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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

An Indigenous-led advocacy organization is asking the South Dakota county official in charge of prosecution against the Black Hills treaty defenders jailed in July to drop all charges.

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, and others hand-delivered petitions to Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo on Friday, not long after Tilsen appeared in court on related charges. One petition is asking for all charges against the Black Hills land defenders to be thrown out, and a second petition is for charges against Tilsen to be dropped.

The petitions were started on Aug. 15, and each had more than 14,000 digital signatures as of Friday.

A third petition, urging the closure of Mount Rushmore and the return of all public lands in the Black Hills to Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, has 4,400 signatures. The petition is addressed to Interior Secretary David Bernhart and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo. Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, is the vice chair of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources and chair of the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public lands.

(Related article: Black Hills treaty defender faces felony charges)

Tilsen and dozens of other treaty defenders protested President Donald Trump’s July 3 visit to Mount Rushmore, which was part of a Fourth of July celebration. They gathered on a highway leading to the monument, using vans to block traffic for nearly three hours.

Twenty treaty defenders, including Tilsen, were arrested and charged with misdemeanors. Tilsen was the only one to be charged with felonies, for allegedly grabbing a shield from an officer before returning it 15 minutes later.

Before the planned protest, the nonprofit set up the Black Hills Legal Defense Fund, and thousands of dollars have since been donated.

Tilsen is facing three felony charges and up to 15 years in prison.

On Friday, Tilsen had a preliminary hearing and held multiple news conferences before and after outside the Pennington County Courthouse in Rapid City. The NDN Collective office is within walking distance of the courthouse.

Tilsen declined to discuss details of the case. However, he did say he will not accept a plea deal if offered and plans to go to a jury trial. He said the charges are “unfounded.”

“In a preliminary hearing you only get to hear one side, and the bar is really low to determine probable cause,” Tilsen said in a statement. “All that was determined in today’s hearing is that this case will go to trial, which we expected. I continue to stand strong alongside the other Land Defenders, and as our cases progress we will continue to fight to get our #LandBack and tear down the system of white supremacy and racism in the process.”

Tilsen may know as soon as next week of his next court date. Former U.S. Attorney Brendan V. Johnson is representing Tilsen.

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“It is an honor to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nick in this case,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to presenting our side of the story.”

NDN Collective hosted a march to the courthouse and solidarity prayer on Friday. The nonprofit also livestreamed on social media the news conferences, the march and the brief outdoor meeting with Vargo to drop off petitions. The video showed around a dozen people with Tilsen.

Tilsen’s father, Mark Tilsen, shared a brief exchange with Vargo outside Vargo’s office as he handed over the petitions.

Mark Tilsen drops off petitions to Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo on Aug. 21, 2020. The petitions are related to the charges against the Black Hills treaty defenders, which include Tilsen's son, Nick. (Photo via NDN Collective Facebook video)

“As his father, for our government to spend money to try to imprison community leaders like this, it’s a real crime. The outrage that will come forward in the community, and the division that this will create is not going to solve anything. These are community builders. These are land defenders, the kind of young people we need in our community.”

Vargo told Mark Tilsen that he can’t talk publicly about the charges and said he’d review the petitions.

“I will certainly take this seriously, and I will review these petitions and other outreach we have received,” Vargo said.

(Related article: Treaty defenders block road leading to Mount Rushmore)

In a strongly worded opinion piece in Newsweek published Friday, Nick Tilsen said when "we fight, we win."

"At the end of the day, attempts by the U.S. government to extinguish voices that stand up against injustice are dangerous for every single person living here," he said.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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