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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Attorneys for Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the Indigenous-led advocacy group NDN Collective, want to know why South Dakota deployed the National Guard against treaty defenders during a July 3 demonstration near Mount Rushmore.

Tilsen’s attorneys appeared via Zoom Friday in the 7th Judicial Circuit Court in Pennington County requesting the state provide them with information given to the National Guard prior to its actions toward treaty defenders.

Brendan Johnson and Bruce Ellison, Tilsen’s attorneys, also argued that the gathering should not be described in court as an “anti-Trump rally.”

Pictured: Land Defenders taking a stand in the Black Hills, in their ancestral homelands, on July 3 2020 at Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota. Behind the banner, Nick Tilsen is 3rd from right.

More than 100 treaty defenders blocked the highway leading to Mount Rushmore on July 3 ahead of President Donald Trump’s speech at the monument.

Law enforcement officers and members of the South Dakota Air and Army National Guard dressed in riot gear held shields and formed a line across the road, pushing up against the mostly peaceful demonstrators. Some treaty defenders did, however, engage in heated arguments with people driving to attend the Mount Rushmore rally.

Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, and about 15 others were arrested. 

Tilsen was eventually accused of a total of seven charges, including second-degree robbery, simple assault on two public officers and obstructing a public officer. The robbery and assault charges are felonies. Others who were arrested faced misdemeanors.

Pennington County prosecutors allege that Tilsen took a shield from an officer, resulting in the robbery charge.

“We’d like to know how the event morphed into a full deployment of the National Guard; we need to know what the state of emergency was that called for their deployment,“ said Ellison.

— Treaty defenders block road leading to Mount Rushmore
— Black Hills treaty defender faces felony charges

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Ellison and Johnson argued before Circuit Court Judge Craig Pfeifle that access to military-related recordings and debriefing documents from July 3 would help in determining the legality of the emergency deployment.

“We’re trying to understand why they would deploy people with shields and sidearms against protesters,” Ellison said.

Native American protesters demonstrate in Keystone, S.D., ahead of President Donald Trump's visit to the memorial Friday, July 3, 2020. Protesters are advocating for the Black Hills to be returned to the Lakota people. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

According to state’s attorney Kelsey Weber, the state objects to turning over what it describes as “military tactical information” to Tilsen’s attorneys.

Although the judge didn’t rule on the motion, he did deny the defendant’s request to order the state to name the officers associated with the obstruction and disorderly conduct charges.

Pfeifle also ruled that the state and witnesses associated with the trial could not refer to the July 3 events as an “anti-Trump” rally.

“I thought the ruling on the second motion of not allowing this to be turned into a political referendum about Donald Trump was great,” Tilsen said.

“The reality is, this is about a much bigger issue; this is about land rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

On Dec. 15, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the rights of Indigenous peoples issued a statement expressing concern over Tilsen’s arrest and charges.

According to UN News, the Rapporteurs called on the U.S. “to ensure that Mr. Tilsen’s due process rights are respected during the criminal prosecution and recall the obligation to ensure equal protection of law without discrimination.”

Another hearing in Tilsen’s case is scheduled for March 5. According to Pfeifle, Tilsen’s trial will likely take place in spring or summer.

Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

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