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'We’re Not Going to Go to War': The Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Preaches Peace and Patience

"When I look at that camp, I always think: What's going to happen when this is over? Who's going to clean that up? Who's going to put that land back to its natural state?"
Dave Archambault II in August. (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has been fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline for over two years, long before it was a national cause celebre. He's led litigation in federal court, met with President Barack Obama, and has called on the Department of Justice to investigate what he calls "the overall militarization of law enforcement response" to peaceful protests at Standing Rock. "To many people," he wrote to Attorney General Loretta Lynch last month, "the military tactics being used in North Dakota are reminiscent of the tactics used against protesters during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago."


We sat down with Archambault on Sunday in his home in Cannonball, North Dakota, to talk about the camps at Standing Rock, the #noDAPL movement, and protecting the water from contamination. This conversation took place a few miles away from, and about an hour before, activists (who refer to themselves as "water protectors") reported that authorities used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons against them.

VICE: The camps at Standing Rock have grown from a handful of people to thousands. How do you build a sustainable movement? Can you talk a little about the phenomenon and how the movement has evolved?
Dave Archambault II: I don't think anybody really built this movement. It wasn't me individually or the tribe. What we did was stood up for something that's dear to us, something that's precious—and that's water. Something that we believe is necessary for all life, and we definitely don't want it to be threatened. So when you stand up for something that simple, that basic, it's easy for people to join in. People come from all over, and this movement has taken on a life of its own.

You'll hear about police brutality, or security using dogs—pipeline security's been using dogs on water protectors, different distractions. When you focus on water, it's easy for other interests to come and join in because it is concerning the environment, making sure the environment is protected.

Our whole intention is water. As this grows and it gets bigger and bigger, and as it evolves, the interest isn't really for water anymore. It's more about a conflict between law enforcement and the water protectors and trying to hold ground or trying to advance and that's not what this is about. We're doing everything we can to try to stop this from happening and I don't have any guarantees that it will. But we're putting the best effort forward. All the other issues, all the other distractions, don't help.


How do you stay on message?
I don't think you can keep it on that message. Because it's forever evolving now.

It's easy for different environmentalists, different people to come, and they have their own agendas. There's no way that we can keep everybody focused on the same thing. It's all about being prayerful and peaceful. It's not about a confrontation. We started this to protect our water. We were told by our youth, by our elders, and by the spirits that if you fight this with prayer and peace you will defeat it. But if you use violence, natural law's going to take over and it's going to go underneath this river, and it's going to threaten the water.

Is there a certain patience that's required for that?
I think people come here expecting something to happen and they want to do something, they want to take part in something, so it's easy to get caught up in trying to go to the front line. And we don't always know what is going to happen when they reach that front line. The law enforcement has militarized themselves and they put people at risk, they put lives at risk.

We're not going to go to war. If we do, we're definitely not going to win. We don't have weapons, we don't have a military. So when people come and they say, "We're not doing anything and I feel like my hands are tied like this [ he puts his palms together and holds his hands up ], like they're in prayer"—they don't need to be here. They don't need to be here if they're not willing to stand down and let the Creator do his work. The more violence we create, the more it hurts our cause in fighting this pipeline. We're trying to stop this pipeline. We've been doing really good. If you think about it, this pipeline should have been done. But the work that we've set forth and we continue to do, gives us hope. There's a little bit of hope. But people don't know that, people don't understand that. They think that the camp is the reason why. That's not the reason why. We've been working hard at this for two years. It's not just the last 100 days.


What does the future hold?
The [Army] Corps of Engineers did not issue an easement. So they [Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline] don't have the right to cross Corps of Engineers' federal lands.

We've had experts on pipelines weigh in and say this is not the safest thing to do, when we look at all the pipeline breaks across this country.

What I am asking them to do is to reroute, to move the pipeline away from here. They'll say that this is the least impactful route, that's why they chose this route. Whether it's the least impactful or not there's still tribal lands and tribal interest. Indigenous people have a right—and we never were afforded that right—to express our concerns. They knew that we were opposed to this pipeline from the onset. But they were still going to push it through no matter what. When they had alternative routes north of Bismarck they still choose this route.

What is the historical context for what is happening in Standing Rock right now?
Our fight is because we don't want it to happen again. When I say "again," this is history repeating itself. In 1851, we had a treaty. We identified lands that were important to us and that had sacred places to us. No sooner than we signed that, there were encroachments coming and happening by Westerners and Europeans and so the federal government said, "We need to re-negotiate this land." So they took more land. And then in 1877, there was gold discovered in the Black Hills. Gold was used for national security, to back our currency in the United States. For national security reasons, they said they needed to reduce these lands, so in 1889 our lands were reduced even more—millions and millions of acres. Each time these things happen, it creates trauma for the people.

If you look at the ten poorest counties in this nation, five of them come from the Great Sioux Nation. That's because of all of the wrongs. When I said, I opposed this (pipeline), and I told the Corps of Engineers this pipeline can't go here, the response is, "It has to go here because it's national security, if we get our oil extracted from our own lands we don't have to buy from OPEC; it's for economic development and it's for energy independence." National security, economic development, energy independence. Three things in the history (that) were used so this great nation was built off of our backs. It continues to encroach on our rights and our people. What little we have left is this water. The little land that we have left is still there. So we should have a say, we should have a right to it. Whenever that's the excuse, economic development, energy independence, national security, then do it somewhere else. Stop doing it to us. We're saying, don't do it again.

Is there anything that you're not seeing in the coverage of Standing Rock, whether it's misinformation, or something you'd like to see being talked about?
When we stand up for something like this, something as simple as water, it also elevates the whole discussion to what is happening to water around the world. It looks like there's a lot of water out there, but around the world there are people fighting for water. There will be a time when we won't be going to war over oil, but we'll be going to wars over water.

We've seen a big community pop up over there (the camps at Standing Rock). I go down there and I look at the waste. There's a lot of waste. It's a distraction from the water. If we're about this environment, we would be protecting Mother Earth. We wouldn't be hurting her. And yet, we're punching holes all over down there (pitching tents), in Mother Earth. That's a sacred place. But there's no regard. It's about instant gratification. When I look at that camp, I always think: What's going to happen when this is over? Who's going to clean that up? Who's going to put that land back to its natural state? Before this entire movement started, that was some of the most beautiful land around. There was a place down there where eagles, over 100 eagles would come and land. There were game down there—deer, pheasants, elk, geese. Now, it's occupied by people. And when masses of people come to one place, we don't take care of it.

So how do we make it better? I heard that they're digging pits down there for their human waste. That's a flood zone. So when the floodwaters come up, that waste is going to be contaminating the water. We're no different than the oil company, if we're fighting for water. What's going to happen when people leave? Who has to clean it up? Who has to refurbish it? It's going to be us, the people who live here. Not only that, but there are relationships that are being damaged because of unlawful actions, violent actions, violent behavior against law enforcement. Law enforcement lives here. And we live here. The water protectors are going to be gone. When this is all done, I have to go up and clean that up. We have to reestablish our relationships then. So this is a good thing and I welcome everybody because we're all standing up for our water, but are we really mindful of what we're doing? Because, what's going to happen when this is done.