Police shot us in the face with rubber bullets – Sioux Tribe Chairman

The Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline have ended in victory – or so it seems for now. The US Army Corps of Engineers has denied the permit to build the pipeline through sacred lands of Native Americans, asking for further probes. This happens after protesters were fired at with water cannon during ice-cold nights, shot with rubber bullets, and tear-gassed – what the police called ‘non-lethal use of force.’ As winter weather is making it difficult for the Sioux tribe and its supporters to continue their encampment – what’s next for the movement? Will the federal government’s decision against the pipeline hold when the big money starts pushing? And whose side will Donald Trump take when he moves into the White House? We ask the leader of the protest, the Sioux Tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota, Dave Archambault II.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dave Archambault, Tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota, the site of one of the biggest Native American protests in decades, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Dave, the oil pipeline which you’re protesting against was due to go through Native American ancestral burial grounds. That’s now frozen - do you believe the story is over?

Dave Archambault: No. I believe that we have won a battle in a big war, but we definitely did not win the war. Had we had this victory in a different administration from what the U.S. is coming in, then I would say this is a win, we won a war, but because that new Administration is coming and this new Administration will attempt to reverse the decision that was made by the Corps of Engineers, we still have work to do, but I do know that the United States Corps of Engineers rendered a decision not to grant an easement for this pipeline to cross under the Missouri river. That is a huge win for us and this is the first time in history that the Native people, the original occupants of this land have had somebody listen to them and actually rule in our favor. So, it’s a huge win for us, but by far it’s not the end.

SS: So, the U.S. Army Engineer Corps which has finally denied the permit to drill the pipe near the Sioux land, previously ordered police to arrest and forcefully evict protesters. Did they finally hear the environmental argument against the pipeline, or were they scared of your protest’s resilience and that’s why they backed down?

DA: I never believed that they would come in force and the reason they were not coming in force is not because they were afraid of us, they were afraid of our resilience, afraid of our resistance. I’m telling you that they just made this order because they wanted to reduce the liability risk that exists. There’s a liability for people occupying federal lands, so by releasing a statement, the Corps of Engineers released a statement saying that “you’re on these properties and you’re subject to fines for trespassing if you will remain there”, but never once did it say that they were going to remove people. What it did, it relieved the Federal government, the Corps of Engineers from any liability that was there. So, now it’s a responsibility of the individuals who remain on the lands.

SS: The builders of the Dakota access pipeline - Energy Transfer partners and Sunoco logistics partners - say they will stick to the original plan. What’s the point of them being so stubborn - in the end, they got a lot of bad publicity, 8 lost months, lost money, why not just agree to build it somewhere else?

DA: You have to understand, there are always two sides. Once this decision was rendered by the Corps of Engineers, either side would’ve opposed the decision. So, if the easement was granted, our strategy and our reception, out acts would’ve been just  the same. We would have filed a suit against the easement, we would have looked at all of our legal options to continue and try to stop this pipeline from happening. But because the right decision was made, the company is going to do the same thing. They’re going to look at all of their legal options and they’re going to try to push forward, and this is just another example of corporate world, forcing their hand on the government, forcing their hand on people. They’re going to continue to try and move this pipeline in its current location, and if they disregard the federal laws, they’re jeopardizing the project’s investment, they’re jeopardizing their investors’ money, they’re jeopardizing the banks who lent them the loans to keep this project going. So I don’t believe that they’re going to move forward and continue to push the project underneath this river. They’re going to stop, they’re going to have to stop, and the Corps of Engineers is going to require them to do a full environmental impact statement, and the environmental impact statement looks at people, and we are the people and we have a rich culture, we have a rich history, we have a rich heritage, we have an environment, we have land that we’re trying to protect. So, the environmental impact statement is necessary when they’re looking at this crossing. They are also going to have to just conform to the existing laws.

SS: President-elect Trump is a big supporter of the pipeline - he may simply undo Obama’s decision to reroute it once he’s in office. How far are you willing to go, if he indeed does that?

