Suva, Fiji – The Native American official who led the fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline has said that US President Donald Trump will “intensify a more than 200-year-old policy of exploiting Native American people”.
David Archambault II, the former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, told Al Jazeera that Trump’s decision to shrink the boundaries of two Utah national monuments – Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears – was part of a concerted campaign to “infringe upon the rights of Native American people”.
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Archambault led protests against the $3.8bn Dakota Access pipeline long before it was a national cause celebre.
But despite drawing thousands to the largest demonstration of tribal sovereignty in US history, he failed to stop the pipeline, and in early January, a newly inaugurated Trump signed an executive order pushing forward with the project.
Environmentalists had campaigned against the 1,886km pipeline for more than two years, saying it would harm the land the Standing Rock Sioux tribe live on and imperil their main water supply.
Standing Rock and three other tribes are currently fighting the pipeline in a federal court.
Al Jazeera spoke to Archambault on the sidelines of International Civil Society Week in the Fijian capital, Suva, about the challenges facing indigenous tribes under the Trump administration.
Al Jazeera: What are your reflections on the Standing Rock protests?
David Archambault II: What happened at Standing Rock is we showed the government, we showed big corporations, that we are no longer going to be walked over.
Native American tribes came together and told them that we have rights, rights over our land, our future.
And thousands of people from across the world came to lend their support, saying the federal government’s decision to go ahead with the pipeline, which snakes through our sacred areas and ancestral burial grounds, was wrong.
Al Jazeera: But the Trump administration pushed ahead with the pipeline, justifying it on the grounds of national security, energy independence and economic development. How did that decision make you feel?
Archambault: Indigenous communities have been paying for so-called national security since the founding of this country.
It’s very frustrating when the government says these types of projects are necessary for our nation’s benefit because it’s not about national security. What they’re really saying is, we don’t want to have to depend on OPEC any more.
So the national security component isn’t true; they just don’t want to purchase from overseas. They would rather produce from within.
And then, when you look at the resources they’ve taken from our lands, when you look at Black Hills, a region in South Dakota rich in gold and minerals, that’s when you know it’s not about national security.
We’ve said to them: “We’ve been paying for national security from the first encounter you had with us,” so we don’t want to hear that as an excuse.
If you look at infrastructure projects such as the Pick Sloan plan, that ended up being a disaster and flooding the Missouri River.
Several dams were strategically placed on the Missouri River, and each and every one one of them took lands from Native Americans.
And that was for hydro-electricity, so when it comes to energy independence, we’ve already paid.
And when they say it’s for economic development, they say “we need this project to create jobs,” but when we go back and look at our territories, and look and the land that was taken for agriculture from our people, it was taken illegally, so we’ve paid for economic development.
All of these benefits that our nation receives, whether it’s national security, energy independence, economic developments, we continue to pay.
A clear indication of this is when you look at the poorest areas of our nation. Five of the poorest counties in the US are within the great Sioux Nation, that’s our people.
That’s a cost we have pay so that the rest of the nation can benefit when it comes to national security, energy independence and economic development.
So when I asked the government, the corps of engineers, senators and companies – why do you need this pipeline right here, right in this location – they all said it’s necessary for those reasons.
It’s not true, and we’re tired of having to pay for it.
Al Jazeera: Were you surprised by how some organisations responded to the protests?
Archambault: We never planned for what had happened, but if something is not right, you should be allowed to speak up. And when we did, we were met with force.
That brought more awareness about our issue, and that grew into something we never anticipated.
Tribes from all across the US, people from all over the world, came to support us.
Activists from the Black Lives Matter travelled to Standing Rock to say what the US was doing was not right.
There were relationships that were created during the protests, and we look to taking them forward.
Al Jazeera: What’s different between the Trump and Obama administrations? Did they treat your community differently?
Archambault: There’s a big difference between President Obama’s administration and that of Trump.
It took a long time to get the Obama administration to listen to us, and they finally did. But of course, they could have done so much more.
If they took the time to listen, they would have understood why there’s such resistance from indigenous communities.
The Trump administration, however, is not even interested in listening. Since the election, it’s clear; they’re only interested in exploiting us. He’s the new face of exploitation.
Our country has a long history, a more than 200-year-old policy of exploiting Native American people, and under Trump, we’ll continue to see the government infringe upon the rights of Native American people.
I have never looked at anything along party lines, and in my former capacity as tribal chairman, I tried to establish relationships, regardless of which party was in power.
But there’s one thing about really worrying about Trump, and that’s he’ll never make a deal if you don’t have a relationship with him.
And I know he’s not willing to enter into a relationship with tribes, unless there’s an opportunity to exploit.
Looking at things from a tribes’ perspective, for over a hundred years this system has never been favourable to us, and it will continue to worsen.
Al Jazeera: So are you saying the US, capitalism can’t accommodate Native American people?
Archambault: Yes and no.
Our actions demonstrated that corporations can no longer do what they want. We showed them that we’re still here.
Big corporations are now having to be mindful of the areas they’re looking to exploit, or destroy or develop,
Not only that, policies and regulations within the federal government have forced them to act more cautiously.
So it may seem that nothing has or will change, but there is hope.
I have to hope.
Al Jazeera: What do you make of white supremacists like Richard Spencer who suggest the US should become a ‘safe space’ for white people?
Archambault: Everybody is different, and everybody has their own fight.
I know who I am, and I know what’s important to me, and I’m never going to be bothered by these people and their points of view.
All I need to do is make sure that our children have a future.
There are more people aware that this type of thinking, white supremacy, racism, is wrong, than those that support it.
So, I don’t think this idea is going to overrun the US. Actually, there’s going to be a big push against that mentality. So, I’m not I’m not worried about them at all.
Al Jazeera: How does your movement fit into the larger social and economic struggles of working-class Americans?
Archambault: It doesn’t.
Our purpose is different. We have a long history that nobody really understands.
For over 200 years, the dominant society has done so many wrongs to us, and it’s something they continue to do.
So it’s different. It’s a whole different movement for us.
For us to take what we’re standing for, and blend it across several different movements, we can’t afford to do that.
The essence of our cause will be lost, and it won’t be heard. So we have to stay true to what we’re about. What we’re standing up for. That’s important for us going forward.
Al Jazeera: What are the biggest problems Native American communities are facing?
Archambault: Our communities are facing a series of problems. We have a high poverty rate, a high unemployment rate, we have a lot of people abusing substances.
Al Jazeera: What’s the next big fight for Native American tribes?
Archambault: What our nation has done to indigenous peoples, to Native American tribes for the past two centuries is simply unjust.
Everyone seems to think the US is this great developed nation, but they forget off the backs of who was this country built?
So when protesters came out in support of Standing Rock, it brought awareness to the struggles we have endured for centuries. And the struggles are far from over.
They’ll only continue until this nation, and the big corporations, decide to stop infringing on our rights and our people.
So, regardless of what happened at standing Rock, when it happened, or why. Something had to happen. It was inevitable.
It just so happened to take place at Standing Rock, but I understand that there are many fights that indigenous people are up against and there will be more battles ahead under the Trump administration.
But there are lessons we took away at Standing Rock, and we will pass these on as we continue this [unequal] relationship between us and the dominant society.
What’s certain is we can no longer allow this country to treat us this way.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos