Red Fawn Fallis’s case sheds light on federal law enforcement’s surveillance of the water protector movement and generations of indigenous activists.
As law enforcement officers advanced in a U-shaped sweep line down North Dakota Highway 1806 last October, pushing back Dakota Access opponents from a camp in the pipeline’s path, two sheriff’s deputies broke formation to tackle a 37-year-old Oglala Sioux woman named Red Fawn Fallis. As Fallis struggled under the weight of her arresting officers, who were attempting to put her in handcuffs, three gunshots allegedly went off alongside her. According to the arrest affidavit, deputies lunged toward her left hand and wrested a gun away from her.
Well before that moment, Fallis had been caught in a sprawling intelligence operation that sought to disrupt and discredit opponents of the pipeline. The Intercept has learned that the legal owner of the gun Fallis is alleged to have fired was a paid FBI informant named Heath Harmon, a 46-year-old member of the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. For at least two months, Harmon took part in the daily life of DAPL resistance camps and gained access to movement participants, even becoming Fallis’s romantic partner several weeks prior to the alleged shooting on October 27, 2016.
In an interview with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a recording of which was obtained by The Intercept, Harmon reported that his work for the FBI involved monitoring the Standing Rock camps for evidence of “bomb-making materials, stuff like that.” Asked what he discovered, Harmon made no mention of protesters harboring dangerous weapons, but he acknowledged storing his own weapon in a trailer at the water protectors’ Rosebud Camp: the same .38 revolver Fallis is accused of firing.
Harmon spent the day of October 27 with Fallis and was nearby during her arrest. He continued to withhold his FBI affiliation from his then-girlfriend in phone conversations with her while she was being held at the Morton County jail in Mandan, North Dakota, records show. Investigators’ notes on those calls were distributed to the ATF, two local sheriff’s departments, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Bismarck, among others.
Federal prosecutors are charging Fallis with civil disorder, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and discharge of a firearm in relation to a felony crime of violence — perhaps the most serious charges levied against any water protector. If convicted of discharging the weapon, she faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and the possibility of a life sentence. She has pleaded not guilty.
Attorneys for Fallis argue their client was seized without probable cause while engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment, pointing to the account of one of her arresting officers that Fallis was shouting “water is life and you’re killing Mother Earth and stuff of that nature.” Drone footage appears to show her being tackled just minutes after arriving in the vicinity of the police line. In a hearing that concluded Monday, her lawyers challenged the admissibility of any property seized or statements Fallis made immediately after the incident, arguing they represent the products of an unconstitutional arrest. Defense attorneys declined to comment or make Fallis available for this story, citing her pending trial.
As the struggle to limit the mining and burning of fossil fuels has developed into a potent force, indigenous activists like Fallis have frequently been at the forefront. Documents and recordings reviewed for this story provide a window into federal law enforcement’s use of counterterrorism tactics to target pipeline opponents based on the threat of “environmental rights extremism” — and reveal infiltration of the water protector movement as the latest chapter in the FBI’s long history of repression of indigenous political activism.
The intelligence operation targeting DAPL opponents was based at an emergency operations center in Bismarck, as well as the North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center, known as the SLIC, a fusion center established to facilitate information sharing in the aftermath of 9/11. Although local law enforcement frequently served as the public face of the operation, federal agents played a central role soon after the first civil disobedience actions kicked off in August 2016. By early September, the operations center was hosting daily meetings involving representatives of the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Marshals Service, and state and local police.
In his interview with the ATF and Bureau of Criminal Investigation on December 13, 2016, Harmon described how he came to be an FBI asset: He had reached out to his brother, a BIA police officer in North Dakota, to see if he could help by “being an observer” of the protest movement. “He said he knew people and they would get ahold of me,” Harmon stated. “That’s when the FBI contacted me. That’s the reason why I was down there in the first place.” By August, Harmon was regularly visiting the Rosebud Camp, which is where he met Fallis, according to his interview. He said he helped the FBI confirm the presence of specific “AIM members” at the camp, in reference to the American Indian Movement, and reported a vehicle carrying lockdown devices used by protesters to disrupt pipeline construction.
Fallis has a long history with indigenous movements, including AIM, according to Glenn Morris, an activist and scholar at the University of Colorado, Denver, who regards Fallis as a niece. Her mother, Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, worked with Morris and others to start the Colorado chapter of AIM in the 1970s, and Fallis began attending marches in Denver when she was 5 or 6 years old, Morris said.
