Beyond Standing Rock: Seeking Solutions and Building Awareness at Tribal Colleges

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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Photo courtesy of Rob Wilson Photography @RobWilsonFoto,

People around the world watched scenes unfold at Standing Rock last year as Indigenous people and their allies protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Sometimes the news was horrific: police using water hoses and tear gas against protesters. And sometimes it was wondrous: people taking meals and praying together, veterans lining up to protect protesters from violence, and buffalo herds thundering across the grasslands.

One of the men at the center of all of this has been Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault II. Interviewed time and again on radio and television, Archambault called for prayer and peace, and explained the intricacies of federal permits, court motions, and environmental studies. Speaking one day after the federal government released its notice of intent to begin work on more comprehensive environmental studies on the pipeline’s impacts—and the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration—Archambault explained that the fight against the pipeline has overwhelmed the tribe, yet also has brought people together. “I can honestly say that this tribal council has never been more cohesive than it is today,” he said. “With unity, there are a lot of things we can address. We understand that this movement is something that has gone beyond Standing Rock.”

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the tribal college movement, that Archambault has a long history with tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). His father was president of Sitting Bull College when it was still called Standing Rock Community College. Archambault graduated from the college and then earned his bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University and master’s degrees from the University of Mary in Bismarck. After that, he worked as Sitting Bull College’s tribal business center administrator.


“We have to take our behavior and our actions to another level and away from this archaic industry that continues to harm Mother Earth,” states Standing Rock chairman Dave Archambault II. Photo by Dennis Neumann

Archambault also worked at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) as the workforce development director of the Tribal College Consortium for Developing Montana and North Dakota Workforce project, also known as DeMaND, which took off in 2011, just as the Bakken oil field boom was starting to cause workforce shortages in the region. DeMaND was a U.S. Department of Labor-funded program focused at four TCUs: UTTC, Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Fork Peck Community College, and Aaniiih Nakoda College. The four-year, $18.9-million program, which ran from 2011–2015, was designed to help the TCUs build capacity and create training programs to prepare students for entry into the workforce, including the burgeoning energy development and infrastructure-building jobs in the Bakken.

Archambault sees how the water protectors movement that sought to halt the DAPL and the tribal college movement are aligned. “Today, what I see is that tribal colleges can be a valuable resource to take this change that is needed in Indian Country into the future,” he observes. “There are different opportunities presenting themselves, and the colleges are the ones that will be there.” The change he’s talking about is the need to cut dependence on coal, oil, and gas. “When you look at this movement, and what has happened in recent months, it has helped open the world’s eyes that fossil fuel exploitation is an archaic industry— and we have to take this to another level,” he says. “We have to take our behavior and our actions to another level and away from this archaic industry that continues to harm Mother Earth.”

Tribal colleges and universities, which already connect culture and heritage to science and technology, can help lead the way to a better future. At TCUs, faculty and students can study problems and solutions, and also implement alternative power projects on campus and in their communities. “Our students are the ones who are going to bring this awareness out through their educational process,” Archambault says. “The world has presented tribal colleges an opportunity to continue the good work they’re doing— and expand it to include not only all of Indian Country, but the nation and the world.”

The protests at Standing Rock highlighted problems with the DAPL. But they’re part of a greater movement, says Archambault, to protect water and to protect the Earth. And, he adds, “Tribal colleges can help lead the way in this movement.”



“There are positions and jobs available, career jobs within the community that students with that training can get,” explains UTTC president Leander McDonald. Photo by Dennis Neumann

After the Parshall oil field was discovered in 2006, big changes came to North Dakota. From space, satellites captured nighttime images of oil fields that looked like cities; previously dark skies were suddenly flooded with methane flares from drill rigs. Pump jacks spread across the prairie and badlands, and roads were clogged with trucks.

When the Bakken boom was at its peak in 2012, about 40,000 people flooded into the state seeking jobs, says UTTC president Leander McDonald. At that time, he explains, people were working 80 to 100 hours a week, pulling in overtime that pushed many annual salaries to $100,000. The demand for workers, timed with the federal grant money, allowed UTTC to boost its own capacity and create training programs for commercial drivers’ licenses and heavy equipment operators, construction technology, electrical technology, geographic information system (GIS) technology, and welding. McDonald points out that the boom benefited UTTC and other tribal colleges in the region by allowing them to build up infrastructure at TCUs for workforce training—and by providing students with much-needed jobs.

But there were consequences too. “Through the DeMaND grant at United Tribes and other colleges, some of our students, as soon as they had a skill set that made them employable, industry would snatch them out from their education in order to work,” McDonald says. “For us, we were glad for the students that found employment, but at the same time, the student completion rates, or graduation rates, were going down.”

Currently, UTTC still offers programs in heavy equipment operation and welding, two of the initiatives created under DeMaND. And, says McDonald, they remain popular among students at UTTC, where there is a waiting list for those classes, and at the other TCUs with those same types of workforce programs. “Those skills are still necessary out there, where they’re still moving a lot of dirt, drilling oil rigs, and then tearing them down once they strike oil and put the wells in place,” he says.

At the same time, the boom has highlighted a need for environmental studies. “The tribes themselves receive money through the Environmental Protection Agency for air quality, water quality, and basic environmental protection,” McDonald explains. “There are positions and jobs available, career jobs within the community that students with that training can get.”

In 2016, UTTC expanded its Tribal Environmental Science and Research Department from a two-year to a four-year program because of such great interest in the program and its work. “The big question, not only for our students but also our faculty and the institution, that we think about all the time is the protection of our

Grandmother Earth,” says McDonald. “We’re supposed to be taking care of her, and what we do as a college—helping our students to reinforce that cultural learning in the classroom—is so important for tying the two together.”


