Standing Rock Sioux Chair on Militarized Repression & Ongoing Lawsuit to Stop Dakota Access Pipeline
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has won a major legal victory in federal court which may have the power to force the shutdown of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. District Judge James Boasberg ruled Wednesday that the Trump administration failed to conduct an adequate environmental review of the pipeline, after President Trump ordered the Army Corps to fast-track and greenlight its approval. The judge requested additional briefings next week on whether the pipeline should be shut off until the completion of a full review of a potential oil spill’s impacts on fishing and hunting rights, as well as environmental justice. The pipeline faced months of massive resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, members of hundreds of other indigenous tribes from across the Americas, as well as non-Native allies. We speak with Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault II and Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
AMY GOODMAN: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has won a major legal victory in federal court which may have the power to force the shutdown of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. District Judge James Boasberg ruled Wednesday that the Trump administration had failed to conduct an adequate environmental review of the pipeline, after President Trump ordered the Army Corps to fast-track and greenlight its approval. The judge requested additional briefings next week on whether the pipeline should be shut off until the completion of a full review of a potential oil spill’s impacts on fishing and hunting rights, as well as environmental justice. The pipeline faced months of massive resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, members of hundreds of other indigenous tribes from across the Americas, as well as non-Native allies, as well.
Speaking at a rally last week, President Trump said he signed the memo to greenlight the pipeline with his eyes closed.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m pleased to announce that the Dakota Access pipeline, which I just mentioned, is now officially open for business, a $3.8 billion investment in American infrastructure that was stalled. And nobody thought any politician would have the guts to approve that final leg. And I just closed my eyes and said, “Do it.” …
You know, when I approved it—it’s up. It’s running. It’s beautiful. It’s great. Everybody’s happy. The sun is still shining. The water is clean. But, you know, when I approved it, I thought I’d take a lot of heat. And I took none, actually none. People respected that I approved it. But I take so much heat for nonsense that it probably overrode—it probably overrode the other. It’s like a decoy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week, just after Trump’s comments, but before Judge Boasberg ruled this week, I spoke with the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Dave Archambault. He was here in New York. He was joined by Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I asked Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault about the tribe’s lawsuit challenging the pipeline.
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: From the very beginning, we asked the Corps of Engineers, “What impact will this pipeline have on our people?” And the Corps of Engineers never could answer that. Their response is, “We’re doing an environmental assessment, and we’re going to see what impact it will have on the environment.” And there’s no impact. That’s their—that’s what they state. So when we say, “Well, we need to do a further look and see what really happens when infrastructure projects have an impact on our people”—and we’ve experienced many infrastructure projects in the past, such as a railroad system. The railroad system facilitated the near-extinction of buffalo herds. When we were at 70 million buffalo in 1800, by 1889 we’re down to less than a hundred. And it was the railroad track system that did that. There’s interstates. There’s telecommunications. There’s dams. All these infrastructure projects have a significant impact on us. So that’s the question we asked. And to get the answer, it required a full, in-depth environmental impact statement. So, we were able to, with the past administration, say, “Let’s at least do the environmental impact statement.” With this administration, the EA: “There’s not going to be any impact to you or to your people,” which we know is—if or when this pipeline breaks, we will be the first impacted.
AMY GOODMAN: There were leaks even before it went operational?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes, there were.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what that means? It wasn’t operational, so how were there leaks?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yeah, they started putting pipeline—like, where the valves—to test the valves, they put oil through the pipelines. And it leaked significant amounts, even though it was a test. So, we understood and we knew that there were going to be leaks. It wasn’t even fully operational, and they were already experiencing leaks and getting fined for 200,000 gallons of oil being leaked. And so—and then they said, “We’ll clean it up, and we fixed it. It’s OK now.” But, you know, that just goes to show that this pipeline is not clean. It’s not pretty. It’s not a beautiful thing. It’s something that’s going to come back and haunt—not us, maybe not us today, but the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to what President Trump said? He just closed his eyes and signed it.
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yeah, when President Trump comes out with statements like that, it just is revealing his true character. It tells America what kind of person he is, when we all know that his first agenda was to sign this presidential memorandum. He was actually calling it an executive order, and then they switched it to a presidential memorandum. But it’s because he has his own interest in this pipeline. He was sponsored, with his campaign, by Kelcy Warren. He had shares for Energy Transfer Partners. He had political interests. All the people who support him are saying this has to be done. So, for him to say, “I blindly did this,” it’s a complete lie, and it tells what kind of character this man really has.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Tilsen, your response when you heard President Trump say he did this with his eyes closed, signing off on the final permit to allow the Dakota Access pipeline to be built under the Missouri River, and then that there was no response afterwards?
NICK TILSEN: Yeah, I mean, I think that the reality of him signing with his eyes closed, that’s probably the truth. It’s probably what he did do. I mean, he’s been a—he’s been a prop of the energy companies, who are having their heyday. And that’s just the reality. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, one of the biggest outcries in protest in decades, and historical amounts of protest, in Dakota Access. And for him to—for him to say that there was—that it was met with no response is a total lie. That’s one of his—another alternative facts that he has, when the reality is, you know, tens of thousands of people sacrificed. We sacrificed our freedoms to protect this water. We sacrificed everything that we had. And it was women and children and families, and indigenous people with our allies from all over the country and all over the world. People around the world understand what happened at Standing Rock. And I think this is a constant sort of PR thing that says, “Oh, nobody cares.” But the reality is, people do care.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about an explosive new investigation by The Intercept that reveals how international private security firm TigerSwan targeted Dakota Access water protectors with military-style counterterrorism measures. TigerSwan began as a U.S. military and State Department contractor, hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. The investigation based on leaked internal documents, which show how TigerSwan collaborated closely with law enforcement agencies to surveil and target the nonviolent indigenous-led movement. In the documents, TigerSwan also repeatedly calls the water protectors “insurgents” and the movement “an ideologically driven insurgency,” even uses words like “jihadi.” Chairman Dave Archambault?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: You know, it just goes to show who law enforcement is going to listen to. And law enforcement listens to the political leaders. And the political leaders are bought by corporations. So, in North Dakota, we have a senator who has interests in the oil fields. We have a—
AMY GOODMAN: Who is that?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Senator Hoeven. He has an interest in the wells, that he owns. We have Senator Cramer and Senator—or, Congressman Cramer and Senator Heitkamp. They receive some of the largest amounts of contributions from the fossil fuel industry. We have a governor—at that time, Governor Dalrymple—who had some intermixings with China oil. And so, this whole political leadership in North Dakota will say, “We have to have this pipeline go in.” And because they’re saying this, they’re only going to listen to the corporation and the company. And they’re going to give direction to the law enforcement.
And it’s frustrating to me, because we had countless meetings with law enforcement. And we let them know that there’s infiltrators. This is not all the demonstrators who are creating this. We don’t know who all the people are. All along, they’re listening to the company’s security, private security firms. They’re working hand in hand with the company’s private security firms. They’re having daily meetings, daily briefings, with the company’s security firms and ignoring completely tribal leadership. And all we were doing is trying to make sure that safety was the number one priority, where these guys, if the reports from TigerSwan—on TigerSwan are true, they weren’t—they weren’t looking out for safety. They were looking to incite and to harm. And that’s disturbing.
AMY GOODMAN: Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault and Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I spoke with them before Federal Judge James Boasberg ruled on Wednesday that the Trump administration failed to carry out an adequate environmental review of the pipeline. The judge, Judge Boasberg, has requested additional briefings next week on whether the pipeline should be shut off until the completion of a full review of the potential oil spill’s impacts on fishing and hunting rights, as well as environmental justice. We’ll be back with the men in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “Mother Forgive Us” by Wendy Colonna, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation about the Dakota Access pipeline with Standing Rock Sioux Chair Dave Archambault and Nick Tilsen of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
AMY GOODMAN: When we were there Labor Day weekend, when I first met you out there at the camps, you know, we could see the planes. And whenever I would point them out and ask, people would say, “Oh, they’re just surveilling us.” It became business as usual. And, Nick, I was wondering if you could talk about this and the significance of when you have these private paramilitary firms—TigerSwan founded by a Delta Force member, former Delta Force member—where you have these companies, as Chairman Dave was just describing, working with local law enforcement and the effect it has. I mean, then I’d like to go into your own personal history and your remarkable family history. But what this means?
