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Chase Iron Eyes

Chase Iron Eyes arrived for a hearing in the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan in March 2017. He entered a not guilty plea to inciting a riot, a disputed characterization of an anti-pipeline demonstration that took place in southern Morton County.

Chase Iron Eyes pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a felony charge of inciting a riot, and his attorney indicated he would argue at trial that Iron Eyes was not the leader nor did he encourage people to act out.

"Going to that camp to take a stand is not asking people to riot," his Bismarck attorney Michael Hoffman said. "Maybe he's guilty of criminal trespass and maybe he's guilty of actually being part of the group that's taking a stand, but there's no evidence that this man did anything (to incite) a riot."

Iron Eyes, 39, is charged along with 28-year-old Vanessa Castle with directing people to set up camp across from the main Oceti Sakowin protest camp on Feb. 1. The land, which some protesters saw as rightfully theirs by treaty, is owned by the Dakota Access Pipeline company. 

At issue in the case is whether the day-long demonstration, in which pipeline protesters set up teepees in a new "Last Child Camp," was a riot and what role Iron Eyes played. 

During a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, Morton County Sheriff's Deputy Dion Bitz testified the protest that day was a riot.

More than 100 people gathered atop a hill and, after two rounds of failed negotiations with law enforcement, police drove down Highway 1806 and removed people from the camp, he said. As police headed southbound through barricades on Backwater Bridge, they encountered obstacles to entering the new camp, including some protesters blocking the road, two vehicles on fire, straw bales on fire and loose wood. When they came atop the hill, protesters were standing arm-in-arm and 74 people were arrested.

Among the cars on fire that day was one owned by Iron Eyes, Bitz said. 

Bitz concluded that Iron Eyes was a leader in part due to a post on his Facebook page from around 9:30 a.m. Feb. 1 saying that "we are asking all frontliners in camp to come to the high ground west of the Oceti camps to put out a call for others to join this stand." In previous days, Iron Eyes had also put up Facebook posts such as, "Shut the whole place down. Let's obliterate this tyranny. Show them where we draw the line," which were presented to the judge as evidence.

Two others, including Mike Fasig, who Bitz identified as a member of camp security and who is charged in state and federal court with protest-related crimes, also apparently identified Iron Eyes as a leader on videos posted to social media. 

Bitz said Iron Eyes was also involved with two sets of negotiations with law enforcement about taking down the camp and relayed information that people would not leave.

In cross-examining Bitz, Hoffman argued that the prosecution's evidence boiled down to a Facebook post, and that Iron Eyes did not tell people to start fires or block the camp. He said Iron Eyes was in the back of a crowd during the first negotiation and was called up by law enforcement to discuss the camp. He also suggested Iron Eyes thought the new camp was on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land.

Hoffman also questioned whether the scene was not a riot, but a matter of people taking a stand on an issue. He noted that some did not resist being arrested. 

South Central District Judge Sonna Anderson ruled there was probable cause against Iron Eyes. A trial date has not yet been scheduled. If convicted, Iron Eyes could face a maximum of five years in prison.

Iron Eyes is also charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass, to which he pleaded not guilty.

Castle has not yet entered a plea.

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Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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