Nick Tilsen · April 12, 2019

“Our Voices Won’t be Silenced”

Fighting the SD "Riot Boosting" Act and the Keystone XL Pipeline

For Indigenous Peoples in South Dakota, the land is more than just the ground beneath our feet. 

We believe in and act upon the notion that people, nature, society and all living things are interconnected, in relation to one another, and operate as a system. Our Indigenous cultures have taught us through our languages, stories and life ways that our identity and very existence is directly connected to the land. 

First proposed in 2008, the 1,200-mile Keystone XL Pipeline would carry as much as 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands through South Dakota to Steele City, Neb., en route to Gulf Coast refineries. Though the proposed pipeline route does not go through federally recognized reservations in South Dakota, should there be an oil spill, it has the potential to seriously affect our land, our water, our environment and future generations. 

Adolph Knock and Family, Lakota. 1904. Willis G. Tilton photograph collection.

This land known today as South Dakota, is the ancestral territory of the Oceti Sakowin, otherwise known as the Seven Council Fires of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.  This is where our people have lived for thousands of years.  Our territory as Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people today is not defined by the colonial boundaries that have been created around us, but rather, where our people have existed in harmony with Mother Earth for generations. The proposed path of the Keystone XL pipeline goes through the heart of the Oceti Sakowin.  

Pipelines like this don’t build up the economy at all. They only make a few people rich, create very few, temporary jobs and contribute to climate change, which is a problem not only for the Indigenous Peoples of this region but for humanity as a whole. We don’t want to see that happen. That’s why we plan on organizing our communities and encouraging people to try to stop the pipeline through peaceful protest, non-violent direct action and advocacy strategies. 

The state of South Dakota, however, doesn’t want anything to disrupt the pipeline’s construction and recently passed the Riot Boosting Act, a new law that is designed to silence free speech and the right to peacefully protest against the pipeline. 

But our voices won’t be silenced. Our sacred lands are too important.

That’s why the NDN Collective, with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Riot Boosting Act on the grounds that it violates our First Amendment rights and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. NDN Collective joins Dakota Rural Action, the Sierra Club and the Indigenous Environmental Network as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, along with Dallas Goldtooth and myself, Nick Tilsen, as individual plaintiffs.  

Though anti-protest laws exist in other states, South Dakota’s Riot Boosting Act creates financial punishments for “riot-boosting,” a new term that defines the actions both of protesters who participate in what the state deems as “riots” as well as anyone who “does not personally participate in any riot but directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot to acts of force or violence.”

That gives the state the authority to sue “rioters” and their supporters – which could make any citizen a criminal. Think about it: Even the possibility of facing litigation brought on by the state could chill peaceful protesters’ and supporters’ free speech. Just the threat of having to hire an attorney to defend yourself against the state in court and explain why your support of the pipeline protests was not riot boosting is precisely what chills speech.

That means the NDN Collective must either refrain from encouraging and organizing pipeline protestors to engage in constitutionally protected speech and expressive activity, or expose ourselves to prosecution and civil liability under the criminal statues and the Act. Refraining from encouraging and advising protestors constitutes self-censorship and a loss of our First Amendment rights. 

These laws are absurd. This is just the latest of tactics and strategies to muzzle the voices of the people, to discourage us from organizing our communities against injustice and threats to our livelihood. It’s also an attempt to over-militarize Indigenous Peoples’ resistance, criminalizing our work to defend, develop and decolonize Indigenous lands and our communities. 

Police spray mace over Water Protectors. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, USA. November, 2016. Photo by Josue Rivas.

This country has always become better when people have taken to the streets, fields and halls of injustice. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in Selma, when anti-war resistors held sit-ins, when Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers and when we made the stand for water in Standing Rock, it all has made this country better. This law is not only an attack on Water Protectors, activists and those who support us; It’s an attack on democracy itself.

Whether you are a conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, it’s important that we all stand up against laws that violate our constitutional rights. Laws like this one in South Dakota draw lines in the sand and separate people from one another in a time in this country when we should be coming together to solve the nation’s problems because our fates are ultimately intertwined. 

According to Governor Kristi Noem, these laws are largely for “outside agitators” protesting pipelines.  This is completely incorrect and not true. The fact is that many South Dakota residents, tribal communities, farmers, ranchers and land owners are against the KXL pipeline, so this law is designed to discourage constituents right here in South Dakota. Even as I write this, I do so at 317 Main Street in Rapid City, South Dakota, where the NDN Collective has set up our office literally three blocks down from the federal court house where this lawsuit is being filed. 

We aren’t outside agitators. We are right here on Main Street. Come have a cup of coffee with us. 

This legislation and this narrative that Governor Noem is putting out into the world also creates a state of fear and pits the police against the activists and organizers. It doesn’t need to be that way.  I was there in Standing Rock when then North Dakota Governor Dalrymple used fear-based tactics, called in the National Guard, misused tax payer dollars, created road blocks and tried to make us out to be criminals when we were exercising our right to peacefully protest.