NICK TILSEN: I mean, I don’t think anybody is surprised, so any—any water protectors that were out there. These reports that are coming out basically prove—they prove that this is the—this is the modern form of COINTELPRO. That’s what it is.
AMY GOODMAN: The Counterintelligence Program of the FBI—
NICK TILSEN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: —that targeted Black Panthers and people of color for years under Hoover.
NICK TILSEN: This is a modern, contracted version of it, who’s designed in using basically all of the lessons that they have been building off of fighting terrorism, but using it on their own people. And this is—this is real. Like, in the camp and all the organizing and all the stuff that we did, we knew that this was happening. We couldn’t prove that it was happening, but we knew that, to an element, it was happening. We would show up at these protests. We’d have security officers and police who knew us by first name, who knew where we came from, who knew where in the camp we were staying. There was all kinds of stuff that happened during that time.
And I think the reality is, like the American public needs to realize that, you know, when we were organizing the camp, we were not allowed to fly our own planes over. We were not allowed to have our own observations. And we thought about doing that. We thought about getting resources to be able to do that. There was a no-fly zone. So there was a no-fly zone in place over the camp. Meanwhile, counterintelligence companies are allowed to come and surveil—survey us. This is the—this is a misuse of the democracy. And this is a fundamental issue of our time.
I’m glad that these reports are coming out now, and not 20 years from now, because them coming out now lets the broader movements that are now converging together understand that this is happening. And this is something that the public has have a public outcry over. To use—to use counterintelligence tactics against peaceful water protectors who are expressing our constitutional rights to—for freedom of speech, this is—this is an outrage. And I think that, moving forward, we have to be—we have to be diligent. Like the movement has to be diligent in recognizing that this is a reality. And those that support us have to recognize what we’re fighting against. You know, we show up with our prayers. We show up with our bodies. We show up with our children and our families to these protests. And these guys are showing up with all the technology that’s possible and all the weaponry that’s possible. And this is a—this is a fight over the future of this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your family, your family’s history. You’re from Pine Ridge.
NICK TILSEN: Yeah. So my mother, JoAnn Tall Janis, is from Pine Ridge. My father, Mark Tilsen, is from the Minneapolis Twin Cities area. My grandfather, Ken Tilsen, was a civil rights attorney and attorney for the American Indian Movement. And my parents met around the time of Wounded Knee. And so I got to really grow up around like activist type of family.
AMY GOODMAN: And for those who don’t know what Wounded Knee was?
NICK TILSEN: Wounded Knee—Wounded Knee was the siege or occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, that was organizing from different indigenous people from around the country, about—
AMY GOODMAN: In South Dakota.
NICK TILSEN: In South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, about three miles from where I live. And it was—it was—the generation before, it was their Standing Rock, right? It was the time in which people spoke out about all these grave injustices against all indigenous people. And it sort of sparked—sparked a movement throughout, you know, the future of Indian country about what it means. And so, I always compare—I was growing up in a family, hearing all these stories about Wounded Knee and about the American Indian Movement, and always asked, “I wonder what our Wounded Knee is going to be. I wonder what—I wonder what our generation’s Wounded Knee is going to be.” And then Standing Rock happened.
And I think the most important point here is, if you looked at after Wounded Knee, the trajectory of Indian country began to change. Different policies were changed to our Indian country. And that’s one of the—that’s one of the stories, I guess, that we have here, one of the opportunities that we have as Indian country here, is that where we go from here for the indigenous rights struggle in this country is huge. There’s a consciousness that it’s raised. There’s people that are fired up. And have the—we have the possibility and the potential to shape what the next, you know, 40, 50 years looks like for indigenous people.
AMY GOODMAN: Your great-grandmother was Meridel Le Sueur?
NICK TILSEN: Yep.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us who she was?
NICK TILSEN: Meridel Le Sueur was—she was a poet. She was an activist. She was a writer. And she was a bold believer in a different world. And, you know, she was a poet. She was a writer of poetry books. But she also, you know, fought for the women’s right to vote. She was an organizer in the labor movement, big sacrificer for some of the rights that we have today and sort of—not sort of. She’s a legend, I guess, beyond our family and did a lot of—did a lot of things that helped shape this country. And to me, you know, as—to me and our generation, I think we still derive a lot of courage from the courage that she had.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were arrested, September.
