Leader of the Standing Rock Sioux on Prayers and a President Trump

“We’re about protecting our future. And that’s what he should be about.”
Archambault.jpg

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. Photo by Sarah van Gelder.

The federal government has once again requested that the company building the Dakota Access pipeline stop work and leave the area to help defuse tensions at camps near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This is the second request in a week.

Construction of the Dakota Access pipeline has reached within a mile of the Missouri River.

Col. John Henderson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district commander for the region, said in a statement late yesterday: “After meeting with key [tribal] leaders in the state of North Dakota, we are confident that they share our commitment to defusing tensions and maintaining public safety. We again ask DAPL to voluntarily cease operations in this area as their absence will help reduce these tensions,” Henderson said.

Construction of the Dakota Access pipeline has reached within a mile of the Missouri River, according to drone operators monitoring the work. This has happened despite the repeated federal government requests that Energy Transfer Partners voluntarily halt construction within a 20-mile buffer on both sides of the river. The construction cuts through gravesites and other lands the Standing Rock Sioux tribe considers sacred.

The company still lacks the final Army Corps of Engineers permit needed to cross the river. But on Tuesday, while the nation’s attention was riveted by the election, Energy Transfer Partners announced it was assembling the necessary equipment and would begin drilling under the Missouri River within two weeks. 

“We are concerned over recent statements from DAPL regarding our request to voluntarily stop work, which are intended to defuse tensions surrounding their operations near Corps-managed federal land until we have a clear path forward,” Henderson said.

“Concurrently, in an extended meeting with tribal leadership from multiple Missouri River basin tribes at Fort Yates, North Dakota, last week, we all agreed to proactively exercise the leadership necessary to defuse tensions between demonstrators and law enforcement.”

Several confrontations between the thousands of occupiers and militarized police force there have turned violent.

I met with Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II on Nov. 9, the day after Dakota Access announced its intention to prepare for drilling, to hear his reaction to this news and to find out if he is still hopeful that the pipeline can be stopped. It was also the day after the U.S. elected Donald Trump as the next president, a pro-oil candidate with personal investments tied to the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Here, he discusses his experiences as the leader of the tribe that has become the center of the struggle between land and water protectors and the pipeline’s financial and political backers.


Sarah van Gelder: DAPL recently stated that they are planning to go ahead with drilling under the Missouri River, regardless of what the Army Corps of Engineers has said.

Dave Archambault: I think Dakota Access and Energy Transfer Partners are more concerned about their investors. We were watching the stock market drop as the election was happening, and so their comment is to try to put investors at ease.

But if they go forward without an easement, they are violating federal law. It’s in the Corps of Engineers’ hands. For them to come out with a statement like that just adds to the list of things they’ve done wrong. They’ve used untrained, unlicensed handlers with guard dogs on protesters, they’ve destroyed sacred places that are significant to the tribe.

And now they’re coming out saying we’re going to build no matter what.

“They’re coming out saying we’re going to build no matter what.”

They’ve been asked voluntarily not to construct because of public interest and public safety. They’ve refused to listen, and they’ve pressed forward. And when they pressed forward, they put the law enforcement up against water protectors. They put the tribal government up against the state government.

When this is all said and done, the company is going to be gone. The water protectors are going to be gone. The law enforcement from other counties and other states are going to be gone. The National Guard is going to go back. When this is all said and done, we’re going to have to deal with everything.

van Gelder: How do you think the election is going to impact what’s going on?

Archambault: We have to be hopeful and mindful that the new president understands what we’re about. We’re about protecting our future. And that’s what he should be about. He should think, How can I protect my future so that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, there’s something there? And that if we continue to do what we’re doing at the pace that we’re doing it, in 50 years we’re going to see mass destruction because Mother Earth cannot sustain herself with all the activity that’s taking place.

So if there’s an understanding of that, we can build relationships, and we can work together on how to make this place better and to salvage what is left.

van Gelder: This particular issue has attracted attention from all over the country and all over the world. Why do you think that is?

