Q&A: David Archambault II, chairman of Standing Rock Reservation
With the protest at Standing Rock entering its eighth month of resistance, a lot can be said about the resolve of the water protectors and their mission. They have gained international media attention, defied corporate interests and are now weathering a harsh winter. With the support of outsiders and each other, and as long as Dakota Access Pipeline construction lights shine down from the surrounding hills, water protectors believe they have a reason to be there. I sat down with David Archambault II, the chairman of Standing Rock Indian Reservation, to discuss what his role is and how people in Eugene can support their cause.
Standing Rock Indian Reservation—
Christopher Trotchie: What is the best way for people in Eugene to help?
Dave Archambault II: I get that question all the time, “What can I do?” and I don’t think there is one answer. Whenever they come and they ask, there is so much that can be done. … What we try to do is just put the information on what the tribe is doing because there’s so many different interest groups, and we have a website called Standwithstandingrock.net. And if it’s something like divest from banks that are funding this, or if it’s writing a letter to Congress, or writing a letter to the administration, or writing requests or asks to the company or whoever, we have some templates on there. When it comes to donations ⎼ the tribe didn’t ask for funds ⎼ but people want to give to the tribe, and we’re thankful for that. So we have a tab on the website where you can donate on there, or if you want to give to whoever, there’s 5,500 different GoFundMe accounts. You could fund whatever you want. What I tell people is, it’s up to you whatever you want to do; follow your heart. And that usually takes you in that direction that you need to go.
T: What do you think the general condition of the camp is right now?
DA: Well I haven’t gone down there lately, because when the first storm came, I asked everybody to leave. And the second I made that statement somebody else from Standing Rock made the statement “don’t leave.” And then there’s been a lot of criticism on me saying that I sold out, and that I have a house in Florida, and that I have another house in Bismarck, and that I received money. And none of that’s true, but it’s just how everybody has turned on me. So it makes me curious about [what people’s intention are]. What are they here for? When we had the decision made by the Corps of Engineers not to give an easement, and to do an [Environmental Impact Statement] and to consider rerouting ⎼ those were the three things that we’ve been asking for the last two years. … So the purpose of the camp was fulfilled, and we got what we wanted. I understand that it’s not over. This new administration can flip it, so what we’re doing now is trying to do everything we can to make sure that that decision stays, but even then it’s not guaranteed. Right now it’s dangerous ⎼ tomorrow we’re going to get 15 inches of snow, 55 mile an hour wind. It’s not safe at the camp. And from what people are telling me, there’s a lot of empty tents all over and a lot of trash, and if we don’t clean up, when the flood waters rise all that stuff is going to be in the river. So we’re going to, at some time, get down there and clean up.
T: What is the biggest misconception about you currently?
DA: Just the perception that I’m not here for the fight is false and it’s wrong, and that’s kind of disturbing to hear all the fabricated lies about me when people don’t know me. People really don’t know who I am. And when somebody says something, and it’s believed and it’s passed on, it’s sad because we we’re the ones who started this whole thing. This tribe is the one who stepped up and filed the suit when we knew that we didn’t have a chance. We knew that the federal laws that are in place are stacked against us. They’re in favor of projects like [the pipeline], but we had to do it.
T: What is the impact of the protest on the tribe as a whole?
DA: On Standing Rock, we have eight districts. We have 12 communities. We have highways. We have our schools. We have ambulance services. And now because people choose to stay at the camp, we have to make sure that they’re out of harm’s way. So when the storms happen, we’re going to have a shelter here in Cannon Ball, and people are going to come. And they’re going to expect food, and they’re going to expect heat, and they’re going to expect blankets. So we provide that because it’s an emergency shelter. And then when the danger is gone, they stay there. They don’t leave. And the community says, “We want our gymnasium back.” … There’s really nothing going on. There’s no drilling going on. But they want to be there, and I think it’s because there was a good feeling when it first started. When we came together, tribal nations came together, and we prayed together, and we shared our songs, we shared our ceremonies. And it was a good strong feeling, but nobody wants to let that go. Nobody wants to move on. Those things that we learned from that lesson are things that we can take home to our communities and apply. We come from communities that are dysfunctional. We fight our own family, we fight each other’s families in the community, but what happened here was we were able to live without violence and without drugs or alcohol, without weapons. And we were able to do it with prayer and coming together. That lesson right there is something that we need to take back to our communities, but we don’t want to now. There are people down there that don’t want to leave. They think it is the greatest thing. But when you ask me ‘what’s the status,’ the things that I hear if I go down there, I don’t hear the good things anymore. I hear ‘this person did this,’ ‘they took this,’ and now I’m getting accused of doing that. So what we’re doing is bringing that dysfunction into something that was beautiful, and we’re letting the lessons slip through our hands. And we’re not learning. We’re hanging on to something that’s not there anymore. And so, I know that there’s a chance that this pipeline has to go through, but it’s not the end. It’s not the end of everything. We have to take the things that we learned, and accept it as a win. We have to take the processes, the policies, the regulations, the rules that are going to change because of what happened here, and take it as a win. Whether that pipeline goes through or not, I think we won.