Energy development on and near tribal lands has always been tricky—in large part because companies haven’t hesitated to exploit tribal resources without compensating communities or addressing the environmental or public health impacts of mines, drill rigs, and waste piles. It’s happened across the nation, but one of the most egregious examples occurred in the southwestern United States.

Half a century ago, the Hopi and Navajo tribal councils sold tens of thousands of acres of coal rights to a private company. The Black Mesa deal was brokered by a former U.S. attorney who represented the Hopi while secretly working for what was then called Peabody Western Coal. The strip mine split apart families and clans, pumped local groundwater supplies dry, and aggravated relations between the two tribes. As the company ripped up the earth and operated the mine and its slurry line, the two tribes had no say in how the mine or its associated coal-fired power plants were run.

Federal management and oversight of tribal natural resources hasn’t been much better. Holding tribal lands in trust, the U.S. Department of the Interior is legally responsible for maintaining lands and their resources for the benefit of tribes. In 2010, after the Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit, Congress approved a $3.4 billion class action settlement for the government’s mismanagement of Indian trust funds.

All told, the agency estimates there are nearly 20 million acres of tribal lands with the potential for energy development; about 2 million of those acres are already being developed. In recent decades, more tribes have tried to take, or regain, control of their natural resources, including coal, oil, and gas. But that comes with its own set of challenges, especially as the climate continues warming. Tribal communities understand the link between fossil fuel development, rising greenhouse gas emissions, and the warming planet. They are also among the first to be feeling the impacts of climate change at home.


“TCUs are needed now more than ever because we should be the places where we can model how to conduct these difficult
discussions in responsible and respectful ways,” states Haskell’s Daniel Wildcat.

Tribal nations need to have some difficult discussions, says Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee), a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Tribes in North Dakota have benefited economically from development in the Bakken oil fields, and so have tribes like the Navajo Nation in the San Juan Basin. But, he says, the development of fossil fuels comes at a high cost to communities, the environment, and the planet. “We have some carbon-rich tribal nations, and I am always going to respect their sovereignty about how those nations decide to develop those, or how those should be managed or used,” he says. “But I don’t think we should dance around it: These are difficult discussions that we need to have within and amongst ourselves.”

Wildcat believes that TCUs are the ideal place to have those difficult discussions. “Institutions like Haskell or TCUs are needed now more than ever because we should be the places where we can model how to conduct these difficult discussions in responsible and respectful ways,” he says. “To talk about how we can work on technological solutions to the problems we’re facing, and how we can be engaged in that forward-thinking about our nations, about our communities, about our families.”

Around the nation and the world there is a growing uncertainty about nearly everything, from politics to the economy to the fate of the planet, Wildcat says. On the one hand, it may seem like a very dark time. But Wildcat also sees opportunities for people to come together. “I believe we’ve reached the place where it might be possible for the leaders in these difficult discussions to be Indigenous people, around the world,” he maintains, citing a quote from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Wildcat goes on to explain, “We need different ideas, different worldviews, and Indigenous people hold those worldviews and those ideas. An elder told me a long time ago, ‘People always look to the elders, but we look to the eyes of our children to see our future.’” And when he looks to his students at Haskell, Wildcat feels hopeful. “They want to be engaged, and they want to be well-educated,” he says. “I’m not saying this is easy. They realize there are going to be incredible problems that they’re going to be inheriting. But they give me hope, and for those of us in the tribal college movement, that’s what it’s all about for us.”

Wildcat tells how students at Haskell, a nine-hour drive from Standing Rock, were moved by what has happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Some students visited the Oceti Sakowin camp there, and many organized bringing supplies to the water protectors. The pipeline protest has been a catalyst for many, he observes, to start thinking deeply about their future, and the future of life on the planet. “I’ve been really inspired by our students and the way they have responded to the Dakota Access Pipeline issue,” he says, adding that it affected the entire atmosphere on campus during the fall 2016 semester.

Many of his students wrestled with whether to stick with their classes for the semester or travel to be with the water protectors at Standing Rock. He saw that some who wanted to be at the Oceti Sakowin camp felt like they were making a sacrifice to pursue their education. They chose to stay, he says, because they could see the bigger picture. “I was having discussions with students who really were mature to realize, with the advice of their families and their elders, ‘Hey, I can be a part of the water protector, the land protector, the air protector movement here,’” he explains. “Students said, ‘I need to be here, I need to get that education, I need to become one of the future lawyers, future atmospheric scientists, future Indigenous leaders.’”

Archambault echoes that sentiment on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “You don’t need to be present in a place where a movement is happening,” the chairman asserts. And what might happen in the coming months is unclear. Oil prices are rising, and President Trump signed an executive order to expedite oil pipeline construction. “We always asked that this remain a peaceful and prayerful movement,” says Archambault. “If we can stay in unity, prayer and peace have more impact on the nation and the world— and you don’t have to be here to pray.” The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe never asked people to be present at the protest site, he explains. By praying in their own communities, Archambault says that tribal college students are building more awareness about what is important.

The work students do in their own communities—building awareness of fossil fuels and their impacts, studying to find solutions, raising their voices, and highlighting Indigenous perspectives— is important. To tribal college students, Archambault shares words of encouragement and hope: “Build awareness in your own communities about what is important to you as a person, as a family, as a community. All you have to do is just show your support in your way, believe the Creator is hearing it, and believe what you are praying for.”

 Laura Paskus a freelance environmental journalist and former editor of Tribal College Journal.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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