Published November 19, 2018
MANDAN, N.D. — At a ceremony Saturday in Fargo, North Dakota, an award was conferred by the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition upon Water Protector Legal Collective for championing the human rights of Water Protectors arrested in the NoDAPL resistance at Standing Rock from August 2016 to February 2017.
NDHRC has made the annual award for the last ten years to individuals and organizations “who are persistent in putting their weight behind bending the long arc of the moral universe toward justice,” according to Barry Nelson, the organizer of the awards ceremony. This year WPLC shares the honor with two other recipients: journalist Chris Hagen of the High Plains Reader and Pastor Joe Larson of the St. Marks Lutheran Church, both in Fargo. Hagen has been an ardent chronicler of the Standing Rock story for his paper and Pastor Joe is bringing visibility to North Dakota’s LGBTQ community.
WPLC was nominated by Rev. Karen Van Fossan, minister of the Mandan-Bismarck Unitarian Universalist Congregation, who wrote in her statement of nomination:
Their work is not only justice work; it is healing work. They bring a spiritual, even loving, presence to the challenging role of human rights defense in our time. They are in the courtrooms, the jails, the prisons, the rallies, the meetings, the carpools, the dinners, the prayers. They organize, they strategize, they motivate, they support. Their work is imbued with prayer, and their prayer feeds their work.
Nelson explained NDHRC’s basis for the award to WPLC:
The Water Protector Legal Collective could well be the ultimate personification of working for justice. Standing Rock stands for all that is wrong and right with our society. To target people attempting to stand up for clean water, for sacred sites, for the honoring of treaties so horribly debased with an overwhelming military force, lies and innuendoes and then arrest, should be unthinkable in our modern society. Yet, it has been demonstrated in full view in our state. The right comes from the justice imbued work of the staff and volunteers of the Water Protector Legal Collective. This is what continues to be right in our society. That people are willing to risk all to stand for justice; to have committed professionals willing to commit all to ensure that justice is served.
Upon learning of the award Daniel T’seleie, WPLC Board President, provided a statement:
Water Protector Legal Collective is deeply honored to receive the 2018 Arc of Justice award from the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition. For us, it is a recognition that in North Dakota a process of reckoning has begun.
Our justice work in North Dakota began in August 2016 when we answered the call from the Standing Rock tribe to come and offer legal support for the growing opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed across their treaty lands and under the Missouri River.
When Morton County police began attacking and arresting Water Protectors on prayer walks it was clear to us that we urgently needed to grow our capacity to respond. Shortly after we had set up our legal tent at the Oceti Sakowin camp we successfully defended against a SLAPP suit brought by Dakota Access LLP to stop Water Protectors, including the tribe’s chairman, from protesting the pipeline – an unconstitutional suit meant to chill dissent. What ensued in the months that followed was relentless mass arrests, over-charging by prosecutors and shocking brutality by multiple law enforcement agencies and private mercenaries.
One of our first steps was to file a lawsuit to amend the state’s restrictive rules governing out of state attorneys who wanted to show up to defend Water Protectors. Our success in that case has allowed us to spend a grueling two plus years fighting it out in state and federal court, defending 839 criminal cases. Three Indigenous Water Protectors are now caged in federal prisons with two more to begin sentences in the coming month. Many others are traumatized by the racist hatred and violence leveled against them that resulted in injuries, some permanent, some disfiguring. And oil is flowing under Lake Oahe.
We are grateful to receive the Arc of Justice award for defending Water Protectors in North Dakota’s criminal courts, but we receive it humbly because this is work that should never have been necessary. The Standing Rock Sioux and the people who answered their call had every right to stand in protection of their treaty lands, their cultural heritage and their main water source. The Indigenous peoples of this land have been waiting for the arc of history to bend toward justice for centuries. The historic gathering at Standing Rock has given us all hope that perhaps that time will come. That work is still ahead.