‘It’s Indian Time!:’ Lawyer Jeff Haas Stands Up to the Dakota Access Pipeline

n the day before his seventy-fourth birthday, civil rights attorney Jeff Haas was at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the phone with a New York City radio station. A producer for WBAI was hoping to arrange a call-in interview a few days hence at exactly the hour Haas would be driving from the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, to an urgent meeting at the encampment where he volunteers under the auspices of the National Lawyers Guild.

But there was a problem: Much of the thirty-five-mile route from the airport to the tract of Army Corps of Engineers land where a group called Water Protectors is occupying Red Warrior Camp, Sacred Stone Camp, Spirit Camp, Oceti Sakowin Camp, and others, is beyond the reach of Verizon’s cell phone towers. In the end, Haas had to travel to the tribe’s casino “where the reception is good.”

Haas frequently drives the two-lane oil road known as Highway 1806, named for the 1806 expedition made by Louisiana Purchase cartographers Lewis and Clark. It’s worth noting that neither the sale of native homelands west of the Mississippi River nor the mapmakers’ expedition were ever consented to by native peoples. In fact, Lewis and Clark were so roundly rejected by the Oceti Sakowin (the proper name for the Sioux) that the explorers characterized them as “the vilest miscreants of the savage race.”

That history is alive today as the Standing Rock Sioux try with all their political might and spiritual power to run off another uninvited intrusion—this time by the Dakota Access Pipeline. As proposed, the more-than-1,000-mile pipeline, transporting oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, would run under Lake Oahe, the source of the tribe’s drinking water, and ultimately under the Missouri River, the source of drinking water for more than 12 million Americans.

With the arrest of Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II, along with dozens of other Water Protectors committed to nonviolent direct action to stop “the Black Snake,” the National Lawyers Guild put out a call to attorneys willing to travel to this remote part of North Dakota to provide legal defense to the tribe. Haas, who in 1971 participated as a Guild lawyer in the aftermath of the Attica prison uprising, responded to the call, in part because of his great respect for the Guild’s approach to helping in societal crises.

“We endorse the movement strategy,” he says. “We do not come in as lawyers and tell people what to do.”

Haas has an extensive background in mass defense from his days as a lawyer for Black Panthers and co-founder of the People’s Law Office, a Chicago lawyers’ collective that rose up to meet its historical moment—the defense of hundreds of Vietnam War protesters in the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention. The People’s Law Office would go on to challenge police brutality and prisoner torture, achieving significant victories and key vindications.

Among other victories, Haas and his partners won a famous wrongful death action on behalf of Fred Hampton’s family, in a lengthy trial that exposed the raid on Black Panther headquarters and the assassinations of Hampton and Mark Clark as the handiwork of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Hampton had been targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who sought, in his own words, to “prevent the rise of a [black] messiah.”

Haas recently recounted this history in Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. He has also published a detailed memoir about the case, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010). Along with the blurbs by Ramsey Clark and Studs Terkel praising Haas’s first-person historical account, there is a touching statement on the back cover by Fred’s ninety-four-year-old mother, Iberia Hampton, with whom Haas remains close:

“People should not forget that State’s Attorney Hanrahan, the Chicago police, and the FBI murdered my son. This book tells the story, not only of Fred’s death, but also of his life. At twenty-one Fred was already a great leader. Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn’t killed him?”

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, also weighed in: “It ought to be mandatory reading in law schools.”