Archambault: It’s very basic and very simple. Water gives life to everything that has a soul or a spirit. And if you’re standing up for water, there’s a lot of people that will stand beside you. We know that there’s a shortage of clean, fresh water. We see states—California or Nevada—where there are water shortages. We have countries where they do not have clean water.

“What we’re trying to do is protect our water for future generations, and this pipeline poses a threat.”

What we’re trying to do is protect our water for future generations, and this pipeline poses a threat, as well as pipelines that are under the Missouri River today pose a threat. So we need to do what we can to protect what is precious to us, and that is the water and the land.

van Gelder: Hundreds of people are talking about spending the whole winter at the camp. And I hear there are 1,300 more people on their way right now. What does it do to have that many people actually here?

Archambault: It means a lot. It means that we’re sending our voice with numbers. We’re being heard. And it’s good. But there also is a risk. When it was nice out, the tribe could accommodate and address safety concerns and issues. As the weather changes, we get extreme cold here, and it’s not just 5 degrees below zero. This is 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, for long periods of time, say five to seven days, maybe longer. That’s dangerous. What I’m trying to do is work with our tribal council to set up a shelter, so if they’re down there and it gets bad, there would be a safe place for them to go.

van Gelder: This must be a strain for the Standing Rock community itself, to have so many people coming through and so much attention. Has that been difficult for you to navigate?

Archambault: Our routine has been impacted. So we have to adjust. We’re used to going to Bismarck from here in 50 minutes. But now we’re rerouted to go onto Highway 6 because of what’s happening. We also have schools that have to close down because there were some actions taking place. We have teachers who couldn’t come to work because of the things that are going on. So there’s definitely impact to our routine. And it’s a challenge. We’re trying to work with everybody to make sure that safety is No. 1.

van Gelder: Can I ask how that’s been for you personally? It must be a big change in your own life, in terms of your routine and your public role.

Archambault: The reason why I became the chairman is to see if I could take things in another direction, because we do have a high rate of poverty. So how do we get out of that? All the wrongs done to our people for two centuries created trauma, created the state dependency, created high poverty. I can’t change that overnight, so I just have to keep going every day. My intention has always been: How can I make this a better place for our children who are not yet born?

van Gelder: There’s been a lot of discussion also at the camp about how important prayer is to this particular stance, and how the people there are not a bunch of protesters; they’re water protectors. How do you see that?

Archambault: In order for us to accomplish what we set out to do, to protect the water, we have to be mindful of who we are, and we have to be mindful of where we come from and who we represent. Violence doesn’t have a place. So the power of being in prayer and being united together in vast numbers is more significant than a handful of people going out and creating a disturbance and possibly getting somebody hurt. I think we’re very fortunate—and I think it’s because we have prayers—that we have mass numbers of people where nobody got seriously injured or lost a life. I’m thankful for that. We have to keep reinforcing that: Prayerful, peaceful demonstration will only help us; violence will only hurt our cause.

van Gelder: How can people outside of here best support what you’re doing?

Archambault: A lot of people ask how to help or how to contribute. I say: Follow your heart. If you want to be here, you’re welcome. If you want to pray from home, pray from home. If you want to send a letter of support, send a letter of support. If you want to send a contribution, send a contribution. But I’m not soliciting any donations. I would just say whatever you want to do to make you feel like you’re contributing comes from within, that it comes from your heart.

“This whole movement was started by our youth.”

If you want to know more about what we’re doing as far as the political scene or the legal scene, we do have a website, StandWithStandingRock.net. It also lists the different nonprofit organizations that are there who can receive donations and who can make sure they get to individuals at the camp that need them.

If you wanted to donate to the tribe, we’re not soliciting them, but people want to just give to the tribe. What we do with those funds is apply them toward our legal fund and to accommodate people with waste management down at the camp. Or for safety, because of the cold weather coming.

van Gelder: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Archambault: I just want to say this whole movement was started by our youth. And I’m thankful they have the courage to stand up for something as simple as water.