North Dakota prosecutors have agreed to drop felony charges against a Native American activist, ending one of the last high-profile criminal cases remaining from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016-2017.
Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and former Democratic candidate for Congress, faced up to six years in prison after his arrest for alleged criminal trespass and inciting a riot near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in February 2017.
Under terms of a plea bargain awaiting formal approval by a judge, Iron Eyes agreed not to violate any criminal law for 360 days in exchange for the state reducing all charges to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He will serve no jail time and is not at risk of losing his license to practice law.
Defense lawyers called it a major victory both for their client and all the “water protectors” – the name given to participants in a number of demonstrations claiming a $3.8 billion oil pipeline running underground for more than 1,100 miles posed a threat to both tribal water supplies and sacred burial grounds.
Iron Eyes and 73 other water protectors were arrested after erecting seven tee-pees and lighting a small ceremonial fire to perform what court documents call a “traditional Lakota religious ceremony” on disputed land.
Tribal members locked arms in a circle around the fire in “a traditional non-violent demonstration of their will to remain on the site and ‘not be moved’ from performing their mission” to hold the sacred rite.
Morton County officials arrested the protestors for trespassing on land legally owned by the Dakota Access Pipeline Corporation or Energy Transfer Partners Corporation. Protesters said they were peacefully assembling on land they believe rightfully belongs to American Indians under old treaties.
The next day authorities upped the charges against Iron Eyes, whom officers identified as the leader, to felonies. Iron Eyes claimed he had no authority to organize the other protestors and surmised that he was singled out because of videos he posted on social media encouraging people to attend and spread the word, including to mass media.
In addition to violating their religious liberty, the protestors claimed that TigerSwan, a private military-style security company hired by Dakota Access, racially profiled them as “religiously driven, indigenous jihadist terrorists.”
Iron Eyes, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for North Dakota’s lone seat in the House of Representatives in 2016, said it is impossible for Native people to trespass on treaty land and denied that he ever started a riot.
“I and the water protectors are not terrorists,” he said in a press release. “We and the U.S. veterans who stood with us to protect Mother Earth are the true patriots.”
The pipeline, temporarily halted by President Obama but reauthorized by President Trump, was completed in April 2017 and became operational the following June.
The plea deal calls for Iron Eyes to serve one year of probation and pay $1,850 in fines and fees.
“Now I can be with my family and continue defending the sovereignty of my people,” he said. “This will allow me to keep working nonstop to protect First Amendment, human and Native rights.”