Founded at the height of the civil rights era, AIM fought for religious freedom and the fulfillment of treaties the U.S. government signed with indigenous nations. Yellow Wood was part of the organization’s struggle on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In that case, AIM famously took up arms in 1973 and occupied the town of Wounded Knee — site of the U.S. 7th Calvary’s massacre of Lakota people in 1890 — as a show of opposition to a corrupt tribal government that was working behind the scenes to sell off lands rich in uranium and other resources.
Harmon is part of a different lineage. In his interview with law enforcement, he noted that his uncle Gerald Fox had been on the “other side” of the AIM struggle at Pine Ridge. Fox was a BIA officer who stood off against AIM during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, alongside members of the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI. According to a 2010 obituary in the Bismarck Tribune, Fox went on to join a BIA special operations unit, and between 1976 and 1984 “was detailed to every major Native conflict that happened in the United States.”
In the aftermath of the Pine Ridge standoff, the FBI looked the other way while a paramilitary organization known as the GOONs — whose leaders included members of the BIA tribal police force — carried out a multiyear campaign of extrajudicial killings and brutal physical assaults of AIM members and supporters.
In recent years, as climate justice activists have taken on pipelines, coal mining, hydro-fracking, and Arctic oil drilling, law enforcement agencies have established formal collaborations with the oil and gas industry in the name of preventing threats to so-called critical infrastructure, Jeff Monaghan, a Carleton University professor who studies the surveillance of social movements, told The Intercept. “That discourse has been the gateway for fusing the corporate energy sector and the national security apparatus in both the U.S. and Canada,” he said.
Sara Jumping Eagle, a physician on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation who was among the first DAPL opponents arrested in August, said the heavy-handed law enforcement response at Standing Rock was not altogether surprising. “There’s a long history of the U.S. labeling people who stand up as terrorists, so some of us figured they were gonna use those same tactics against this movement as well,” she said.
Jumping Eagle was among some two dozen activists featured on an early blueprint for the intelligence operation at the North Dakota fusion center, a “links chart on leaders of the movement” obtained by The Intercept via public records request. The document mapped out connections between DAPL opponents purportedly affiliated with the Red Warrior and Sacred Stone camps, two of the main nerve centers of pipeline resistance on the Northern Great plains. Nearly everyone on the chart is an indigenous person.
Fallis appeared on the diagram more than seven weeks prior to her October 27 arrest. She was listed under her Facebook profile name, Luta Wi Redfawn, alongside the allegation that she had purchased pepper spray at Scheels, a sporting goods chain with a store in Bismarck.
Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Cody Hall, who served as a spokesperson for the Red Warrior Camp, also featured prominently on the chart. On September 8, 2016, around the time the document was completed, Hall was pulled over by Highway Patrol officers who served him a warrant for two charges of misdemeanor trespass. Hall recalled a disproportionate number of officers on hand for his arrest.
After he was booked into the Morton County jail, Hall said two FBI agents attempted to interview him, but he asserted his right to remain silent. After a three-day stint in solitary confinement, he was released. “The experience was “unsettling” and “completely over the top,” Hall told The Intercept. “They were treating me like I was the native Osama.”
In addition to mapping out connections to the NoDAPL camps, the chart linked individuals to the hacker group Anonymous and the Black Lives Matter movement and even attempted to track romantic relationships among pipeline opponents.
Rana Karaya, a Chicago resident from the P’urhépecha tribe in Mexico, was listed as having a relationship with David Vlow Rodriguez, who had been “maced by DAPL security,” the document noted. After reviewing a section of the chart, Karaya labeled it “disgustingly intrusive.”
According to Monaghan, the links analysis reflects broader trends in the policing of domestic dissent. “Since 9/11, police have more widely adopted surveillance practices to enable them to identify and disrupt protest actions,” he said. “And one technique has been the mapping of so-called persons of interest lists and then engaging in punitive, pre-emptive arrests or disruptions of people on those lists.”
Cecily Fong, public information officer for the SLIC fusion center and the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, provided a different explanation for the chart. “The primary purpose for the links chart was to attempt to identify any leaders in the protest camps that our law enforcement could approach to engage in diplomatic talks,” Fong told The Intercept. She said she was unable to find a concrete example of the chart being used for diplomatic purposes and directed The Intercept to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, which similarly failed to provide such an example.
Emails and reports documenting intelligence collection on pipeline opponents, which The Intercept obtained through records requests, show a heightened focus on the threat of “environmental rights extremist violence,” while revealing a broader effort on the part of law enforcement to keep digital tabs on activists.
