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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

The leader of an Indigenous-led advocacy organization, who spent the holiday weekend in jail after defending his people’s unceded territory in the Black Hills, called the serious charges he’s facing “bullshit.”

Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, president and CEO of NDN Collective, is charged with multiple offenses, including two felonies, related to the July 3 Mount Rushmore protest that ended with 20 treaty defenders — 19 adults and one juvenile — in jail, according to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. One counter protester was also jailed, and additional arrests may happen as video is being reviewed along with additional interviews, according to the sheriff’s office.

“How could it be possible that these things are breaking the law when all I was doing was standing with my people on my own land that was rightfully ours in the first place?” Tilsen said. “We were greeted with aggression, we were greeted with racism, and we were greeted by excessive force by these police officers.”

He called the justice system a “construct of White supremacy.”

Tilsen was charged in Monday’s court appearance in Rapid City, South Dakota, with second-degree robbery, simple assault on a police officer and three other minor charges. He could face a maximum of 13 years in jail if convicted. Tilsen’s bond was set at $2,000, according to his lawyer Bruce Ellison, who spoke with journalist Lorenzo Serna on Facebook live after the court hearing.

Nick Tilsen's lawyer, Bruce Ellison. (Screen grab photo via Facebook)

Ellison said the two felony charges are for allegedly taking a shield from a South Dakota National Guard member. The shield was returned 15 minutes later, he added. Ellison said Tilsen’s bond should have been set Friday, but the judge refused to issue it then. 

Tilsen held a news conference shortly after being released from jail around 3 p.m. MDT Monday. Speaking from his NDN Collective office, Tilsen said Friday’s demonstration was a success.

“We made it clear that the president of the United States wasn’t welcome in our territory without the prior consent of our people and our tribal leaders,” he said.

Of the treaty defenders taken into custody Friday, all but Tilsen were released either that night or Saturday, according to NDN Collective’s Sarah Sunshine Manning. The nonprofit set up the Black Hills Legal Defense Fund, and 35,000 people had donated as of Monday, Manning said.

Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo confirmed the charges against Tilsen but declined to share details. His office initially asked the judge for a $2,500 bond and an ankle bracelet restricting Tilsen from leaving the county. The NDN Collective is based in Rapid City, and Tilsen lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Oglala Lakota County. 

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

More than 100 treaty defenders gathered on a highway leading to Mount Rushmore ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to the monument. About 15 people were arrested for blocking the road and missing a law enforcement-imposed deadline to leave, according to the Associated Press.

The Black Hills are part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the country’s highest court ordered compensation in the millions of dollars to the Lakota for their illegal seizure, an offer the Lakota have refused for decades. They instead want the Black Hills returned to tribal authority.

A call on Monday to the South Dakota National Guard wasn’t returned. It’s unclear which law enforcement departments responded to Mount Rushmore.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Nation, shared an image of Tilsen’s quote in her Instagram stories that called Mount Rushmore a “symbol of White supremacy of structural racism that's still alive and well in society today.” NDN Collective originally posted the image on July 2.

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On Monday, Minnesota House Republicans posted a screen grab of Flanagan’s post with the words “OUTRAGEOUS.”

Tilsen’s father, Mark Tilsen, was outside the courthouse and thanked everyone for their support. He also spoke with Serna.

“People are really rising up and saying it’s time to put an end to this long historical, racist system that we have, and that requires all of us to be open-minded and to be willing to learn,” Mark Tilsen said. “I’m hoping the people in South Dakota have gotten to that point.”

Tilsen was also charged with unlawful assembly, standing on the highway with intent to stop traffic and failure to vacate, all misdemeanor charges.

VIDEO: Sarah Sunshine Manning, Director of Communications at NDN Collective, gives Indian Country Today an update on the standoff and what may happen next.

The Pennington County Sheriff's Office released a statement Monday saying Sheriff Kevin Thom was contacted by a local attorney, on behalf of the organizers, to talk about the “planned protest in Keystone.” The attorney assured the sheriff it would be a peaceful protest, according to the statement. There were ground rules set and agreed upon so the treaty defenders could exercise their First Amendment rights.

“That location was approximately 100 to 200 yards north of the intersection of Highway 244 and Iron Mountain Road,” the statement read. “Although some may lay in the road and refuse to move, which they understood could result in an arrest, the resistance would be passive.”

“Even though we negotiated with the group in good faith, they made the decision not to honor their word,” Thom said. “The result was a protest that was no longer peaceful.”

The following individuals face charges (M1 = Class 1 misdemeanor, M2 = Class 2 misdemeanor, F4 = Class 4 Felony) in the Black Hills event, according to Pennington County Sheriff's Office:

  • Samantha Pond, 31, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Katie Kloth, 33, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Juliana BrownEyes, 30, Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Nataanii Means, 29, from Porcupine, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Tonia Stands, 42, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Stephanie Roubideaux, 49, from Shakopee, Minnesota - Disorderly Conduct (M2)
  • Rene Gottsch, 37, from Elk Horn, Nevada - Simple Assault (M1)
  • Cynthia Cochran, 60, From Torrington, Wyoming - Standing on Highway w/ Intent to Impede/Stop Traffic (M1), Failure to Vacate/Ordered to Leave (M1), Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Derek Smith, 32, from Dickinson, North Dakota - Failure to Vacate/Ordered to Leave (M1), Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Sharaf Shafai, 21, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Rory Wakemup, 43, from St. Paul, Minnesota - Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Dana Christensen, 39, from Omaha, Nebraska - Failure to Vacate/Ordered to Leave (M1), Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Nicholas Tilsen, 38, from Porcupine, South Dakota - Robbery in the 2nd Degree (F4), Standing on Highway with Intent to Impede/Stop Traffic, Failure to Vacate/Ordered to Leave (M1), Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Miranda Auer, 25, from Custer, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M1)
  • Ksenia Veropaeva, 34, Staten Island, New York - Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Krystal TwoBulls, 35, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Failure to Vacate/Ordered to Leave (M1), Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Andrew Huot, 19, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct (M1), Failure to vacate (M1)
  • Malik Osborne, 20, from Rapid City, South Dakota - Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • Tyler Wade, 31, from Laguna, New Mexico - Disorderly Conduct-Unlawful Assembly (M1)
  • George Corbett, 56, from Buckeye, Arizona (counter protester also arrested) - Disorderly Conduct (M1)
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Correction: This story has been corrected to show that there were 20 treaty defenders and one counter protester arrested. 

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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