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Standing Rock Activists Face Harsh Prison Sentences

Clergy members join activists in 2016 protests over the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, N.D. (unitedchurchofchrist / Flickr Creative Commons)

Thousands of Native Americans and environmental activists came to North Dakota in 2016 to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which now runs through the Standing Rock tribe’s reservation. They were fighting both the desecration of Native American land and the environmental impact of oil drilling on that land. Hundreds of activists were arrested for civil disobedience, but the movement was a source of purpose and hope for many of them.

Two years after the protests faded from national headlines, The Guardian reports that many of these activists, also called “water protectors,” are accusing the U.S. government of “an aggressive campaign … to suppress indigenous and environmental movements, using drawn-out criminal cases and lengthy prison sentences.”

Michael “Little Feather” Giron, 45, a member of the Chumash tribe, was among those arrested. His wife, Leoyla Cowboy, told The Guardian that Little Feather had been battling drug addiction prior to participating in the Standing Rock protests, and that the protests gave him purpose, a renewed connection to tribal elders and sobriety.

“He has been taken from us, and it’s a huge void in our lives,” Cowboy said of Little Feather, who has been sentenced to three years in prison. She added, “He is a political prisoner. … We were protecting our land. It’s something we have to do, and we’re going to be met with this violence from these agencies, from the federal government, from the state.”

More than 141 activists were arrested at Standing Rock. Now that many movement leaders, including Red Fawn Fallis, who was charged with attempted murder, are being sentenced, activists have started to speak to the press about the toll these court cases are taking on their lives and those of their families.

As The Guardian notes, under President Trump, prosecutions of water protectors have increased:

The US Department of Justice has pressed forward with six cases against Native Americans. North Dakota prosecutors meanwhile have pursued more than 800 state cases against people at Standing Rock, including 165 still pending, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective, a legal support team.

Some activists, including Little Feather, and Rattler of the Lakota tribe, have agreed to plea deals. Like Little Feather, Rattler was charged with civil disorder and the use of fire to commit a felony. The civil disorder charges stemmed from a standoff with police on Oct. 27, 2016, when water activists set up a roadblock to the proposed pipeline. The Guardian says, “The arson charges related to the fact that ‘several fires were set by unidentified protesters’ to thwart police, as prosecutors wrote in one court filing.”

Rattler maintains that these were exaggerated charges. As he put it, “They needed these convictions to make examples of people.”

Had Little Feather and Rattler not taken plea deals, they would have faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Rattler’s attorneys expect that he’ll get three years. As reported by KFYR, a Fox affiliate in North Dakota, Fallis was sentenced Wednesday to 57 months in prison. KFYR says she was charged with “one count of civil disorder and one count of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon. The sentences will run concurrently.” She’ll then have three years of supervised probation.

Meanwhile, Cowboy has been separated from Little Feather since his arrest in March 2017. While she’s relieved that sentencing is over, there are obstacles to manage when he gets out. In addition to maintaining his sobriety, he’ll have to contend with another challenge that Standing Rock activists have been coping with since the media gaze faded: a feeling that their hard work has stalled, that they’ve been left behind.

As Cowboy said of the rest of America, “They are forgetting that we are still here.”

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