In an October 2016 email to federal, state, and local law enforcement, a Bismarck police officer relayed information from a North Dakota patrol sergeant about “AIM propaganda” on Facebook. “Free Peltier” stickers appeared in the posts of an individual believed to be a longtime AIM member, the sergeant noted, in reference to AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who was imprisoned for killing two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout on Pine Ridge, in what indigenous activists and human rights groups have labeled a wrongful conviction. Another purported member appeared to be “pro-violence,” the sergeant warned.
The message was part of a shared thread among law enforcement representatives affiliated with the emergency operations center who referred to themselves as the “intel group,” monitoring the DAPL protests in real time. Additional emails concerning Standing Rock operations plans were sent to multiple Department of Homeland Security and FBI addresses, including that of E.K. Wilson, a special agent with the FBI’s Minneapolis office. According to press reports, Wilson was previously the supervisory special agent for one of the FBI’s largest domestic counterterrorism operations since 9/11: a probe of the Shabab militant group’s recruitment of Somali-Americans.
Michael German, a former FBI special agent who is now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, notes the concept of environmental extremism originated as part of the broader war on terror and is based on a model of radicalization that argues that people who develop ideas the FBI deems extremist have embarked on a dangerous path that might eventually lead them to commit an attack.
“It’s an intellectual framework that’s saying, ‘We’re only interested in using our surveillance and investigative tools on the terrorists, but the terrorists come from this specific pool of activists,’” German told The Intercept. “They can then justify surveilling the activists, suppressing the activists, and also selectively prosecuting the activists. We’ve seen that in the prosecutions of people following the January 20 protests, and we’ve certainly also seen it with Standing Rock.”
Following the breakup of Standing Rock resistance camps, the North Dakota SLIC offered information on DAPL opponents to a central Florida fusion center monitoring opposition to the Sabal Trail Pipeline, according to an April 2017 intelligence bulletin. The document, which repeatedly uses the terminology of “domestic violent extremists,” notes the migration of pipeline opponents to struggles in Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Iowa.
“Our SLIC, when asked, has provided information to other SLICs in states that are, have, or may experience protests similar to the one that occurred in North Dakota,” Fong told The Intercept. “The ND SLIC is not actively monitoring anyone associated with the NoDAPL protests.”
A May 2017 report prepared by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and fusion centers across seven states defines “environmental rights extremists” as “groups or individuals who facilitate or engage in acts of unlawful violence against people, businesses, or government entities perceived to be destroying, degrading, or exploiting the natural environment.”
The report claims that “suspected environmental rights extremists exploited Native American anti-DAPL protests to attract new members to their movement, gain public sympathy, and justify criminal and violent acts,” a narrative later repeated in a conspiracy lawsuit DAPL parent company Energy Transfer Partners filed against environmentalist groups. Yet widely disparate individuals are included under the extremist label, including Canadian indigenous people who traveled to North Dakota and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dean Dedman, whose “suspicious drone use” raised concerns of attempted countersurveillance. To Dedman, the extremist designation fits with police officials’ broader effort to discredit water protectors. “They’re putting it in their words to portray that we’re terrorists or we’re somehow trying to disrupt the peace, which is totally bogus,” he told The Intercept.
The document categorizes a broad range of protest activities as violent, noting that while “environmental rights extremists often consider themselves to be nonviolent because their attacks tend to be against property,” tactics such as tampering with pipeline valves and setting fire to construction equipment “carry an inherent risk of death or serious of injury, regardless of intent.” Its authors identify ominous intelligence gaps as to the existence of “training camps established to teach violent tactics” and “which camps house individuals who have an interest in using lethal weapons such as IEDs against law enforcement or pipeline entities.”
In a section describing “use of potentially lethal devices,” the report holds up Red Fawn Fallis as an example of extremist violence. Without mentioning Fallis by name, the report claims she “shot a firearm at law enforcement officers who had confronted her while taking her into custody,” echoing an allegation long since discarded by prosecutors — that Fallis intentionally shot at police.
The same section cites a November 2016 incident in which a Standing Rock protester “threw small IEDs at officers, resulting in near amputation of her arm after one of the IEDs exploded prematurely, according to law enforcement and DHS reporting.” But according to multiple sworn witnesses, the woman in question, Sophia Wilansky, sustained the gruesome injury after police shot her with “less than lethal” munition during a confrontation that saw officers spray protesters with water hoses and rubber bullets amid subfreezing temperatures, resulting in hundreds of injuries.
