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Vermonters on the North Dakota Pipeline

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by Ivan Shadis

The Bridge spoke with four local people who have recently joined the encampment of Tribes and pipeline resisters gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Katrina Coravos, Ki Walker, Bianca Caputo,  and Emily Ruff share their stories.
First, a summary of events to date.
The Dakota Access Pipeline(DAPL) is owned by Texas oil company Energy Transfer Partners(ETP) and under development by subsidiary company Dakota Access(DA). The line would transport up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day 1,168 miles from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the south of Illinois. A consortium of financial institutions including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, TD Bank, and fourteen others have extended the $3.75 billion line of credit to ETP necessary for construction of the pipeline.
A first proposal for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck was rejected in part because of the potential threat of an oil spill to Bismarck’s water supply. Instead the route was changed to cross the Missouri River under lake Oahe, a half mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe say the planned crossing threatens their water supply.
The U.S Army Corps of Engineers have regulatory jurisdiction over the waters near the reservation underwhich the pipeline is slated to pass. In July, after a limited review of the route, the Corps approved water crossing permits for DAPL under a ‘fast track’ option and construction on the disputed section of the pipeline commenced. That month the Standing Rock Sioux sued the Corps alleging they had issued the permits in violation of federal statute including the Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The Tribe argues that construction of the pipeline as authorized ‘would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significane’ protected under the NHPA and that an oil spill at the planned crossing, a few miles upstream from their public drinking and irrigation water intake, would constitute an existential threat to the tribe’s culture and way of life.
As early as April a Standing Rock Sioux elder established a camp on the shores of lake Oahe in opposition to the pipeline, known as the Sacred Stone camp. Over the summer and continuing through the fall thousands of people representing over 300 tribes as well as non-indigenous people have gathered at the site to oppose the pipeline through demonstration and direct action as litigation before the courts and construction along the route continue.
Events there have captured international attention as reports of clashes with police and private security continue to emerge. On September 4th Dakota Access bulldozed land which had been shown to be a tribal burial site in filings presented to the courts by the tribe a day earlier. When demonstrators gathered in response to the bulldozing private security working for the pipeline companies loosed attack dogs to maul and bite the crowd. Four days later North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple called out the National Guard to bolster the existing Morton County Sherriff police presence. By the end of that month police accompanied by armored vehichles had been documented raising weapons against unarmed demonstrators gathered in prayer. Police began arresting people en masse.
On October 27 over 300 militarized police from the forces of seven states (Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska,  North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) who had been assembled under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, originally designed for responding to natural disaster, were deployed to raze the “1851 Treaty Camp” – a camp that had been erected directly in the path of the DAPL on unceded Sioux territory.  Dressed in riot gear, armed with military grade weapons, and surveyed by snipers aiming from the tops of armored vehichles lines of police fired on the people in the camp with rubber bullets, routing them and forcing them to retreat south. Demonstrators mantain that they remained non-violent throughout while accounts from authorities say members of the crowd threw rocks and one woman fired a pistol. That day a man documented threatening people with an AR-15 inside of the Standing Rock Reservation was arrested by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and there is evidence pointing to his being under contract with Dakota Access. Police arrested 141 people that day alone, bringing the total number arrested at Standing Rock so far to over 300.
Those arrested have reported being strip searched, marked with numbers on their arms, and kept in dog kennels.
As state violence against the demonstrators has intensified courts have denied the Tribe’s injunction requesting a stay on construction until their suit against the Corps is settled. Dakota Access has continued construction despite requests from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of the Army that the company voluntarily pause construction within 20 miles of lake Oahe while the Army conducts a review of ‘issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux and other Tribal nations.’ The lone legal impediment to the completion of the DAPL is an easement required by Dakota Access to drill under lake Oahe which the Army says it will not grant before completing its review.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairan David Archambault II has called on the Department of Justice to investigate police abuse against demonstrators and earlier vowed to continue the fight against DAPL saying “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not backing down from this fight, we are guided by prayer and we will continue to fight for our people. We will not rest until our lands, people, waters and sacred places are permanently protected from this destructive pipeline.”
Work to winterize the camps is currently underway.
In late August Katrina Coravos of Calais first heard of the need for support among the tribes and pipeline resisters. She halted production at her Montpelier based chocolate company, Liberty Chocolates, and headed to North Dakota a few days later. Events there were a clarion call for her group, Sacred Feminine 4 Revolution, who aim to help revolutionary action through ceremony, prayer, and social support. She and four other members of Sacred Feminine packed donations and equipment into a red Toyota pickup and a SUV  and made the 1,800 mile trip from here to the Sioux prairie.  ‘I learned of it from a friend and then three days later I was on the road with a caravan and we went across the country and got there.’
In the camps they worked for three weeks, first building a kitchen, then helping distribute goods and hold ceremony. Using material that was donated to Coravos in Vermont, the group was able to set up a camp specifically designed for women and from which they helped organize a daily women’s prayer at the river.  ‘In the Lakota tradition the women are the keepers of the water and the men are the keepers of the fire and so it was asked that the women pray at the river.’ In their camp they brewed herbal teas and put up traditional structures for women. “We built a moon lodge so that there’s a specific place for women.”
