For Indigenous Peoples in South Dakota, the land is more than just the ground beneath our feet. 

We believe in and act upon the notion that people, nature, society and all living things are interconnected, in relation to one another, and operate as a system. Our Indigenous cultures have taught us through our languages, stories and life ways that our identity and very existence is directly connected to the land. 

First proposed in 2008, the 1,200-mile Keystone XL Pipeline would carry as much as 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands through South Dakota to Steele City, Neb., en route to Gulf Coast refineries. Though the proposed pipeline route does not go through federally recognized reservations in South Dakota, should there be an oil spill, it has the potential to seriously affect our land, our water, our environment and future generations. 

Adolph Knock and Family, Lakota. 1904. Willis G. Tilton photograph collection.

This land known today as South Dakota, is the ancestral territory of the Oceti Sakowin, otherwise known as the Seven Council Fires of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.  This is where our people have lived for thousands of years.  Our territory as Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people today is not defined by the colonial boundaries that have been created around us, but rather, where our people have existed in harmony with Mother Earth for generations. The proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline goes through the heart of the Oceti Sakowin.  

Pipelines like this don’t build up the economy at all. They only make a few people rich, create very few, temporary jobs and contribute to climate change, which is a problem not only for the Indigenous Peoples of this region but for humanity as a whole. We don’t want to see that happen. That’s why we plan on organizing our communities and encouraging people to try to stop the pipeline through peaceful protest, non-violent direct action and advocacy strategies. 

The state of South Dakota, however, doesn’t want anything to disrupt the pipeline’s construction and recently passed the Riot Boosting Act, a new law that is designed to silence free speech and the right to peacefully protest against the pipeline. 

But our voices won’t be silenced. Our sacred lands are too important.

That’s why the NDN Collective, with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Riot Boosting Act on the grounds that it violates our First Amendment rights and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. NDN Collective joins Dakota Rural Action, the Sierra Club and the Indigenous Environmental Network as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with Dallas Goldtooth and myself, Nick Tilsen, as individual plaintiffs.  

Though anti-protest laws exist in other states, South Dakota’s Riot Boosting Act creates financial punishments for “riot-boosting,” a new term that defines the actions both of protesters who participate in what the state deems as “riots” as well as anyone who “does not personally participate in any riot but directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot to acts of force or violence.”

That gives the state the authority to sue “rioters” and their supporters – which could make any citizen a criminal. Think about it: Even the possibility of facing litigation brought on by the state could chill peaceful protesters’ and supporters’ free speech. Just the threat of having to hire an attorney to defend yourself against the state in court and explain why your support of the pipeline protests was not riot boosting is precisely what chills speech.

That means the NDN Collective must either refrain from encouraging and organizing pipeline protestors to engage in constitutionally protected speech and expressive activity, or expose ourselves to prosecution and civil liability under the criminal statues and the Act. Refraining from encouraging and advising protestors constitutes self-censorship and a loss of our First Amendment rights. 

These laws are absurd. This is just the latest of tactics and strategies to muzzle the voices of the people, to discourage us from organizing our communities against injustice and threats to our livelihood. It’s also an attempt to over-militarize Indigenous Peoples’ resistance, criminalizing our work to defend, develop and decolonize Indigenous lands and our communities. 

Police spray mace over Water Protectors. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016. Photo by Josue Rivas.

This country has always become better when people have taken to the streets, fields and halls of injustice. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in Selma, when anti-war resistors held sit-ins, when Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers and when we made the stand for water in Standing Rock, it all has made this country better. This law is not only an attack on Water Protectors, activists and those who support us; It’s an attack on democracy itself.

Whether you are a conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, it’s important that we all stand up against laws that violate our constitutional rights. Laws like this one in South Dakota draw lines in the sand and separate people from one another in a time in this country when we should be coming together to solve the nation’s problems because our fates are ultimately intertwined. 

According to Governor Kristi Noem, these laws are largely for “outside agitators” protesting pipelines.  This is completely incorrect and not true. The fact is that many South Dakota residents, tribal communities, farmers, ranchers and land owners are against the KXL pipeline, so this law is designed to discourage constituents right here in South Dakota. Even as I write this, I do so at 317 Main Street in Rapid City, South Dakota, where the NDN Collective has set up our office literally three blocks down from the federal court house where this lawsuit is being filed. 

We aren’t outside agitators. We are right here on Main Street. Come have a cup of coffee with us. 

This legislation and this narrative that Governor Noem is putting out into the world also creates a state of fear and pits the police against the activists and organizers. It doesn’t need to be that way.  I was there in Standing Rock when then North Dakota Governor Dalrymple used fear-based tactics, called in the National Guard, misused tax payer dollars, created road blocks and tried to make us out to be criminals when we were exercising our right to peacefully protest.

Back then, Governor Dalrymple created unnecessary tension between law enforcement and protestors, and it only made the situation worse. The only violence I ever witnessed in Standing Rock was excessive force used by the police against protestors. 

NDN Collective President Nick Tilsen on the While Indigenous podcast discusses the lawsuit filed against the state of South Dakota.

This new South Dakota legislation and Governor Kristi Noem are already trying to create an “us” versus “them” situation.  The reality is, that we will all see each other at events in the community- basketball games, powwows, stock shows, horse races, and at restaurants and shops.  Don’t let Governor Noem set an agenda like this.  If you are an ally, stand with us and against this type of irresponsible, misuse of power and influence. 

The courts will ultimately make a decision on whether the laws passed will be ruled unconstitutional or not, but we, as everyday people, fathers, mothers, and community members, can make sure that we voice our opinion on what is morally and ethically right.

Stand with us, as we stand for the land, for future generations and the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. 


About the author

Nick Tilsen

Nick Tilsen, citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is the President, CEO and founder of the NDN Collective. He is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Sinte Gleska College in South Dakota, and has received fellowships and awards from Ashoka, Rockefeller Foundation, Bush Foundation and the Social Impact Award from Claremont-Lincoln University.

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