FARGO-Those who know him well still call David Archambault II Little Dave to distinguish him from his father. But Little Dave, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, now has a big platform as a leading opponent of the now-stalled Dakota Access Pipeline.
Just last week, Archambault participated in a panel discussion in West Hollywood, joined by Jane Fonda and Robert Kennedy, Jr., to talk about opposition to the pipeline, which has become an international news story.
Last fall Archambault addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, to rouse international opposition to the project, its progress frozen by the lack of a permit to cross beneath the Missouri River just upstream of Standing Rock.
It's a surprising twist of fate for a man who once, in his words, "bombed out" of Bismarck State College and owns the Pit Stop convenience store in Cannon Ball. Then again, say those close to him, it's not surprising at all, given Archambault's dedication to helping others and serving his community.
"It's in his blood, it's in his nature to help others," said Leigh Jeanotte, Archambault's uncle. "He just has a huge heart. If there's a tragedy, he's always there to help."
Cannon Ball, a village of 875 people located at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers, has become the epicenter of opposition to the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cross upstream nearby, threatening Standing Rock's drinking water supply.
Although the pipeline's route would cross the river outside the reservation boundary, as established in 1889, the path lies within ancestral territory once promised to the Standing Rock Sioux under treaties.
Treaty rights and tribal sovereignty have been at the core of Archambault's argument against the legality and legitimacy of the pipeline, a point he made clear at the start of a meeting in 2014 with representatives of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access.
"And just before you get started on the project, I want you to know and understand we recognize our treaty boundaries, our Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868, which encampasses North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota," Archambault said, according to a transcript of the meeting from a recording that has been made public. Archambault went on to say the tribe had been on record opposing any pipeline within the treaty boundaries. "This is something the tribe does not wish."
But the pipeline company went ahead with its plans, having earlier rerouted its path to avoid crossing upstream of Bismarck-Mandan. Energy Transfer Partners readily won regulatory permits for the project in North Dakota-except for an easement to cross the river, which President Barack Obama's administration has refused to grant.
The company was so confident that it went ahead and built the pipeline along its intended route, stopping on both sides of the Missouri, a gap in the $3.8 billion project it has been unable to close.
So far, at least, Little Dave and his legion of followers have beaten Big Oil.
'True to himself'
Dave Archambault's path to Cannon Ball followed a winding road. He was born in Denver and spent his early childhood living on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
There he spent a lot of time with a grandfather and spent his free time learning to hunt and fish. He cut wood, helped tend the family garden, and accompanied his grandfather to scrounge for copper and aluminum from dumps. He grew up in a family of eight children.
His life changed when Big Dave moved the family to Bismarck, where his father took a position with United Tribes Technical College. Archambault found adjusting to junior high in a small city outside a reservation difficult.
With a friend, he took off, headed for Pine Ridge, but didn't get far before they were picked up by a state patrol officer and brought home. During 7th and 8th grade he attended the Circle of Nations School in Wahpeton, an off-reservation boarding school for American Indian children, and completed his secondary education in Fort Yates, N.D.
After two years, Archambault left Bismarck State College, where he played basketball, and took a job driving a school bus at Standing Rock while he contemplated his future.
At his father's suggestion, he studied business, earning a bachelor's degree from North Dakota State University and a master's degree in management from the University of Mary. Archambault has an "entrepreneurial spirit," Jeanotte said. For instance, he has built a prototype "minihome," scarcely more than a one-room dwelling, to provide an affordable housing option. He saw running the convenience store as a way to provide access to food, gas and convenience items for his remote community, he added.
Archambault, whose Lakota name is Tokala Ohitika, Brave Fox, has embraced traditional Lakota culture and spirituality. In his talks against the pipeline, he often talks about the importance of prayer. "The only thing that keeps me going is prayer and I have to have faith that my prayers are being heard," Archambault said in a video released by the tribe.
During the panel discussion in West Hollywood, which was streamed online, he said he at first felt daunted taking on a corporation worth billions of dollars. "We don't have a fighting chance," Archambault said, recalling a conversation with a tribal elder. "There's no way we can defeat this."