NICK TILSEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were you doing?
NICK TILSEN: On September 14th, there was a group of us—there as a group of us that locked down to machinery. This was during the period of time where they moved—they moved the buffer zone. So, there was a buffer zone; there was no construction within 20 miles. But what the companies had done is they moved to a seven-day workweek outside of that 20 miles. So this whole time, they knew that they were going to get approval. They just moved out. So we said, “Well, instead of sit back and waiting for them, let’s take the fight to them. Let’s use nonviolent direct action, and let’s use our abilities to take the fight to them.” And so we went to the—we went to a construction site, came upon the machinery. And immediately when they’ve seen us, they tried to run us over with the excavators. They swung the buckets at us, barely missed us. We ended up climbing, using our bodies, climbing up on the machinery and shutting the construction down.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you charged with?
NICK TILSEN: I was charged with four different charges. Three misdemeanors—disorderly conduct, obstruction of a government function—disorderly conduct, obstruction of a government function. The felony charge was reckless endangerment. And it was a felony charge. This is one of the first felonies that they—one of the first felony charges that they did in Standing Rock was on the day that I was arrested and with the folks that I was taking the action with.
And it was a pretty important thing, because they were trying to use it as a tactic. They were going to—they were trying to use it as a tactic to overcharge people, essentially, to use the political and the legal system to discourage people. And I think I was probably about the 40th person arrested. So their strategy to discourage people didn’t work. I think there was over 700 people, you know, after I was arrested, that were arrested.
But the disorderly conduct charge is a serious charge. I’m still facing that charge. I’m set to go to trial on August 17th. The difference between a misdemeanor disorderly—or reckless endangerment charge and a felony is that they’re basically saying I had extreme indifference for human life, for locking myself to a piece of machinery to protect water.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people are still facing trials, facing charges?
NICK TILSEN: Hundreds. I mean, I think—yeah, I was on the Water Protector Legal Collective email chain recently, and I think there’s still, you know, between 400 and 600 people facing charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Chairman Dave Archambault, you, too, were arrested.
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: When were you arrested? And has your case gone to trial?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes, I was arrested on August 12th. And last week, I just got done with my trial, and I was acquitted. Right after that, the Dakota Access pipeline filed a temporary restraining order on me. And that was granted. So, the tribe filed a temporary restraining order on the company, and the judge said, “We’re not granting this.” But as soon as they file one on me, the judge grants it. And then, after that, they filed a civil suit in federal court against me to try to pin all the costs and expenses that the protest is creating on me. And I would say maybe about three weeks ago that one was dismissed, because you can’t—you can’t pin a certain—I think it has to be $75,000 or more on one individual, and they couldn’t put that on me.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were charged with a misdemeanor. And what happened? Were you jailed?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes, I went to jail. And we bonded out the same day.
AMY GOODMAN: You were—were you strip-searched?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you put in an orange jumpsuit?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were jailed?
DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick, the same?
NICK TILSEN: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, strip-searched, jailed. I had a broken foot at the time. Yeah, we weren’t treated very well in there. I mean, we didn’t get our bedding in. Actually, some of the other—there was other Native brothers that were in jail for other things, and they were the ones advocating for us to get our bedding and different stuff, because they had been in there for a while.
AMY GOODMAN: At this point, hundreds of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribes and non-Native allies still face trial.
NICK TILSEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this exposé about TigerSwan and them calling the resistance, meaning you, Chairman Dave Archambault, also you, Nick Tilsen, and so many others, the “insurgency”? What do you make of that, even referring to your resistance as a kind of “jihadi” insurgency, Nick?
NICK TILSEN: Insurgents. How is it possible? How is it possible that any indigenous people are insurgents on their own land? Our land has been overrun by corporations, by the militarization of our lands and our communities and our people. It’s impossible for us, as indigenous people on our only land, to be insurgents. If there’s insurgents, it’s the company. If there’s insurgents, it’s the private military company. It’s impossible for us to be insurgents on our own land. We did at Standing Rock what our ancestors did. We did at Standing Rock, which was stand in prayer, we did things founded in our culture, our spirituality. This is women, children, families, people that came there to sacrifice. We were not insurgents. We were people fighting for what was right, simply fighting for what we believed in and protecting water on behalf of 17 million Americans.