BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An American Indian activist and former U.S. congressional candidate accused of inciting a riot during protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline says he has no qualms about taking the case to trial, even though he could face more than five years in prison if convicted.
Chase Iron Eyes maintains his innocence and pleaded not guilty in March to the felony charge and also misdemeanor criminal trespass. He is scheduled for a one-day trial on Feb. 8, 2018, in Mandan, just west of Bismarck.
Iron Eyes’ attorney also represented Hollywood actress Shailene Woodley, who signed a plea deal earlier this year that kept her out of jail in another high-profile protest case. Unlike Woodley, Iron Eyes said, he still lives and works in the area where the protests occurred and has “a huge and sincere concern about the administration of justice.”
“If it takes that we have to go to trial to achieve those goals, then that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s what our system of justice is designed to do.”
Iron Eyes and 73 others were arrested on Feb. 1 after erecting teepees on land that authorities said is owned by pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners. Protesters maintained they were peacefully assembling on land they believe rightfully belongs to American Indians.
Iron Eyes hasn’t disputed his involvement, but he says he wasn’t the leader of the effort and had no authority to stop it.
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. But authorities have alleged in statements and court documents that Iron Eyes helped lead a “rogue group” of “aggressive” protesters who set up the short-lived camp, and that he negotiated with law officers on behalf of the camp, “holding himself out as the new camp’s leader.”
Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which led opposition to the pipeline, condemned the group’s action at the time, saying it undermined legitimate protests.
The pipeline protests in southern North Dakota ended in February, after President Donald Trump’s administration and the courts allowed construction on the $3.8 billion project to wrap up. The line went into service this month, transporting North Dakota oil 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) across South Dakota and Iowa to a distribution point in Illinois.
Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, made an unsuccessful bid for North Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat last year. He said he considers himself a part of an informal “reconciliation process” that involves people from the reservation normalizing relations with people in the Bismarck-Mandan region, where protests often disrupted businesses, farmers and motorists.
“The pipeline brought out the ugliness on both sides. There was no shortage of that,” he said. “We just need to take it slow and rebound. I wouldn’t have run for Congress in North Dakota if I didn’t have confidence in North Dakota, and in Standing Rock.”
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