Following an emotional hearing in Bismarck, North Dakota, this week, Oglala Lakota Sioux water protector Red Fawn Fallis was sentenced to 57 months in prison on charges stemming from her arrest while opposing the Dakota Access pipeline.
Fallis was arrested in October 2016 when hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on a protest camp in the pipeline’s path to forcibly evict its residents. She was accused of firing three shots from a revolver underneath her stomach after being tackled by several officers and pinned face down in a ditch alongside the highway.
As The Intercept first reported last year, the gun Fallis was accused of firing belonged to an FBI informant named Heath Harmon who had developed a romantic relationship with Fallis in the weeks leading up to her arrest. Harmon told state and federal investigators that he met Fallis at the water protectors’ Rosebud Camp after being tasked by the FBI with serving as an “observer” of the protest movement. He said he had been recruited by his brother, Chad Harmon, a Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer.
Chad Harmon was subsequently appointed by the BIA to serve as acting chief of police of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a position he held from January to April 2018, BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling confirmed in a statement to The Intercept.
Fallis’s arrest occurred on land that would still belong to the Great Sioux Nation had the U.S. government honored the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. In January, after U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland rejected attempts by Fallis’s defense team to make treaty rights and the sprawling intelligence apparatus targeting pipeline opponents central to her case, Fallis pleaded guilty to felony counts of civil disorder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped the most serious charge against her — discharge of a firearm in relation to a felony crime of violence — which could have carried a life sentence.
University of Colorado professor Glenn Morris, a founder of the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement who regards Fallis as a niece, told The Intercept that her prison sentence could not be understood apart from a long history of U.S. colonization and the vastly disproportionate violence directed against Indigenous women. “They can bring thousands of guns to stolen treaty territory, and they have the audacity to charge this Native woman who is trying to protect her territory, her land, and the sanctity of her traditions with a crime of violence,” said Morris, who testified in support of Fallis at Wednesday’s hearing.
Morris and Fallis’s sister, Red Dawn Foster, both spoke of Fallis’s generous spirit and her contributions to the camps at Standing Rock and her community in Denver. University of Colorado integrative physiology professor Roger Enoka also testified that a phenomenon called “reactive grip response” can lead to accidental discharge of a firearm during a rapidly unfolding traumatic situation.
Hovland declined to consider Fallis’s intent as part of his ruling. “I’m not going to go down that path, try to determine what Ms. Fallis’s intent was when that firearm was discharged,” he said. The judge noted that he had the discretion to sentence Fallis to a lengthier prison term under the statutes in question, characterizing her nearly five-year sentence as “sufficient to the goals of sentencing and not greater than necessary.” Prosecutors had recommended a seven-year sentence, while Fallis’s defense attorneys had asked for 24 to 30 months.
Hovland said he would recommend Fallis be placed in a federal prison in Phoenix or Tucson. She will receive credit for nearly 18 months of time served. Following her release from prison, currently marked for late 2021, she will be subject to three years’ supervised release.
During brief remarks at the conclusion of the hearing, Fallis said her relationship with Harmon had been an unfortunate influence, and poor choices had hindered her decision-making, according to Frances Madeson, communications coordinator for the Water Protector Legal Collective. Fallis took responsibility for the revolver in her possession and expressed remorse for any danger caused to police officers and other community members. She told the courtroom that she would devote some her remaining time in prison to developing a project called Keepers of the Wisdom, focused on building relationships between Indigenous elders and youth.
Fallis is the second NoDAPL water protector arrested during the police raid on October 27, 2016, to be sentenced to a multiyear prison term. On May 30, Chumash water protector Michael “Little Feather” Giron was sentenced to three years in prison on a federal charge of civil disorder. Oglala Lakota Sioux water protector Michael “Rattler” Markus has pleaded guilty to the same charge in exchange for prosecutors dropping other federal felony counts. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for September.
Glenn Morris sees Fallis’s case as part of a larger Indigenous-led struggle for self-determination and protection of the earth. “This case and this issue is not about her solely,” he said. “What happened at Standing Rock was an inspiration to Indigenous people from around the world. We’re seeing that continuing up in British Columbia with the Trans Mountain pipeline, or the plans to resist the extension of Keystone XL this next year, or the resistance at Ojibwe territory with Line 3.”