UPDATE: In the wake of President Donald Trump signing executive orders regarding the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, we are republishing this interview with Neil Young that took place shortly after the election.
As temperatures continued to descend farther below the freezing point at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota near the end of November, Neil Young and his girlfriend, Daryl Hannah, posted a long message on Facebook urging President Barack Obama to side with the protesters and halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“We are calling upon you, President Barack Obama, to step in and end the violence against the peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock immediately,” Young and Hannah wrote at the time. The couple also asked readers to continue to show up and increase the size of the movement.
At the time, police had been firing rubber bullets and water cannons at the peaceful protesters, largely made up of various Native American tribes asserting that the pipeline would affect their clean water supply.
Earlier that month, on his 71st birthday, Young and Hannah visited Standing Rock, and the musician played songs on his guitar as he traversed the large encampment. In September, Young released a protest song, “Indian Givers,” about the pipeline. That song now appears on his new album, “Peace Trail,” which The Huffington Post was able to speak with Young about in a phone conversation.
Almost the entirety of the conversation, which took place Dec. 7, focused on Standing Rock, as the new album aims to bring attention to oppressed people and this specific plight.
“The whole record isn’t all about that,” explained Young. “But when you talk about something like that, there’s a lot to talk about.”
Earlier this month, the federal government finally sided with the protesters and halted the continued construction of the pipeline. It remains unclear, however, if the companies behind the pipeline will find another way to proceed. Young wants to make sure we don’t shift our attention away from Standing Rock.
“This issue, which is a lot of things at once, is converging in a way that’s much bigger than it looks like even at this time,” said Young on the phone. “I’m not sure that the crowd at Standing Rock is not going to grow much bigger.”
In the Facebook post in November, Young and Hannah claimed, “We will be going back to support the water protectors again.”
Here is a portion of Young’s views on Standing Rock:
(Passage has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity).
[The builders behind the Dakota Access Pipeline are] in kind of a bind because all of their investors are now on the hook for all of the money they poured in to it. They didn’t have everything together. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t talk to the indigenous people before they started doing this. And I even heard one of the representatives talking, saying that they don’t think they can do it any other way because they put so much money into this and if they had to [build] somewhere else, they’d have to make all these deals and get permissions from all the owners of the land.
So what they’re saying is, “Well we didn’t have to get permission from the Indians because we don’t respect the Indians. So we didn’t even bother to get the Native Americans to give permission.” They went ahead and did it anyway.
And their point is, “We’ve already put so much energy and money into this and we’d have to actually get permission if we did it somewhere else.” I mean, that point speaks for itself.
What isn’t being said loud enough is ― Where is the United States Government? Where is President Obama? How can people believe in a government that doesn’t enforce its own decisions? They’ve never stopped drilling. And that’s a very important, it’s worth more than one line on some TV show while they’re talking about how great and historic Standing Rock is.
The thing is that no matter what the president says, no matter what the army corps of engineers says, no matter what any of our government members say, the corporate powers in this country have decided to ignore them completely. So that’s the big point right now and that’s why nobody is going anywhere.
That’s why it’s so much bigger, because it’s corporations. And the government should be going head to head with their goals completely opposite and their stated positions completely opposite.
Although I’m not recommending that they use water cannons to drench the [pipeline] workers in sub-freezing temperatures like they did with the Native Americans who were praying.
Now we have corporations saying they won’t do what the President of the United States and the U.S. army is telling them to do. I think it’s time for the U.S. Army and the President of the United States to go up there and enforce the rule of law and represent Americans ― represent anybody who feels the same as Americans.
Young has long been known for his ability to achieve poignancy when going off-the-cuff. His recording process tends to be comparatively threadbare, with Young trying to record quickly and efficiently to not get bogged down in details and lose momentum.
“I like to sing the song and record it,” Young said on the phone about his recording process. “So if I sing it right, it’s over, we’re done. So that’s why it doesn’t take very long. And when you’re singing a song like these songs, you can’t be over-dubbing the vocals and getting everything pitch-perfect all the time. I just don’t have time for that. That’s not what I’m selling.”
Speaking specifically of “Peace Trail,” Young said, “It was done with a lot of focus ― it was done quickly ― but it was done quickly because we didn’t screw around.” The musician just released another album, “Earth,” earlier this year.
Young has long been a believer of capturing the mysterious wonder of a moment. At a Grammy Honors Ceremony in 2014, accepting the President’s Merit Award, Young told the crowd about the time he recorded a classic song of his ― “Like a Hurricane" -- very quickly. “The idea is, for me, to try to get magic,” Young said at the ceremony. “Who knows where the hell it’s coming from? I don’t – so please record.”
This ethos seems to carry over to his beliefs about Standing Rock. There can be a moment ― a historic moment ― but we clearly have to act right now.
“This movement is growing,” said Young on the phone. “This is the people speaking.”
Watch Young’s video for “Indian Givers:”