CEDAR FALLS — David Archambault II’s opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline is as much about centuries of betrayal by white people and the U.S. government as it is about protecting sacred Native American land.
The former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands straddle North and South Dakota, gave a history lesson Wednesday on interactions between the groups and the treaties that produced during his talk “Standing with Tribes — Past, Present & Future” at the University of Northern Iowa. Attendees packed the main floor and spilled into the balcony of Lang Hall auditorium. He is one of several visiting speakers in the new Aldo Leopold Distinguished Lecture Series.
Archambault was one of the leaders advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights in 2016 as they opposed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline just upstream from their lands. But he traced Native American concerns back much further.
From the Roman Catholic “Doctrine of Discovery” formulated for some of the first explorers in the New World to the U.S. treaties that hemmed in and then began shrinking lands of the Great Sioux Nation, he laid out the indignities suffered by indigenous people.
When his ancestors first made contact with European and American settlers, Sioux lands stretched across North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. “We went from 60 million acres in 1851 to less than two million acres” today, said Archambault, a resident of Cannonball, N.D.
“A lot of people say ‘Why don’t you just get over it?’” he noted. “It’s hard to move on when it continues to happen and it’s still happening today.”
As the United States pushed westward, infrastructure projects disrupted Native American life, nearly wiped out the buffalo and forced tribes to relocate. Trails, railroads, highways, hydroelectric dams, and — finally — oil pipelines transformed how native people lived and often further marginalized them.
Native people, joined by hundreds of other Americans, took a stand against Dakota Access when the pipeline’s construction came near the Standing Rock tribal lands.
“You can’t plan for something like this,” said Archambault, recalling six days where he was barely able to eat or sleep. “What was happening at Standing Rock was growing, and it was getting bigger and bigger.”
He gathered with tribal elders and, in a ceremony, asked the Creator how to stop the pipeline’s construction. They got their answer, he said: “If you fight with violence you’ll lose, but if you fight this with peace and prayer you’ll win.”
So tribal leaders asked four things of those who came to protest — no alcohol, drugs, weapons or violence.
“It was probably one of the most powerful things I was part of,” he said. It was sacred.”
The fight was also a learning process for Archambault as he talked to lawmakers and other officials at all levels along with pursuing the matter in the courts.
“We came at this politically,” he said. “Legally, we went to court. We exhausted everything we could in federal court.”
In the end, the pipeline was built and a federal judge allowed oil to begin flowing through it. But Archambault noted the frequency of spills from oil pipelines that crisscross the nation and the possibility of contamination, particularly water. He still considers the Dakota Access pipeline a threat to his tribe.
“There are a lot of battles ahead and we’ve got to stay united,” he said. Those range from fighting the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would cut through the heart of the Great Sioux Nation, to seeking a revocation by Pope Francis of the Papal Bulls on the Doctrine of Discovery.
Archambault called on people to be conscious of their behavior and suggested glimmers of hope with some movement towards sustainability and decentralization across the country.
“We are all connected and whatever we do will have an impact on everything else,” he said.