday.

The day of the governor’s announcement, temperatures had reached 46 degrees at the state capital in Bismarck, about 20 degrees higher than mid-February averages.

A near-record high of 54 degrees was reached the following day, when a coalition of government officials with the Army Corps, the governor’s office and the National Guard turned up to assess the camps.

Protesters known as “water protectors” met with the officials near the camps at the center of the Cannon Ball Bridge and attempted to negotiate. The activists wanted the deadline extended and clarification from the corps about the use of force should people resist.

“We need to know the nature of your response: What sort of brutality is that going to include?” Iron Eyes asked Maj. Pope French.

According to French, citations would be issued to anyone who remains on the historic treaty lands after Feb. 22. Meanwhile, corps officials confirmed that deployed rangers from the National Park Service were headed in on Sunday to assist in issuing those citations.

But it was Levi Bachmeir, policy adviser to Burgum, who answered Iron Eyes’ question. After the deadline, Bachmeir said, the corps “has the authority” to request the assistance of officers to remove people for trespassing.

An estimated 300 people still live in the network of camps where snowmelt has turned puddles into vast pools surrounded by mud as thick as paste.

Still, some like Iron Eyes say they will stay.

“Sometimes we don’t believe in our own inherent God-given authority to determine our destiny,” he said. “That’s also what this camp is about besides clean water.”

In talks with the corps, he slammed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for failing to enforce its sovereignty under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, by evicting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“They’re not here to stand strong,” he said. “They’re here to tell us that we need to leave.”

By late Friday, a meeting had been called among the water protectors to announce that, for some, the movement near Standing Rock would be changing its tune. No longer was the struggle to be over a pipeline. Rather, it was now a “Treaty Stand” targeting the very ancestral lands upon which government officials were encroaching.

Jenni Monet

Jenni Monet is an independent journalist reporting for PBS NewsHour, PRI The World, Al Jazeera, High Country News, and Yes! Magazine. She is executive producer and host of the podcast Still Here and is a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo.