‘We Were There to Protect the Water’

San Felipe Pueblo man reflects on being the youngest person imprisoned for Standing Rock protests

At 19 years old, Dion Ortiz left his birthplace of San Felipe Pueblo for Denver. His basic plan was to escape the bad habits he'd picked up. After a few months, he landed a construction job, but didn't see much else on the horizon.

Before he could settle in during the summer of 2016, his friend mentioned a gathering happening at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, about nine hours northeast of Denver by car—something about an oil pipeline, and protecting the water. Ortiz only had a week to decide.

The decision to go, he learned last month, would lead to a 16-month prison sentence, making Ortiz the second person from Northern New Mexico imprisoned for actions while taking part in the protests.

"Even just hearing about Standing Rock, I didn't know much more than what they told me was going on," Ortiz tells SFR over the phone from inside a county jail in North Dakota. "I didn't look it up or anything. But I decided to drive up here with them anyway."

On Ortiz' first full day at Standing Rock over two years ago, private security forces hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the company installing the massive Dakota Access Pipeline, attacked water protectors with security dogs. The dramatic images gripped the nation, and plunged Ortiz into a movement he says gave him a new sense of purpose.

As the number of people swelled and temperatures plunged through the winter, Ortiz integrated himself into the camp as a basic handyman, helping people set up their tents and distribute materials for people to stay warm. Throughout his five months there, he met Indigenous people from all over the world.

"It was cool to experience Native American culture up here, and it was really great to hear the songs they sang and the different prayers they had. I met a few Mayans and Aztecs, too," he says.

The encampment's numbers reached 10,000 at its height, yet diminished in the winter, and the media's attention drifted elsewhere. But Ortiz didn't leave until early February 2017, shortly after President Trump signed an executive order allowing Energy Transfer Partners to complete construction of the pipeline.

"It didn't matter how much people were there or weren't, we knew why we were there: We were there to protect the water like everyone was doing," Ortiz says. "Everybody collaborated in the way where we stood together, which made the movement strong."

Since that time, Ortiz has been incarcerated in four different lockups and rehabilitation centers, and is currently waiting to be taken to the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana. With time served, he expects to be released in April at the latest.

The trouble started for Ortiz shortly after he left the doomed protest encampment to stay with friends in Oregon. That month, the federal Department of Justice unsealed an indictment that charged him and several other Indigenous men each with two counts of using fire to commit a felony during one day of particularly intense protest. Ortiz, now 22, was also indicted on two counts of civil disorder, but the fire charges each carried a 10-year minimum sentence.

He was put on pre-trial release a month later, in March, and returned to San Felipe to live with his family. The combination of stress about his upcoming trial and being back in a toxic environment, Ortiz says, eventually led to what he calls "a relapse," in which he abused prescription painkillers. It showed up in a urine test reviewed by his pretrial services officer, as did cannabis.

The relapse led to more jail time.

Court records show that US Magistrate Alice Senechal of North Dakota issued a warrant for his arrest Sept. 15, 2017. Ortiz spent the next five months, until March 2018, imprisoned at the Sandoval County Detention Center. He was then transferred to the New Moon Lodge residential treatment center in Ohkay Owingeh, where he stayed until July.

That month, he traveled back to North Dakota to submit a non-cooperating change of plea: guilty to one count of civil disorder in exchange for the other charges being dropped. He immediately went back to jail there, and on Oct. 22, Ortiz was sentenced to 16 months, and subsequently transferred to another North Dakota jail.

Sending a person to jail for relapsing while they're facing uniquely difficult circumstances is indicative of how the criminal justice system "foments further chaos" for people struggling with substance abuse, says Bernie Lieving, an advocate for community-based opioid treatment.

"Relapse is part of the recovery process," Lieving tells SFR. "We don't have resources for people who are young and facing prison time for, essentially, political reasons. That was political activism."

Ortiz doesn't, in fact, see his charges as political, because he doesn't even consider what he did to be political: "To me, doing what I was doing, it didn't seem much of a political matter."

Ortiz is one of three people, all Indigenous, who are serving time in federal prison on charges stemming from the months-long standoff—though his sentence is the shortest, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective. Hundreds were arrested only to see their charges dropped, and only a handful have been sentenced to jail or prison time. Another Indigenous man, Michael "Rattler" Markus, will surrender to the Bureau of Prisons for a 36-month sentence on Nov. 26.

Ortiz' mother, Christina Ortiz, says her son's participation at Standing Rock was consistent with the reverence for the Earth she tried to instill in all her children. She attended her son's sentencing hearing last month.

"It's just the way we got brought up and how we appreciate our lands," Christina tells SFR. "It's not like he did something childish like hold up a convenience store. It was something well worth doing, so I'm very proud of him."

Ortiz plans to return to San Felipe once his sentence is complete. He hopes to enroll in school and study auto mechanics there. Without the anxiety of a looming trial, he thinks he'll return far wiser than before.

"I have changed as a person, my perspective and where I want to be," Ortiz tells SFR. "I'm so young, I can achieve what I want to achieve—so that's what I'm shooting for."

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