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On August 28, a victory in the “war of the NoDAPL narrative” occurred when a judge agreed to release 12 previously sealed depositions of law enforcement officers in the criminal case against Standing Rock water protector, attorney and Lakota People’s Law Project member Chase Iron Eyes.

Chase Iron Eyes stands in front of an image of Sitting Bull.

Chase Iron Eyes stands in front of an image of Sitting Bull.

Iron Eyes pleaded guilty in 2018 to disorderly conduct for his role in a February 1, 2017 direct action against the Dakota Access Pipeline for which he was originally charged with criminal trespass and inciting a riot. As part of that plea deal, Judge Lee Christofferson agreed to forgo imposing a sentence on Iron Eyes if he refrained from any further criminal activity for one year, which he did.

At the August 28 hearing, Judge Christofferson not only followed through with his promise not to impose a sentence, but he also agreed to set aside the restraining order that prevented 12 depositions of law enforcement officers taken by Iron Eyes’ attorneys from being made available to the public. Morton County prosecutors had requested those depositions be sealed for fear they might be misused in lawsuits filed by other water protectors against police.

“The case has now been dismissed,” Daniel Sheehan, an attorney for Iron Eyes, stated after the hearing. “The judge has ordered that it is effectively dismissed as of today and he has unsealed all the record, making it available for anyone to see.”

Depositions may show TigerSwan connection

Iron Eyes and his defense contends Morton County Sheriffs, Bismarck Police and other law enforcement agencies were fed daily intelligence reports on the activities of water protectors by a private security firm called TigerSwan. These reports were based on sophisticated surveillance and infiltration of the water protectors by TigerSwan operatives.

Internal TigerSwan documents leaked to the online news publication The Intercept show how the reports portrayed the peaceful water protectors as terrorists and jihadists and included racist comments. Iron Eyes said he feels this unfair comparison caused law enforcement to escalate its response resulting in the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and militarized police.

“They were literally doing these things they called ‘Daily Battle Orders,’” Iron Eyes told Indian Country Today. “You could see the sophistication levels change overnight when TigerSwan came on the scene.”

Energy Transfer Partners, the developers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, hired TigerSwan to protect pipeline equipment, workers, material and “the reputation of DAPL and its subcontractors,” according to TigerSwan documents. The company was previously a U.S. military defense contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Articles in The Intercept state TigerSwan exaggerated its descriptions of the water protectors so Energy Transfer Partners would continue employing them. Their surveillance had identified Iron Eyes as an important leader, so on February 1, 2017 when the water protectors established a new camp outside the Standing Rock Reservation boundaries, which the company considered trespassing, he was the one targeted as most responsible.

Last Child’s Camp, last stand of the water protectors

By January 2017, many of the water protectors at Standing Rock had already gone home after months of enduring brutal law enforcement confrontations and bitter North Dakota winter conditions. The Oceti Sakowin Camp had closed and elders had put out the camp’s fire. Those who remained started a new fire and renamed the camp Oceti Oyate, The People’s Camp.

Many of those who stayed decided to perform a special ceremony, which was officiated by leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in particular, the tribal president Julian Bear Runner. After this ceremony, they decided to create a new camp at a different location.

“There was a ceremony having to do with Crazy Horse,” Iron Eyes said, “and when I say a ceremony I mean, I guess a divination. There was a gathering and there was a protocol at which some things concerning Crazy Horse had to be brought into that realm of ceremonial protocol. All I’ll say is based on that, we received instructions to go ahead and construct the camp. The way that it was done there were certain ceremonial foods, plants and offerings and certain meats. We were told a certain way to do it, so we did it. It’s even called Last Child’s Camp because the Last Child Society is the only warrior society that Crazy Horse was ever known to have belonged to and it was one that he created.”

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The water protectors waited nearly three weeks for a fog to come before they could erect the camp on a hill to the west of the Oceti Oyate Camp. The fog would be a sign, they were told, that the time was right to establish the new camp. This new location was technically outside the Standing Rock Reservation boundaries, but still on land inside the boundaries of the Great Sioux Nation of Lakotas, Dakotas, and Nakotas as defined by the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1862 and 1868.

This land had been sold to Energy Transfer Partners, but according to the Sioux Nation, it still belonged to them by right of treaty, “the supreme law of the land” as specified in the U.S. constitution.

During the weeks in which they waited for the sign, word came that newly elected President Trump had signed an executive order allowing construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. A week later, the sign came. On January 31, right around midnight, just as that day ended, the fog rolled in.

The water protectors worked in the early morning hours of February 1 setting up seven tipis, one for each of the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation, and ceremonially lit a new fire. Last Child’s Camp, named after the original members of Crazy Horse’s warrior society, all of whom were the youngest sons of their respective families, was established.

Water Protectors at Last Child’s Camp sing as they wait for a confrontation with law enforcement on February 1, 2017

The new warriors looked across the snow-covered ground at the police and private security officers in the distance. They say they knew it wouldn’t be long before those soldiers came. They sang songs and waited.

The last stand

“First of all it was very cold,” Iron Eyes said, “and we all stood in a circle and held each other’s arms. We weren’t resisting, but they were going to have to arrest us and it was a way for us just to show that ‘we are going to stand strong even though we know that you’re going to arrest us. We’re not resisting. We’re right here. We’re not being aggressive, but we’re not letting go. This is the last thing that we have. And we were in circles, concentric circles.”

The officers in battle armor closed in and began the long process of disentangling the water protectors and binding their hands behind them with zip ties. The water protectors did not fight back. All 76 of them were loaded onto buses and taken to Fort Rice, an old decommissioned military base a few miles north that the police and private security officers were using as a staging and bivouac location during the standoff. Iron Eyes recalls seeing the old fort and feeling what his ancestors must have felt.

“It was just stacked with armaments and gear and so forth,” Iron Eyes remembers. “It was a poignant moment for me as I realized that the Indian Wars have not ended.”

In spite of the ordeal, Iron Eyes recalled how they all felt satisfaction and peace for challenging the colonial oppression of our country, just as their ancestors had.

“Anyhow, that’s what I remember about being arrested that day,” he said, “how tight they zip-tied me and the solidarity that even though everybody was zip-tied horribly tight and we were cold on the busses, people were still smiling and still able to know that we had stood that day and we had joined everybody in a long legacy of pursuing liberation and pursuing a better way.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project has agreed to share the depositions released by Judge Christofferson with Indian Country Today as they become available.

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Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and was raised in Seattle, where he now resides.