A North Dakota judge Thursday acquitted Riverton activist Micah Lott of criminal trespass and rioting charges stemming from his protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in 2017.
Judge Gail Hagerty acquitted Lott and a fellow defendant after hearing the prosecution’s case only. The defense didn’t have to present its evidence, Lott’s attorney Doug Parr said in a telephone interview.
Other defendants facing similar charges had agreed to plea bargains, Parr said, but Lott chose to fight. The 25-year-old Northern Arapaho tribal member said he had reasons to stand his ground.
“I knew I wasn’t guilty and I wasn’t trespassing,” he told WyoFile.
Authorities arrested Lott in early 2017 after he and other activists moved portions of the Oceti Sakowin protest camp from a flood-prone area to higher ground. They lit a sacred fire amidst seven prayer tipis before authorities moved in and arrested about 70 persons.
Lott said he was praying when he was arrested and not engaging in a riot, as charged.
Parr said the judge made the prosecution play an hour-long video of the incident that illustrated as much.
“The judge said they haven’t even gotten close to proving their case,” Parr said. “She laid out her findings of fact; this didn’t amount to trespass and there was no violent conduct,” as alleged in the rioting charge.
He spent months in a tipi at Standing Rock
Lott, known as Big Wind, and his sister MyKennah, known as Little Wind, camped at the protest site during a grueling winter and spring that saw blizzards, bitter cold and floods. He served as part of the Oceti Sakowin camp’s security while she had other responsibilities, including helping elders.
Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco Logistics Partners, Phillips 66, Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum were building the 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to a tank farm in Illinois. Thirty inches in diameter, its location was moved close to the mapped boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation after its original location was feared to threaten the water supply of Bismark.
Thousands of protesters gathered over months to fight the pipeline that was being buried beneath the Missouri River. Activists challenged fossil fuel development and transport and contended the pipeline was illegally crossing tribal property, violating sacred sites and endangering a reservation water supply.
Authorities arrested Big Wind first at the Lost Child Camp when he and others set up the tipis to escape expected flooding at Oceti Sakowin. They arrested him again when Oceti Sakowin was being shut down in the spring, but those charges were dismissed earlier this year.
The Lost Child fire and tipi circle — “it was basically a prayer camp,” Parr said. Tipis represented different tribal nations.
“They were standing peacefully and quietly singing prayers and praying around the sacred fire,” when law enforcement moved in, Parr said. The protesters locked arms and police began “systematically pulling people off this prayer circle,” Parr said.
The trespass charges were “alleging they had entered a place so enclosed so as to manifestly exclude intruders,” Parr said. The judge determined that the 3-strand wire fence with open gates surrounding the Lost Child Camp pasture didn’t stand up to that definition, he said.
The riot charge alleged tumultuous and violent conduct that obstructed law enforcement or created a grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons, Parr said. Prosecutors “had to show the judge an entire hour-long video … which made it very clear there was no riot going on,” Parr said. “So she dismissed both charges.”
Lott and Parr chose a bench trial, waiving Lott’s right to call a jury. “[A] survey done by National Jury Project found extreme bias and prejudice against water protectors/defendants among potential jurors,” Parr wrote in a message.
The 1851 and 1868 Treaties of Fort Laramie
Big Wind and Parr had prepared to argue that the 1851 and 1868 Treaties of Fort Laramie gave the DAPL property in question to Lott’s ancestors. His great-great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Black Coal, last chief of the Northern Arapaho, signed the 1868 treaty, Lott said.
“In this treaty, we’re told not only are we able to make decisions on our own land but to govern ourselves,” Lott said. “I still honor my treaty. This continues to not be upheld by the government.”
Parr said he filed a motion arguing Lott’s position regarding the treaty, but that the judge set it aside for consideration later, if necessary.
The pipeline route “is within the original boundaries of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 and ’68,” Parr said. “There was never any legitimate act of Congress that has diminished those.”
Technically, it’s reservation land where the state of North Dakota had no jurisdiction to enforce criminal statutes, he said.
“Not only were these false arrests,” Lott said, “they didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of North Dakota.” Regardless of the questions about property ownership, “when it came down to it they still didn’t have sufficient evidence to convict me.”
Little Wind still faces misdemeanor charges after being arrested at Oceti Sakowin. Big Wind moved on from Standing Rock to participate in other climate-change, fossil-fuel and water-protector protests across the country.
“I still am continuously trying to educate people,” he said. “Standing Rock was just the beginning. We’ve just spread out all across the world now.”
He spent six months as an activist helping water protectors in Massachusetts, was arrested four times in Connecticut, and appeared on stage at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, a gathering that draws more than 60,000 persons in most years.
“I continue to get educated and trained,” he said. “I’ve got some people to make changes. I’ve inspired people to take action in their daily lives.
For people to contribute to his effort, “I don’t feel you have to get arrested,” he said.
Big Wind said he understands the difficulty of bringing his work back home to the Wind River Reservation, given the state’s dependence on the fossil fuel industry and its revenues. But the work is necessary, he said.
“I feel like indigenous people not only are we forgotten but our rights are continuously infringed on,” he said. “We know there is fracking in the water, there is a uranium plume very close to my mother’s house. It can be very hard to do this type of work in a very conservative area where energy infrastructure is rampant.”
He will continue activism for now outside Wyoming, heading to Minnesota where a fight goes on over another pipeline. “I am fulfilling my duty and heading that way,” he said.