Coravos published frequent updates to her Facebook page giving reports on the camps and rallying support. In a post written a week after arriving Coravos talks about a growing sense of solidarity as people continue to assemble and demonstrate against the pipeline. “[They] hope that people will just go home and the drilling continue. Instead, today we marched to the drill site, 7 Nations with 4 riders each.”  She wrote, “We are calling in herbal remedies, medicines, organic farm fresh food” Among the responses one commentator was quick to ask “What can I do to support the movement from VT?”
Coravos saw a distinction between action on the front lines, where violence has erupted, and in the camps which she described as sites of peaceful cooperation. Of the give and take between prayer and direct action against the pipeline she said ‘Some of the Lakota people don’t want the actions to be taking place and others are grateful and believe the answers to those prayers is that type of action.’ Throughout our conversation Coravos emphatic expression remained that those gathering at the camps were unified by the call to protect water.
Coravos has since returned to Standing Rock several times and continues to provide logistical support.
Ki Walker of Royalton is another Vermonter who went to work in the camps. He stayed two weeks working in the kitchens there. Walker, who spoke during a report held at the Plainfield Community Center on Sept. 17, said that his work consisted of waking up at six each day, making breakfast, lunch, dinner and food drops for those mobilizing in action.
Walker said that while there was a lot of ceremony and prayer related to people reclaiming their culture, spiritual practice, and for water to him it was ‘very clear that people are there to stop the pipeline, not just assemble in prayer,’ with desire in the camps to resist the pipeline clear as early as April and manifest in the direct action interventions which have continued in the months since.
Walker said that as far as he knew ‘no one in the camps is interested in people holding signs in solidarity,’ and suggested that people doing direct interventions to stop construction of fossil fuel infrastructure in their own communities would create a more meaningful feeling of solidarity.
Walker stressed the complexity in distributing needed goods among the camps on site was exacerbated by the intense threat of violence faced by demonstrators and the onset of winter, and urged supporters from afar to self-organize around obtaining and transporting specific items with ‘actual supplies better than money.’
Both Walker and Coravos identified winter supplies, particularly insulated tents, as the crucial need at the camps. ‘The pipeline company thinks people are just going to leave once the weather gets cold. It gets cold there. Colder than here. It’s rugged. Most of the people are saying ‘we’re not going to budge’ and part of what I feel like our mission is there is to make sure that people are able to stay through the winter,’ said Coravos.
Bianca Caputo, a student at Sterling College in Craftsbury, spoke to The Bridge on Friday October 28th – less than twelve hours after returning from Standing Rock. Caputo and three other students and alumni, acting as the schools Environnee and Social Justice group, made the decision to travel to Standing Rock after weighing the value of doing so against that of taking the money available to them and sending it directly. “we struggled with that, but ultimately they’re calling for people to come.”
Caputo was moved to support the efforts on the ground after following the rise of the resistance there on social media. “these people are putting their bodies on the line for everyone, for the life giving source which is water. I went to offer support.” To do so Caputo took time from school and the two jobs she works. “I had to take time off work and find coverage for my shift. I missed my classes.”
The Sterling students brought donations with them, including fifty pounds of onions from Wander Root farm in Wolcott Vermont and squash, garlic, and sundries from the Buffalo Mountain Coop in Hardwick.
Caputo arrived at Standing Rock on the morning of October 22nd and made contact with Katrina Coravos who oriented the Sterling envoy. Caputo described the scent of woodfire and sage rising from the “hundreds of tipis, tents, and vehicles,” there looking “permanent, like a settlement.”
The group had agreed before setting out that they would not go to the front lines, whatever urge they felt to do so. Instead they spent the four days they were there washing dishes, sorting through donations, and preparing food. Caputo and a fellow student she identified as Lou helped pack Salmon donated by a tribe from Washington state. “They donated five hundred pounds of Salmon to the Red Warrior kitchen, salmon that they caught in the river and processed in the traditional way, smoked and iced it, and it was the best salmon I ever had in my life. … I processed that with lou and we just put it in ziploc bags for food for the people who were going out on the front lines the next day.”
Caputo drew a distinction between people such as herself for whom going to help at Standing Rock “was like a break from normal life” and those who’d been active on site for months or as the Sioux were fighting for survival. “We weren’t part of the people that were making the sacrifice.” Still, she found that Vermonters had made an impression on those at the camps and related the story of a medical doctor working alongside her in the medical tent who turned to her and asked “Why are Vermonters so strongly represented at Standing Rock?” her answer: “We hear the call and we come.”
Though the group had come prepared for winter camping, Caputo said that even with a down sleeping bag and dressed in wool, hat, and mittens she was cold. “Our first night there was the coldest night in the season. And everything froze, my tent froze, my shoes froze.” She too identified winter equipment as crucial support going forward, and exhorted those who could to go there as well – but go prepared. “I think people should be going, and they should be bringing as many people as they can, and they should be bringing food, and they should be bringing arctic winter gear.”