DA: What I look at is an opportunity with President-elect. This is an opportunity for us to consult with him, to open up communication lines, to open up a relationship with the President-elect and help him understand that we’re the first occupants of this country, and help him understand that all the benefits that are received by this nation, were paid for by somebody and they were paid for by us, and we continue to pay for them.

SS: Young protesters from Dakota organised a run to Washington to draw attention to their cause - but once they got there, the White House refused to receive them. Was it easier for Obama to pretend you don’t exist?

DA: Obama has been, probably, the most supportive President in the history of the U.S. for Indian country and the petition that was delivered, was delivered to the Army Corps of Engineers, to their general, so... For you to say that it was not received - the petition did get received by the U.S. Federal Government.

SS: But, I’m just thinking that, maybe, now he’s listening because he has nothing to lose, he is an outgoing President?

DA: No, all you gotta do is take a look at the history of the time that he spent in office and all the policies and all the actions that he has done for Indian country and it isn’t because he is “lame-duck” status, it’s because he had a sincere concern for the first people of this nation.

SS: The original plan called for the pipeline to cross the river near the state capital - but the authorities decided to move it closer to the Native lands because they feared a possible accident. Why are they worried about the pipeline’s effect on a city - and not on a Native reserve?

DA: When you take a look at EA - Environmental Assessment - they will say: “this is the least impactful route”. It had nothing to do with people, it had nothing to do with the city of Bismarck. There was an environmental assessment, and what we asked for is an environmental impact statement, and the reason why we want an environmental impact statement is because we now we have to take a look at people. Even though there are 150,000 people that live in a state capital of North Dakota, we are the first occupants of this land, we have a rich heritage, we have a rich culture, we have a rich tradition, we have our language, we have sacred places, we have the environment, we have our water, and this very pipeline threatens all of that. We also have to take a look at the history of the people that are occupying this land where this pipeline is going, the proposed pipeline. If we look at the history, we have paid over and over and over for the benefit of this nation, so those two things combined, it’s very vital that we do an environmental impact statement rather than just an environmental assessment. So, the original route, with an assessment is justifiable to relocate to this. We’re asking for environmental impact statement so that our concerns are addressed.

SS: It all started with something around 30 people camping out at the protest site - do you remember when it started getting bigger, when the group grew to the thousands?

DA: It started, I’d say, the whole month of August it continued to grow, and in September it was growing, in October it was kind of stable, I would say, between 4-5 thousand, and then on weekends it would expand to 6-7 thousand people that would come to the camp, and on weekdays it would contract to maybe 3 to 4 thousand. As soon as there were confrontations with law enforcement, it had expanded and it’s continued to evolve and grow. So, we had, this past weekend, over 10 thousand people, easy.

SS: Water cannons were used by police against the protesters, in freezing temperatures - isn’t that against the law where you’re at? Because, I don’t know, in some countries that’s forbidden, so I just wonder is not against the law in America?

DA: The way I look at it is that law enforcement chose to take actions that are not commendable, are not the right thing to do. Their behaviour on how to handle the situation could have been better, but it wasn’t. So, as a result of that, we have had people seriously injured, we have had over 100 people experience hypothermia because of water being used in 24 degrees Fahrenheit weather. I can’t answer your question, is it legal or not. If the law enforcement is using it, in this country, or in this state - then obviously it must be, because they’re not getting charged with anything.

SS: How do protesters protect themselves from all this? How do you deal with tear gas, or sub-zero water cannon, or dogs, what do you do in response?

DA: There’s two things which you can do. One, you can resent and react and behave in an unlawful way, or you can forgive and take the high ground and move on with life. We know that we stood in peace without force, without weapons, and a law enforcement used excessive force and excessive use of lethal - they say they’re non-lethal, but they’re lethal weapons when they target people in the head, when they’re using water in freezing temperatures, so, the law enforcement behaved, unfortunately, in a bad way, and we always maintained that we’re going to stay peaceful and prayerful. And I think that’s the whole reason why the way we defended ourselves, with peace and prayer, that is the whole reason why the world took notice of what was happening.

