Chase Iron Eyes. Photo: Kimberly Powell / TEDx Charlottesville
Law | Opinion

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: An Indian man walks into court and asks a judge to do the right thing

All the young Indian lawyer asked was, ‘Do the right thing’

By Professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn
Native Sun News Today Columnist

In early April of this year Chase Iron Eyes walked into the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan, North Dakota, to hear a white-man judge do the right thing in an Indian Law Case.  

 It was an astonishing day.  

And one that might be useful to begin an undergraduate seminar in Indian Law even though at this point we can’t say what might come next. Law cases about Indian land and resources and “public dissent” (protests) are notoriously depressing.

The North Dakota judge, Lee Christofferson, faced the young Indian lawyer and members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to uphold earlier rulings that the state of North Dakota, its law enforcement agencies and security police for the Dakota Access Pipeline are required to hand over to the defense some “discovery demands” for a trial stemming from 2016 protests along the Missouri River. The decision was in compliance with a request from Iron Eyes’ defense team and the powerful Lakota People’s Law Project.   

This Iron Eyes case is one of 171 still open from the DAPL protests which ended more than a year ago.  

 “I have faith in our judicial system and am hopeful that this will be a watershed moment for this trial and our movement as a whole,” said the young Indian water defender who himself is trained in the law and politics and is a Democratic Congressional nominee from his district. 

Lakota People's Law Project: Chase Iron Eyes On Trial: #DropDAPLCharges

There are others in this tribal nation who might not be so generous, especially those who have studied the results of movements of dissent in Indian Country.  Look how long the law has been pursuing American Indian Movement protesters; years.    For many, then, the white man’s justice and law in the Northern Plains has defined itself by what it hates; and what it hates most is for Indigenous America to say what Iron Eyes is saying, i.e., “I’m entitled to a fair trial.”  If you have followed the centuries-old Black Hills case of theft you know that denying the rights of Native people is how America’s lawsuit culture undermines freedom not only for Indians, but for everybody.  

The whole thing brings up the question of why it is so difficult for people in positions of authority to simply “do the right thing.” Trying to secure justice for the people of the First Nations is always clouded by race and in our part of the country the results of the awesome power of discrimination, the making of artificial gestures, the isolation of non-Indians who choose to close their eyes to what is right in front of them   (poverty, chaos), is the effect of the history we all share.  

It is not just a perceived racism that keeps us from understanding why it is so hard to do the right thing.  It is three hundred years of law buried in White Supremacy that makes us all look on with amazement when we see that a judge in North Dakota can be fair to a young Indian petitioner who wants to protect his place in the sun from a pipeline company that threatens the future of all mankind. There may be several crucial memos probably showing collusion between law enforcement agencies and Tiger Swan, a subcontracted security firm hired by Energy Transfer Partners operating in North Dakota without a license that will clarify for the Iron Eyes Defense who is criminal and who is not.   


 The judge has given these oil pipeline people a month to comply with discovery demands telling the local sheriff that he must produce an affidavit by the end of April stating that he has done so. This is not a trivial thing. It is not just an insult or racial slur so common in racial matters.  It is not just honoring individual rights, nor is it political correctness.  The truth is, this clash of wills shows us that we must all learn how to do the right thing in order to maintain a civil society.  The whole episode speaks loudly to where we are in the country on issues of race and it is not a pretty sight.  

For decades, South Dakota and North Dakota have sought to restore some rational to their criminality against the indigenes in those years when the Dakota Territory moved toward statehood and achieved it. The laws surrounding all of that can probably be described as the collapse of a moral system toward humanity within which we are all now struggling. Where we are today in race relations all hinges upon the authority of those with responsibility to “do the right thing.”


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Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, born and raised at Fort Thompson, South Dakota. Her latest book is A Separate Country: Postcoloniality and American Indian Nations (2012. Texas Tech U Press.) The University of Nebraska Press will publish her memoir In Defense of Loose Translations, available late this summer.

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