Emily Ruff is an Orlando Florida based herbalist who has spent the summers working with herbalists in Central Vermont for the past fifteen years. Ruff spoke with The Bridge from Standing Rock on October 29th, two days after witnessing the police raze the ‘Treaty camp.’
When events at Standing Rock began to emerge Ruff drew on the network of herbalists she had worked with to organize support. “In partnership with a lot of herbalists, especially in the Montpelier area we began to send herbal donations to the medics and healers at Standing Rock,” an initiative Ruff says was spurred by local herbalist Dana Woodruff and supported by the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. As channels of supply began to develop between herbalists around the country and Standing Rock Ruff traveled there to assist the shorthanded medics. She has provided logistical support between the various medic and wellness centers at Standing Rock and between they and the broader network of herbalists and healers offering support from across the nation. Ruff noted the prompt response of this network to need arising from the October 27th police action.  “there was an incredibly escalated amount of police violence directed toward the Water Protectors and the indigenous resistance here on the ground and in that assault by police a great deal of medic infrastructure and supplies were taken. We were pushed out of a camp on treaty land – we had two medics illegally arrested that were clearly identified as medics and then on top of that, on top of losing infrastructure, gear, and two of our staff we also were inundated with injuries – blunt force trauma, burns from tear gas – and so we put out a call for the medic and herbalists supplies that were greatly in need as a result of that incident and immediately folks from VT and from around the country have started to respond to that.”
Ruff describes that day at the Treaty camp beginning in peace, ‘The day began with prayer ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, chanupa, songs, drumming, lots of elders in full ceremonial regalia, lots of young people, lots of non-indigenous allies and supporters all maintaining peaceful prayerful resistance and response to the police presence,” then escalating into catastrophic violence when tribal elders stood their ground against the advancing police formation.  “In the afternoon the police began to push our line of resistance further south, back toward the main camp,[they] slowly started to enter into the encampment, to tear down army tents and infrastructure, and use their vehicles and line of officers to push our group south. Incidents began to occur when elders were maintaining their ground and not moving south. The younger folks were protecting the elders and that is when we began to see the use of tear gas, the use of batons, there were weaponry – some type of bullet that as it broke open sent spikes out everywhere – you would see these flash grenades and then people would have lots of little sharp puncture wounds. People were hit in the face with beanbags and rubber bullets. Horses were shot and tazed.”
Particularly egregious to Ruff was the treatment of medics, working to help the injured, at the hands of police. She describes seeing a clearly marked a medic pulled from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle and beaten with batons as the vehicle, unmanned, continued to roll toward retreating demonstrators. “The car was clearly marked with a cross. Each individual was marked on their chest, their sleeves, their backs and their bags as medics… the two medics  in the car were both forcibly removed from the car. The woman who was driving was actually pulled from the car while the car was still in drive, so it continued to roll in to the marching water protectors as they were moving south and nearly over the medic pulled out of the passenger seat.” Ruff says in arresting active medics and disrupting medical treatment to people who’d been injured on the front line of the conflict the police acted lawlessly and in violation of the Geneva convention.  During our conversation Ruff said UN observors and representatives from Amnesty International were expected to arrive at Standing Rock later that day.
Ruff said that the police assault and the onset of winter were exhausting to the morale of core resisters but that “the camp is committed to being here as long as it takes,” and held hope that increasing international attention could help stop the pipeline. “It’s my sense that if we can really be supported with the presence of those national and international groups that is one of the possible ways we can gain enough traction to stop the pipelines.”
Ruff said that volunteers who could relieve the burden on worn resisters and those willing to put their bodies on the front line continue to needed. “When fresh energy arrives and is willing to pick up the slack and is willing to wash dishes one day or chop firewood one day so that these folks who have been here for so long can take a rest, that’s really meaningful … [we need] people on the ground who are willing to help that way as well as people who are willing to stand on the front lines in support and protection of the water.” To those not able to be at Standing Rock in person but wanting to help Ruff said donations were needed to replace medical supplies and infrastructure lost in the police raid and could be made at MedicHealerCouncil.com, and that donations to replenish the legal fund for those arrested could be made to the Red Owl Legal Collective at https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/11B5z8. She also said that the camps, where there is no electricity, were relying on donations to make it through the winter and needed batteries, propane, firewood, subzero sleeping bags and winter structures such as insulated tents.
Finally, she hoped that people would be moved to identify with the resistance at Standing Rock and offer what help they could not just with the wellbeing of the Standing Rock Sioux in mind but in solidarity with resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure expansion broadly speaking. “what happens here may set a precedent for what happens in environmental struggles around the country. It’s difficult sometimes for people to be connected to an issue like this if it’s not happening in their backyard and I think the important thing to remember is that this could be our backyard at any moment and that what happens here today at Standing Rock determines what could happen around the country going forward.”