SS:We can see images of police deploying armoured vehicles at Standing Rock, they used ‘less-than lethal ammunition’ firing rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers - at the same time protesters were unarmed - was the police deliberately trying to hurt them?

DA: Yes.

SS:The protesters were not entirely peaceful - they threw rocks and Molotovs at the police - did police react in self-defence as well?

DA: It’s the other way around, where the law enforcement used aggression and because of that aggression, it’s very hard for somebody to maintain non-violence and the protesters reacted to the behaviour of law enforcement. When you’re standing beside somebody and you see somebody get shot in the face with the rubber bullet, what are you going to do? You’re going to react. That’s what was happening, the aggression and the force used by law enforcement caused people to react in a harmful, in a negative way, with cursing at people, or throwing things at people, throwing things at law enforcement. I never did condone that kind of behaviour, I never condoned law enforcement’s behaviour, I never condoned water protectors behaviour, when they react to action in a negative way. We have always maintained: you must be non-violent way and you must be in prayer and peace. But you have to understand, we were backed into a corner.

SS: From everything that you’re telling me, it still sounds like the police were deliberately trying to hurt the protesters, or to provoke them at least?

DA: All you’ve got to do is take a look at the videos, and you’ll see that from the beginning, from the very first confrontation, the protesters had no weapons, zero weapons, and as the confrontations continued to happen, law enforcement escalated the types of weapons that they had and they escalated theuse of what they had. So, when I say that… witness, and take a look at what’s going on - there’s no weapons by protesters, there’s none whatsoever. Now take a look at what law enforcement was doing, and that might answer your question.

SS: Another thing that really shocked us - after being arrested people were crammed into chain-linked makeshift cells, protesters actually described them as “dog kennels” - why did North Dakotan police have to do that, did they not have enough jail space?

DA: Whenever these confrontations take place and there are mass arrests, the law enforcement thought that this was what they had to do. Now, I don’t have an answer for you in this question - this is something that you need to talk to Sheriff Kirchmeier in Morton County Police, to get the reason why they used ‘dog kennels’ to keep people, I don’t know if they don’t have enough jail space, I don’t know how much space they have in their jail cells, but I do know that people were  put in “dog kennels” and held there. We have asked these questions and we didn’t get the answers, but if you want to get the answer, you may have to ask the law enforcement or the County Sheriff.

SS: Apart from the police, private security was also present at the protest site - how were their actions different from those of the police, were they harder on protesters?

DA: It’s really difficult to determine who was law enforcement, and who was the company’s security because the law enforcement did not have badges that law enforcement has. They wore clothes that were very similar to the company’s security, so to say one treated people different - it will be difficult to determine that.

SS: Who did the private guards answer to? Whose orders were they carrying out, do you know that?

DA: The company.

SS: The company that is trying to build the pipeline?

DA: Yes. Dakota Access Pipeline is the company, owned by Energy Transfer Partners and they hired a security company and that’s who they answer to.

SS: My impression is that this kind of heavy-handed reaction by police only attracts more people to Standing Rock, inspire more support - what do you gather?

DA: The whole intention of our demonstration, our movement is to build awareness of all the wrongs that are taking place. And there are many activities that we do to assure that if something like this happens, to let people know the wrongs. This pipeline is coming through our lands, our ancestral lands, our treaty lands and we did not have a say. And the pipeline, everything that they’ve done is legal, but just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s right. We have to build awareness and the people who came here, we welcome them, we are thankful that they came, but we wanted to make sure that they stood in peace and prayer, because if you stand in peace and prayer, it’s the high road and a lot more people can join and want to watch. When the law enforcement takes action that hurts people staying in peace and prayer, you have more people and you have more attention from the world to express the wrongs in this law.