But the elder told Archambault not to underestimate the power of prayer. "With prayer we can accomplish a lot," he told the panel discussion audience. "With unity we can accomplish a lot."
Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Commission on Indian Affairs, the state's liaison with the tribes, is a Standing Rock member who grew up with Archambault.
Archambault's embrace of traditional faith is integral to his leadership, Davis said. "It's led him to be the leader he is for our tribe. He really highly values his traditional ways. He values that more than anything, in my opinion."
In meetings with officials from Morton County and the state, Archambault asks to start with a prayer, offered by a spiritual adviser, in Lakota and English.
In those meetings, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said, Archambault is polite but rigid in his assertion of treaty rights and opposition to the pipeline's route across the Missouri.
"That cannot be resolved by the county," the sheriff said, referring to the tribe's treaty grievances. "That's a federal government issue."
Although the meetings so far have made little headway, the parties are building a relationship, Kirchmeier said. "It's a professional and cordial relationship and we can definitely sit down and talk about the ongoing issues," he added. "We both want to see that resolved. He's very soft-spoken and to the point."
Archambault, who was not available for an interview for this story, has described himself as "just a common person." Friends describe him as personable and easygoing, but purposeful. Both Davis and Jeanotte said he is devoted to his family, including his wife and two children. He has a passion for horses, which he raises on family land near Cannon Ball, including Nokota horses, a mustang breed from the North Dakota Badlands with ancestry includes ponies surrendered by Sitting Bull and his followers.
"I'll say this, he's true to himself," said Davis, a friend since boyhood. "He believes what he believes in."
'We've already won'
Dave Archambault and those opposing Dakota Access Pipeline have succeeded in controlling the storyline since the start of the protests, in the view of Mark Trahant, a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota and a member of Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.
In August, as the camp's numbers mushroomed and tensions escalated, Archambault was arrested for disorderly conduct in a confrontation with police. Archambault's arrest displayed his dedication, and helped propel the story, Trahant said.
"It set the tone for the whole narrative," he added. "His leadership has just been exceptional."
But then Archambault stepped back and let others occupy the spotlight, focusing on organizational matters, said Trahant, who blogs about Native American issues and has visited the camp, where he briefly met Archambault.
"His patience, I think is extraordinary," he added. "He really stepped up as a leader that is equivalent to any governor."
One of Archambault's greatest strengths, Trahant said, has been his effectiveness as a spokesman for his cause. "I think he's become media savvy. He really learned to hone his message and stick to it."
Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist from Minnesota's White Earth Reservation, is a longtime environmental activist, and a veteran pipeline protester. She has participated in the protests against Dakota Access and has met Archambault and seen him on the front lines.
"He's a very remarkable man," she said. "It's a very difficult time for him." Standing Rock faces many challenges apart from the pipeline threat, including chronic high poverty and unemployment.
Yet the tribe has hosted protesters as guests, stepping in after the state withdrew portable bathrooms and drinking water last summer, LaDuke said. "Chairman Archambault had to take care of us and he had to take care of his people."
Trahant predicts the next stage of the opposition to the pipeline will play out largely in courtrooms. The tribe is waging a legal challenge to try to block the pipeline's river crossing.
Donald Trump, who becomes president Jan. 20, has said he supports the Dakota Access Pipeline, which could lead to a reversal of the Obama administration's easement denial. Archambault, who met with Obama when he visited Standing Rock several years ago, has asked to meet with Trump. Since the Dec. 5 federal decision to deny the easement, he has also asked protesters who are still camping near the proposed river crossing site to leave. Despite his urging, hundreds of protesters remain.
"The way I look at it we've already won," Archambault told the West Hollywood audience last week.
The fierce opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by an unprecedented coalition of more than 300 tribes, has put energy companies on notice that their infrastructure projects will face intense opposition if they threaten ancestral or tribal lands, he said.
Still, as long as society remains addicted to fossil fuels, there will be more pipelines, the chairman said. And they now will face Native American nations that are newly emboldened and determined to be heard.
"They're going to have to think twice," he added, "because of what's happened."