Between a ‘Cannonball’ and a hard place
American Indian leaders on both sides of DAPL fight come together at UND Law School event to talk frankly about resistance, resilience and reconciliation
Scott Davis has been on a personal tour of tears lately.
Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, is a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He was appointed to his position by then-Gov. John Hoeven and has worked under Gov. Jack Dalrymple and now Gov. Doug Burgum.
Davis has served the state and his bosses throughout the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) saga, trying to find any sort of common ground or opportunity for dialogue between sides. A man caught between two worlds, he has an appreciation for the past plights of his People and his duties to the state.
Though he doesn’t complain, Davis talks openly about the abuse he’s endured from both sides of the DAPL divide. In the days since President Donald Trump issued an executive order to resume the DAPL construction upstream of his old home, the Standing Rock Reservation, and following the forced disbandment of NoDAPL protesters who’d been camped along the nearby Cannonball River for the past seven months, Davis has found himself talking about his ordeal at various speaking arrangements.
Tuesday, he brought that message to the UND School of Law for a panel discussion on Indigenous environmental justice. The panel was hosted by the Northern Plains Indian Law Center and was part of the annual Time-Out Week celebration at UND.
“It’s been an emotional challenge for me to talk about,” Davis told the 50 or so audience members assembled in the Law School’s Baker Courtroom. “This stuff is still fresh in my mind — it’s personal and it hurts.”
At first, Davis said the NoDAPL movement struck him as something “beautiful,” to have so many Indigenous people joining together on the banks of the Cannonball in cultural and spiritual solidarity.
“It was a healthy thing for my family,” Davis said. “It was paradise. This is how it should be.”
But as the movement grew, the government response to contain it intensified. Davis added the power of social media drove a narrative for the NoDAPL movement that was met with a divisive counter-narrative, making it difficult for anyone to strike a conciliatory tone on anything.
Hard feelings escalated, and Davis found himself in the epicenter of it all.
“I’ve never felt so disconnected, so far from my People, than I have these past seven months,” Davis said.
Davis’ story is one that seemed to resonate with Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the man who’s become one most recognizable faces of the NoDAPL movement. The two men, though representing polarized positions on how to deal with oil line proponents, sat side by side on the panel. Both spoke of a deep respect for and a kinship with the other.
“I don’t envy Scott at all,” Archambault said. “He’s got a tough job.”
Archambault disagreed with Davis’ take social media.
“There certainly was some good that came from it,” he said. “It helped us get the attention we needed and spread the word that just because something is legal does not make it right.”
Keep up the fight
The Standing Rock Tribe opposes the DAPL because it crosses Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir fed by tributaries — such as the Cannonball River — north of reservation population hubs downstream. The Tribe contends that if the pipeline broke, contaminated water would infiltrate its drinking water. The Tribe also alleges that previous plans had the pipeline crossing the Missouri much farther upstream, north of Bismarck-Mandan, but were eventually scrapped for a crossing point that would spare the larger urban centers and imperil Standing Rock in the event of a leak.
Despite plans to have oil flowing through the $3.8-billion DAPL as early as May 14, the fight is not over, Archambault said. That fight will continue on multiple fronts: politically, legally and through public campaigns that urge financial backers of the pipeline to divest.
“We’re just going to keep going, regardless of where the stage of the pipeline is at and whether oil is flowing,” Archambault said. “We’re going to continue to fight and build awareness.”
Archambault said he’s been falsely accused of using the NoDAPL movement as a way to gain fame and attention. In actuality, he continued, it’s not a subject he enjoys elaborating on in public. He said he’s encountered backlash, too. The main reason he agreed to be part of the UND Law School panel was to accompany his friend and Standing Rock tribal attorney, Dean DePountis, a UND Law School alumnus who also spoke at the panel.
Archambault said the NoDAPL movement is an idea that stemmed from Standing Rock youth who sought ways to spread awareness about the potential threat of the pipeline to the Tribe’s drinking supply.
“When our kids talk — I think we should listen,” Archambault said.
From there, it grew into an international movement that at one time drew as many 10,000 protestors to camps along the Cannonball River.
Backdrop of doubt
Archambault then proceeded to give the Law School audience a history lesson on perceived injustices by the U.S. government that have befallen American Indians over the past 200-plus years. Such injustices make it difficult for the Tribe to simply accept government and oil company assurances that their drinking water would remain unharmed, he said.
DePountis said this “backdrop of doubt” is the basis for everything in Native American law.
Davis tends to see matters differently. He questions the value of protests and the continued animosity that emanates from them.
Tribes need to get more involved and assert their voices earlier, instead of reacting after it’s too late, Davis explained. His new boss, Gov. Burgum, appears to be more committed than predecessors to working with state Tribes, he observed.
Lastly, Davis thinks some good could come from the newfound synergy and solidarity that was born of the NoDAPL movement.
“That energy is still there, and someone in the room needs to pick it up and move it in a good way,” Davis said. “It put us on the map; it woke up a sleeping giant.”