As The Intercept previously reported, an FBI informant played a key role in defining the version of events law enforcement promoted about Wilansky’s injury. In an email to several FBI and Department of Justice addresses after the incident, Terry Van Horn, a national security intelligence specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, noted that an FBI “source from the camp reported people were making IEDs from small Coleman-type propane canisters.”
Neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security would address specific questions from The Intercept related to intelligence collection. “The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security. Our focus is not on membership in particular groups or adherence to particular ideologies but on criminal activity,” a spokesperson for the FBI said in a statement.
A spokesperson for DHS wrote, “DHS works with federal partners, including the FBI, and state and local law enforcement through the National Network of Fusion Centers to assess threats and analyze trends in activity from all violent extremist groups, regardless of ideology. DHS is prohibited from engaging in intelligence activities for the sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment.”
The dramatic circumstances of Fallis’s arrest have frequently been used by law enforcement and fossil fuel interests to bolster the portrayal of water protectors as reckless and violent. Fallis’s attorneys have argued that it is impossible for her to receive a fair trial in North Dakota because of the intense level of negative publicity, pointing to counterinformation efforts by police and DAPL security to push an extremist narrative of the protests.
The attempted murder charges North Dakota initially filed against Fallis were dismissed within a month, but public Facebook posts by the Morton and Cass County sheriff’s departments linking her to the more serious crime have never been corrected. Both departments shared a video in which a Highway Patrol captain claimed it was lucky no officers were shot, but “it wasn’t because she was trying to aim away from law enforcement.” Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners singled out Fallis as a “radical eco-terrorist” in its racketeering lawsuit filed against Greenpeace and other groups.
But those who know Fallis describe a woman who had come into her own as a camp medic and mentor to younger activists after traveling to Standing Rock at a crossroads in her own life. Fallis was grieving the recent death of her mother, said Mia Stevens, 23, a family friend. Troy Lynn Yellow Wood was “a really important woman” among indigenous communities in Denver, Stevens said. “After Red Fawn’s mom passed, she just stepped up how she cared about people and took on a bigger role. Everything her mom would say, pray about, and do — that became Red Fawn’s place.”
Fallis developed a close bond with members of the International Indigenous Youth Council, a group of adolescents and young adults at the forefront of numerous demonstrations. Lauren Howland, a 22-year-old member of the San Carlos and Jicarilla Apache tribes and Navajo Nation, who got to know Fallis through the council, described what she viewed as one of Fallis’s defining moments at Standing Rock.
On October 22, 2016, roughly 200 people conducted a prayer walk to a remote part of the pipeline’s path, where protesters had locked themselves to disabled vehicles to block the advance of construction equipment. The group was surrounded by police flanked by armored personnel carriers, Howland recalled, and officers began tackling people and using pepper spray. An officer in military gear clubbed Howland’s hand and wrist with a baton, fracturing her wrist in two places.
Howland said she was attempting to lead a 10-year-old boy away from the melee when the pain overwhelmed her and she had to sit down on a hillside far from the water protectors’ camps. Fallis, who had been riding a four-wheeler in and out of the area to assist vulnerable people, located Howland and the boy and transported them to safety.
“Red Fawn really saved my ass,” Howland recalled. “I don’t even know how many times she went back and forth helping people that day, helping elders and other people who were hurt.”
In his interview with the ATF and North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Harmon said the reason he kept a gun in the trailer at the Rosebud Camp was for “peace of mind” — not because he felt that pipeline opponents presented a threat but “because there was rumors of DAPL security posing as protesters that were armed.”
On the morning after Fallis’s arrest, Harmon said, he called his contacts at the FBI. “I said, you know, the gun that was in that shooting, I said, that’s my firearm. They said, ‘Report it.’ So I reported it stolen.” In an interview with the Mandan Police Department the same day, he claimed the gun had been stolen two to three weeks prior. But he changed his story when talking to the ATF and BCI, saying that he’d last seen the gun a couple of days before the incident. “I left it in the trailer,” he added, “and Red Fawn knew where it was.”
Law enforcement records related to the case suggest the situation was complicated for Harmon, who had come to stay with his mother in Mandan after the downturn in the Bakken oil industry, according to comments she made to the BCI.
Hours of phone conversations recorded by the Morton County jail show Harmon and Fallis planning for their future together and Harmon offering words of encouragement as Fallis coped with the intensity of her legal situation. On one call, Harmon appears to break down as the two discussed Fallis’s uncertain future.
In his December 2016 interview, after telling investigators he had developed a relationship with Fallis after becoming a source for the FBI, Harmon added, “My judgment was wrong.”
