August 21, 2020

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen will go to jury trial for felony charges

A Pennington County judge determined that NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen will go to trial for charges stemming from July 3rd action in Mount Rushmore. Tilsen vows to stand strong.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 21, 2020

Rapid City, South Dakota– In a preliminary hearing today at the Pennington County Courthouse, a judge determined that NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen would go to trial for three felony charges stemming from a July 3rd action in the Black Hills in the hours leading up to President Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore. While twenty Land Defenders were arrested that day, Tilsen, a well-respected community leader and long-time advocate for Indigenous rights, is the only Land Defender charged with felonies.  Tilsen now faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted of all charges. 

“In a preliminary hearing you only get to hear one side and the bar is really low to determine probable cause,” said Tilsen. “ All that was determined in today’s hearing is that this case will go to trial, which we expected. I continue to stand strong alongside the other Land Defenders, and as our cases progress we will continue to fight to get our #LandBack and tear down the system of white supremacy and racism in the process.” 

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen stands with supporters outside of the NDN Collective headquarters in downtown Rapid City who joined in prayer and words of encouragement before his preliminary hearing on Friday morning. Photo by Willi White.

Two law enforcement officers testified during the preliminary hearing, alleging criminal actions by Tilsen: one being a male police officer, and the other, a female member of the South Dakota National Guard who pushed back Land Defenders in what the Guard calls a ‘riot line.’ “The cops aren’t our enemy,” Tilsen assured viewers on a Facebook live video before the hearing. “But the systems of racism and what they represent are.”

By early next week, a court date will be announced along with an assignment to a circuit court. 

“It is an honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Nick in this case,” said Brendan V. Johnson, legal counsel for Nick Tilsen and former U.S Attorney for the State Of South Dakota. “We look forward to presenting our side of the story.”  

Shortly after the hearing, Tilsen and a group of supporters walked together to deliver a petition with nearly 15,000 signatures to the office of State’s Attorney Mark Vargo urging him to drop the trumped-up charges against Tilsen. Nick Tilsen’s father, Mark Tilsen, Sr., handed the petition to Vargo and implored him to take the petition seriously and dismiss Nick’s charges:

“Nick is a father of four, a community leader who built the community at Thunder Valley dedicated to providing low-income housing. He’s dedicated to education, dedicated to the environment, to women and children, and has a huge national following,” said Mark Tilsen, Sr.  “As his father, for our government to spend money to try to imprison community leaders like this, that’s the real crime.”

“These [Land Defenders] are community builders; These are the kind of young people we need working in our communities,” said Tilsen to Vargo.  “I hope you take this request very seriously– it represents over 14,000 people in just a few days who signed this petition, and you’re going to see tens of thousands more in the months to come. I hope all these young peoples’ cases can be dismissed so they can get about their important work they’re doing to improve our community.”

The petitions, which can be found below, have received approximately 35,000 signatures to date. 


NDN Collective will continue to share updates in the coming weeks.

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NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Through organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building and narrative change, we are creating sustainable solutions on Indigenous terms.

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