Native Americans who protested Dakota Access get handed the longest prison sentences

Three protesters accept plea deals to avoid likely unfair trials in North Dakota.

Native American protesters and their supporters are confronted by security during a demonstration against work being done for the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 3, 2016. CREDIT: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Native American protesters and their supporters are confronted by security during a demonstration against work being done for the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 3, 2016. CREDIT: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Among the hundreds of people arrested in North Dakota for protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Native Americans faced the most serious charges. More than two years after the protests began, federal judges are now handing down lengthy prison sentences to the protesters.

One of the Standing Rock activists, Red Fawn Fallis, was sentenced Wednesday for her role in a shooting incident during the protests. As part of a plea deal, the 39-year-old will serve the longest prison term of any Dakota Access protester: four years and nine months in federal prison for one count of civil disorder and one count of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon.

The legal owner of the gun Red Fawn is alleged to have fired was a paid FBI informant named Heath Harmon, a 46-year-old member of the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, The Intercept reported last December.

As Red Fawn was being tackled by police officers, who were attempting to put her in handcuffs, three gunshots allegedly went off alongside her. Deputies allegedly reached for her left hand and grabbed a gun away from her, according to The Intercept. No one was injured in the shooting incident.


The judge in Red Fawn’s case had forbidden her defense team from mentioning treaty rights or other issues related to her arrest at anti-pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation border. She ended up accepting the plea deal under the assumption that she would not receive a fair trial due to prosecutors allegedly withholding evidence.

The protesters facing federal charges were among thousands of Native Americans who traveled to North Dakota in 2016 to fight the construction of the oil pipeline. The protest at Standing Rock is believed to be the largest Native American protest in U.S. history.

The vast majority of the protesters who were arrested faced criminal charges in North Dakota state court, not at the federal level. A total of 835 state criminal cases were brought against protesters. The state has concluded 670 cases against the protesters; 333 had their cases dismissed and only 17 were convicted at state trial.

Activists viewed the federal charges brought against Red Fawn and other Native Americans as an attempt by the government to exert a chilling effect on indigenous-led resistance to resource extraction and fossil fuel infrastructure.

The $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline is now fully built, following President Trump’s January 2017 order to expedite its completion, which reversed President Obama’s block on the project.


So far, the only other protester to receive a lengthy prison sentence is Michael “Little Feather” Giron. In late May, the 45-year-old was sentenced to three years in prison. He had already spent 15 months in jail, time for which he was credited. His lawyers believe he could be released to a halfway house by next spring.

Little Feather was charged with “civil disorder” and “use of fire to commit a federal felony” offenses, arising from events on October 27, 2016.

On that day, hundreds of federal, state, local, and private police advanced on a camp along Highway 1806 to evict the Lakota and their allies. Pipeline opponents had constructed barricades from logs, tires, pallets, and disabled vehicles. As police advanced, the barricades were set on fire. Little Feather was identified by police as one of the protesters who set fires.

Under his plea agreement, the use of fire charge — which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and the possibility of up to 15 years in prison — was dropped entirely. As part of the deal, Little Feather took responsibility for aiding a civil disorder.


Native American protester, Michael “Rattler” Markus is scheduled for sentencing on August 6. Similar to Little Feather, Rattler also accepted a plea deal. He will likely receive a sentence of three years in prison, although the judge has the authority to sentence him to as much as five years at his sentencing next month.

Two other Native American defendants, Dion Ortiz and James “Angry Bird” White, are preparing for trial.