SS: I’m also thinking about how it was handled...I’m not an American and I’m not sure how it works in the U.S. - but how come the Justice Department, the federal government allowed the security forces to be so forceful in this confrontation, especially as you’re saying, against people who just stood there in peace and prayed. Do you feel like they have no control over the North Dakotan police?

DA: I think whenever you have law enforcement, overall, no matter what country you’re in, wherever you come from, law enforcement is funded by the federal government and federal government trains and assists different branches of law enforcement, and there’s no law enforcement that is superior, they are all here to serve and protect you nation. So, it’s not ever going to happen where the federal government steps in and fights its own law enforcement, whether it’s a state, or county or whatever. So there’s has to be a way to try to resolve differences and the DoJ has come in and they have tried to facilitate some communications so that it doesn’t escalate. You have to be very understanding and know that we’re very fortunate that nothing has happened where we did lose a life. It is a result of trying to work together with everyone, at the same time trying to maintain and control passion and commitment by individuals who believe that this pipeline is the wrong thing to do.

SS: Okay, so now, let’s talk about the legal-ethical barrier that you’ve mentioned earlier. The pipeline’s builder said it completed all the safety requirements and worked to minimise damage to traditional sites - what dangers are you afraid of if all the regulations are being followed?

DA: As I express, this pipeline threatens our culture, our history, our heritage, our language, our people, our environment and our water, and the company will say that “we have every safeguard in place”, but it doesn’t - so there’s a disagreement there. We’ll continue to express our concern and we’ll continue to ask the pipeline not to be in that location. They could take the pipeline and put it anywhere else, as long as it’s off our treaty lands, we’re open to that. So, if the pipeline has all the safeguards where it will not threaten the things that we’re concerned about it, then relocate it and put it somewhere else where those people are okay with it.

SS: So, like you’re saying, you were never against the pipeline happening, just not on your lands, but if relocating the project is what you’re after, doesn’t it simply transfer environmental dangers somewhere else?

DA: Yes, and you have to remember that we are the first occupants of this land, and everything was taken from us. The history is evident of all the wrongs that have happened to our people, and we’re standing up and we’re saying: “Don’t do it to us again!” We pay for energy independence, we pay for economic development, we pay for national security, we continue to pay for that, and we don’t see any benefit coming. This pipeline, they’re saying it’s necessary for energy independence, it’s necessary for economic development, it’s necessary for national security - fine! Do it somewhere else. We cannot fool ourselves - this is just one pipeline, there are many pipelines to come, because of our dependency on fossil fuels. When we start changing the way we behave, when we start being mindful of what we consume, how we power our homes, how we power our vehicles, what we buy - everything that we buy is made out of petroleum. Until we find alternative products that have no petroleum, until we stop using fossil fuels, there will be multiple pipelines in the future. So, as more pipelines come that threaten the environment - don’t threaten our environment. That’s what we’re saying, threaten somebody else's’ environment. This is all that we have left.

SS: House speaker Paul Ryan called Obama’s administration ‘anti-energy’ - and look what you had to encounter under his presidency. With Trump - energy projects are at the top of the agenda. Is Standing Rock going to become a model resistance, are we going to see more of that under Trump?

DA: I see it as a huge opportunity for us to help Trump fulfill his agenda, to help Paul Ryan fulfill his agenda and energy development doesn’t mean fossil fuel development. Energy development means how can we produce sustainable energy that doesn’t threaten the lives of people in the future, who are not yet here, that doesn’t threaten this planet. So, it is a huge opportunity and I’m so thankful that this is the agenda of the next Administration, and I look forward to the discussions that we can have to help them understand and facilitate the movement forward. It’s not a movement towards the resistance, it’s a movement towards understanding and relationship building.

SS:Thank you very much for this insight, we were talking to Dave Archambault, tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and he was telling us about the unprecedented protests against building the Dakota Pipeline. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.