Rattler sat on the sofa scrolling through his phone. It was a drizzling, cold spring day in Bismarck, North Dakota, but he wasn’t going outside much anyway. A great mountain of a man with thick black hair to his waist and a disarming gentleness, Rattler made the objects around him look small. The sofa on which he sat, the phone he held, the homey living room where we met, the whole city of Bismarck seemed too small for Rattler. But his bail conditions and an ankle monitor confined him to the area for over half a year as he awaits trial.
He put the phone down. “I was looking for a quote,” he said, “about how the people have the right to overthrow the government if it abuses its power. Who said that?”
Sandra Freeman, Rattler’s attorney, sat with him on the sofa. She ventured that the line he was seeking might be from the Declaration of Independence. Rattler didn’t return to his phone to check. If he had, he may have noticed that Jefferson’s founding document, that vaunted proclamation of America and its values, described the land’s native peoples, his ancestors, as “merciless Indian savages.”
Rattler, 45, legal name Michael Markus, is one of six native activists facing near-unprecedented federal charges related to the Standing Rock protest camps against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The federal cases sit alongside hundreds and hundreds brought by state prosecutors, stemming from vast numbers of arrests made over the six months that the camps stood—a protest which at its height drew up to 15,000 participants from around the world and, for a short time, the dilettantish gaze of the mainstream media. The authorities razed the last major holdouts of the camps on February 23, by which point numbers had already dwindled as blizzard conditions pummeled the prairie lands. The camera crews packed up and most of the country went back to focusing on Trump.
But for Rattler, his federal co-defendants, the many hundreds of arrestees facing state charges, and their lawyers, the fight on the ground in North Dakota is far from over. They face a terrain as brutal and unforgiving as any winter on the Standing Rock reservation: a small-town court system in conservative rural counties with no experience of anything nearing this scale or political valence.
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