Back then, Governor Dalrymple created unnecessary tension between law enforcement and protestors, and it only made the situation worse. The only violence I ever witnessed in Standing Rock was excessive force used by the police against protestors. 

NDN Collective President Nick Tilsen on the While Indigenous podcast discusses the lawsuit filed against the state of South Dakota.

This new South Dakota legislation and Governor Kristi Noem are already trying to create an “us” versus “them” situation.  The reality is, that we will all see each other at events in the community- basketball games, powwows, stock shows, horse races, and at restaurants and shops.  Don’t let Governor Noem set an agenda like this.  If you are an ally, stand with us and against this type of irresponsible, misuse of power and influence. 

The courts will ultimately make a decision on whether the laws passed will be ruled unconstitutional or not, but we, as everyday people, fathers, mothers, and community members, can make sure that we voice our opinion on what is morally and ethically right.

Stand with us, as we stand for the land, for future generations and the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. 


Nick Tilsen
by   Nick Tilsen

Nick Tilsen, President & CEO, is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Nick has over 20 years of experience building place-based innovations that have the ability to inform systems change solutions around climate resiliency, sustainable housing and equitable community development. He founded NDN Collective to scale these place-based solutions while building needed philanthropic, social impact investment, capacity and advocacy infrastructure geared towards building the collective power of Indigenous Peoples. Tilsen has received numerous fellowships and awards from Ashoka, Rockefeller Foundation, Bush Foundation and the Social Impact Award from Claremont-Lincoln University. He has an honorary doctorate degree from Sinte Gleska University.

April 2022 Edition

Stay Informed. Take Action.

Subscribe to the NDN allies newsletter

Sign up to get our newsletter. Delivered once per month.

We care about the protection of your data and would never sell your email or share it with anyone without your permission.

NDN Collective Launches Community Engagement Survey for Distributing Nearly $50M to Native People in SD, ND, and MN Posted 5 months ago
“We have an ambitious goal of hearing from over 20,000 Native individuals situated in the tri-state area. Our voices and lived experiences matter - and so do our visions and dreams for an abundant future.”
Meet the Collective Abundance Fund Regional Advisory Committee Posted 5 months ago
The Regional Advisory Committee will be key to building the regenerative movement while supporting reciprocal relationships that are marked by collective learning, knowledge sharing and consideration of diverse insight as part of NDN Collective’s respective areas of work and commitment.
NDN Collective Announces “Community Action Fund” for Indigenous Frontline Organizers Posted 5 months ago
Grants up to $30,000 offered to support on the ground organizers and movement builders who stand on the frontlines to defend Indigenous Peoples inherent rights to self-determination and equity for all people and the planet.
NDN Collective Calls for Boycott of Rapid City Businesses with Racist Policies Posted 5 months ago
The goal for the ongoing boycott is to discourage community members from supporting businesses with racist policies & practices, and instead encourage them to use buying power to impact change by redirecting their dollars to businesses that stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.
NDN Collective Responds to DOI Announcement of Reformed Onshore Oil and Gas Lease Sales Posted 6 months ago
“We must carry this win forward to remain steadfast in our work to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and we must also turn our attention to reforming offshore oil and gas leasing. It is clear that the Department of Interior has been paying attention to the need for making decarbonization more accessible to Native and Indigenous homes, communities, and Tribal Nations, and we need that accessibility to extend even further."
NDN Collective Announces Regional Advisory Committee to Guide Design of $50M Collective Abundance Fund Posted 6 months ago
Native community leaders and representatives from reservation and urban areas in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota selected to support the development of the Collective Abundance Fund from a $50M Bush Foundation award to NDN Collective to support closing the racial wealth gap.
NDN Collective Responds to SD Gov. Noem's Executive Order Restricting Critical Race Theory Posted 6 months ago
“Noem’s executive order is yet another move that tragically diminishes the capacity of our young people to see difficult historical truths with empathy. We need leadership whose actions ensure all of our youth will have enriching learning opportunities that prepare them for a transformative future."
NDN Collective Response to IPCC Report Pointing to Colonialism as Climate Change Driver Posted 6 months ago
The IPCC report acknowledging colonialism as a driver of climate change reinforces what Indigenous Peoples across the globe have been declaring for decades.
NDN Collective Releases Position Paper on Palestine Posted 6 months ago
"Today on Palestinian Land Day (يوم الأرض), we uplift the sacrifices that our people have made and continue to make so that we can fight for a liberated future and a dignified present. As Palestinians living in exile on Turtle Island, we have learned so much from our siblings in struggle and are grateful for their inspiring courage in the face of so much adversity."
'The Right OF Return Is LANDBACK'

By NDN Collective's LANDBACK Team

Posted 6 months ago
Today on Palestinian Land Day, we uplift the ongoing struggle of our Palestinian relatives for liberation of their homeland and full return for all Palestinian people. We reaffirm that our solidarity as people runs deep and is both historical and ongoing.

United like never before, we rise together—arm in arm—to equip all Indigenous Peoples with the tools needed to become architects of our future. Through a holistic approach to infrastructure, funding, advocacy, movement building, and philanthropy we are fostering a world of justice and equity for all people and the planet.