T: How do you feel about the example that Standing Rock has set for other land struggles in the United States?
DA:This isn’t the first pipeline that anyone’s stood up to. This isn’t the first infrastructure project anyone’s stood up to, and I don’t think it is going to be the last. But it is something that we have to be mindful about though: if we’re going to take on the oil industry, it’s not going to be at the pipelines. We have to change our behavior, and we have to demand alternatives, and we have to start doing things different, and we have to stop depending on the government. This country is so dependent on oil. The whole nation is dependent on oil. If we want to fight these things, it’s not going to be where it’s being transported. It’s going to be at the source, and it’s going to be with the government.
T: Who is responsible for the camps?
DA:There’s never been anybody that was responsible. It was forever evolving from day one. The way it started was there were kids who said, ‘We don’t want this pipeline to go here.’ We don’t want oil in our water. So they ran from Wakpala to Mobridge over the Missouri River. They did it with prayer. Then the second thing that happened was a group of people got together in April and said we need to set up a spirit camp. So the first spirit camp was set up with prayer and then there was a ceremony, and in the ceremony individuals were identified to help with this. So when we had our first meeting, [there were] 200 people from Pine Ridge and 300 from Cheyenne River coming the next day. Where are they going to go? Where the spirit camp was set up was already bursting at the seams. … I brought the different groups together and I said, “We need to coordinate. We need to know what each other are doing.” Then they said I was colonizing them, and that I was trying to control them, trying to dictate to them because I was IRA government. It seemed like every time the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tried to help, we got bit. So you ask me who is running the camp down there? It’s whoever the people want to listen to and there is always someone who doesn’t want to listen. That is the disfunction. The good thing about the tribal government is [even] if the people don’t want to listen to me, it’s a role that everyone accepts. Down there, if someone does not accept it, [the leadership] will change. That is how it has been going. It’s been forever evolving from the first time we set up until today. Even now if I go down there, they’re not going to want to have anything to do with me because I asked them to leave.
T: Do you genuinely want people to leave the camps?
DA: Yeah. There is no purpose for it. What’s the purpose?
T: There seems to be some concerns for safety in the camps; how should these concerns be addressed?
DA: I don’t want that pipeline to go through. I just don’t want anyone to get hurt, I don’t want anyone to die, I don’t want any kids to get abused, I don’t want any elders to get abused, I don’t want any rapes to happen. They don’t want any authority down there. What do you do then? Do I have to close it down with force?
T: I don’t know… Do you?
DA: No, I’m not going to do that.
T: Why not?
DA: I don’t want that. I don’t want Wounded Knee. I don’t want to fight my own people.
I tell you what, when I say stuff and when I do stuff, it feels like no one is behind me. And I feel like I’m the only one that thinks like this. I feel like I’m the only one that really understands, and it makes me question whether or not I’m Indian.
Am I Indian enough? How come I don’t want to be there? And how come I don’t want to put people’s lives on the line? How come I don’t want to think it’s okay for them to die? I must not be Indian. I must not be Indian enough.
What I saw happen was something that was beautiful. Then I saw it just turn to where it’s ugly, where people are fabricating lies and doing whatever they can, and they’re driven by the wrong thing. What purpose does it have to have this camp down there? There are donations coming, so the purpose is the very same purpose for this pipeline; it’s money. The things that we learn from this camp — the things that were good, that people are doing whatever they can to hold onto — are slipping through their hands at this moment. And I feel like no matter what I say or what I do now, because it flipped and it turned, I have to be really careful; because they will say that I’m trying to facilitate this pipeline. That’s the last thing that I want and I’ve always said that. … We were offered money; I don’t want money. We were offered that land; I don’t want that land. I don’t want anything. I just don’t want that pipeline. It’s symbolic if I can stay with that course. We are so close, but there is a chance that it could go through. If it goes through, I’ll be the worst chairman ever, and if doesn’t go through, I’m the worst chairman ever. So there is no win for me. I don’t want a win; I don’t want anything from this. What I see is something that is so symbolic it could change… We have a chance to change the outcome for once: the outcome of who we are as people. There is a real opportunity here, and that is what I want. That is what I’m hoping for, is that we take these lessons that we are learning and change the outcome of who we are and what we are about and the future of our people.