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Long-Awaited Win for Water Protectors

Standing Rock civil rights class action against Morton County Sheriffs moves forward after four years.

On Thursday, September 10, 2020, in a long-awaited ruling, United States District Court Judge Daniel Traynor (District of North Dakota) allowed a lawsuit challenging law enforcement’s 2016 use of fire hoses and munitions against water protectors opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to move forward with discovery. The case had been stalled for more than two years after Morton County and other defendants filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case.

Plaintiff Vanessa Dundon is a member of the Navajo/ Diné Nation who was shot in the eye with a teargas canister while attempting to aid another person. “It’s so good to hear that we have a chance of getting the justice we deserve, almost four years after we were brutalized on Backwater Bridge,” says Vanessa. “I’m praying that this case continues to move forward to trial and I’m determined to keep fighting. My eye was seriously damaged. I’ve had three surgeries and will never get my full vision back. Mni Wiconi. Water is Life.”

Dundon v. Kirchmeier is a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit filed by nine named plaintiffs on behalf of hundreds of #NoDAPL water protectors who were injured by law enforcement on the night of November 20, 2016. On that night, water protectors had peacefully assembled at Backwater Bridge on Route 1806 just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and within the boundaries of Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires, or Great Sioux Nation) treaty lands in North Dakota. Thousands of water protectors from many different Indigenous nations were camped nearby seeking to stop the pipeline from being built under the Missouri River, which is sacred to the Great Sioux Nation and a vital water source for Indigenous nations. Without giving any warnings or opportunity to disperse, officers fired on the unarmed water protectors with impact munitions, explosive flash-bang grenades, chemical weapons, and high-pressure water hoses in freezing temperatures for over eight hours. At least 200 water protectors were injured and dozens hospitalized.

In April of 2018, the law enforcement defendants asked the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit based on a number of affidavits, press releases and other materials in which they claimed that the use of force was justified. “The judge agreed with us that much of this material was self-serving and subject to dispute,” explained Water Protector Legal Collective attorney Rachel Lederman. “It deferred ruling on the merits of our case and gave us the opportunity to conduct discovery, such as by obtaining law enforcement records and questioning the officers, to uncover the true facts. This is what we have been waiting for and we are confident that we will be able to show that there was no legitimate basis for the wanton violence the sheriffs and police inflicted that night. Rather, they were trying to stop the water protectors from continuing to win support for stopping DAPL, and to deter Indigenous nations from asserting their sovereignty over lands and resources corporations want to exploit for profit.” The class action legal team consists of civil rights attorneys Rachel Lederman, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Janine Hoft, and Melinda Power.

“We are litigating this case not only on behalf of the water protectors whose rights were so viciously violated at Standing Rock, but for the constitutional rights of all people coming into the streets fighting for climate and racial justice as our planet is in flames and paramilitary forces attack peaceful protestors across the land,” stated lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and member of the WPLC litigation team. “The door to discovery is now open, including against TigerSwan to uncover and expose how the police operated as de facto private security serving the interests of the fossil fuel industry.”

WPLC international human rights program Michelle Cook (Diné), states, “This is a small step for justice for so many victims of police violence at Standing Rock. We need acknowledgment, truth, and justice for the human rights violations that occurred in 2016 and for all those who were harmed.”

WPLC Executive Director, Leoyla Cowboy Giron, spoke of the importance of this case: “The struggle at Standing Rock exemplifies the ongoing struggle of Indigenous people to protect our lands and water. This struggle for basic accountability is more important than ever as we face a widespread climate emergency and widespread violent police repression of anti-racist protests across the Country. The Water Protector Legal Collective will continue to fight for justice.”


Standing Rock (Dundon) – First Amended Class Action Complaint 2018