At the conclusion of the interview, ATF Special Agent Derek Hill informed Harmon that he might be called as a witness at Fallis’s trial and noted his concern that Harmon’s affiliation with the FBI would leak. “I’m familiar with her family from Pine Ridge and in Colorado,” said Hill, who according to court testimony, spent over a decade based in Rapid City, primarily working on Pine Ridge. “If you start getting harassed in any way, shape, or form, I would like you to reach out to us and let us know.”
The Intercept’s repeated attempts to reach Harmon for comment have been unsuccessful. The FBI did not respond to questions about its use of informants at Standing Rock or Harmon’s connection to Fallis’s case. Spokespeople for the ATF and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation declined to address questions related to an ongoing case.
The FBI has long relied on informants, from COINTELPRO to the war on terror, who act not only as observers but as agents provocateur, facilitating acts for which their targets are penalized. After 9/11, according to German, the former FBI agent, the bureau adopted what it called a “disruption strategy” that involved “the use of informants as a tool to suppress the activities of targeted groups, even when there is no actual evidence of criminality.”
It was, in many ways, a new name for an old set of tactics. In the 1970s, the American Indian Movement was a target of FBI informants, most notably AIM’s chief security officer, Douglas Durham, a close confidant of the group’s leaders who was on the FBI’s payroll for two years. During that period, various other AIM members were internally accused of working for the bureau. Many have come to believe the rumors began with actual informants like Durham deploying a strategy meant to sow division.
“They had us on their list to be infiltrated and disrupted and neutralized,” said Clyde Bellecourt, who helped found AIM and survived a near-fatal shooting in 1973 he says was fomented by an FBI operation involving Durham. Nearly half a century later, Bellecourt, who is Ojibwe from Minnesota, was among those the North Dakota SLIC put on its links chart of movement leaders at Standing Rock, having traveled there on three occasions.
After the revelation that Durham had worked for the FBI, fears of infiltration would intensify, bringing about one of AIM’s most painful chapters. Some members became convinced that Anna Mae Aquash, an activist from the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Canada, was working for the bureau. Aquash was driven into South Dakota’s Badlands and shot in the back of the head.
Fallis’s mother, Yellow Wood, found herself in the middle of the controversy. She testified in one of the resulting murder trials that Aquash had been staying in her home, which served as a kind of AIM safe house, when she was convinced by a group of visitors to leave. “She said that if this occurred, if they took her back to South Dakota, that I would never see her again,” Yellow Wood stated in 2004.
Decades after Aquash’s body was discovered, two AIM members were convicted of her murder. Meanwhile, the cases of numerous AIM members and supporters believed to be killed by the GOONs have never been prosecuted.
Sunaina Maira, a professor at the University of California, Davis who has studied the effects of FBI surveillance of Muslim and Arab Americans, said a major function of such activity is to fray the bonds of trust that knit communities and social movements together. “One of the implicit, if not explicit, objectives is to try to undermine any kind of organizing, mobilization, and collective solidarity,” she said. “It creates a chilling situation, particularly when it involves the use of native informants from people’s own communities. People start having to wonder who’s who.”
More details on Fallis’s case are certain to emerge at trial, scheduled to begin January 29. After defense lawyers requested her case be transferred out of North Dakota to ensure an impartial jury pool, a judge ordered the trial moved from Bismarck roughly 200 miles east to Fargo, the seat of Cass County, where Sheriff Paul Laney helped spearhead a National Sheriffs’ Association public relations campaign to discredit DAPL opponents. Fallis will be tried in the same federal courthouse where an all-white jury handed down Leonard Peltier’s murder conviction in 1977.
After spending a year in jail, Fallis was recently moved to a halfway house in Fargo. According to Glenn Morris, she “is prepared to defend herself vigorously in court against these fabricated charges.”
Morris believes it was Fallis’s political activism that drew the attention of law enforcement — her belief in indigenous self-determination and role in the largest mobilization against a fossil fuel infrastructure project in U.S. history. “Anyone who believes in the same things Red Fawn does can become the next Red Fawn, can become the next target,” Morris said. “That’s why people need to watch what happens with her case.”
Documents published with this story:
May 2017 Field Analysis Report
April 2017 Joint Intelligence Bulletin
Links Chart on Leaders of the Movement
Intel Thread 2016-10-22
Intel Thread 2016-10-17
SLIC Operations Email 2016-09-01
Leaked documents and public records reveal a troubling fusion of private security, public law enforcement, and corporate money in the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline.