by Ivan Shadis
Photos by Arthur Hynes
NORTH DAKOTA — Two people from Central Vermont, Katrina Coravos and Ki Walker, recently joined an encampment of tribes and pipeline resisters gathered on Sioux land in North Dakota. They shared their stories with The Bridge.
The North Dakota Access Pipeline, owned by Texas oil company Energy Transfer Partners, would complete a $3.7 billion, 1,172 mile line from the Bakken region of North Dakota to the south of Illinois and carry crude oil within a half mile of Sioux treaty land.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe say that construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline could destroy sites of historic and cultural significance. In a suit seeking an injunction against approval of the pipeline, the tribe has said that the risk of a spill where the pipeline would cross the Missouri River, the tribes sole source of drinking and irrigation water, “could pose an existential threat to the Tribe.” They say construction of the pipeline violates Article 2 of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty which guarantees that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe shall enjoy the “undisturbed use and occupation” of their permanent homeland, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Tribal resistance, which began in early spring and is now in its seventh month, has attracted participants from across the Americas. In the intervening months, thousands of individuals representing hundreds of tribes have encamped on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation near the proposed construction site. The site has gained worldwide attention as stories of growing numbers and clashes with police and private security guards continue to emerge.
Following a call to action by the Standing Rock Sioux, indigenous and non-indigenous supporters rapidly populated camps along the Cannonball River, within a short distance of the pipeline construction. Since then more than 130 arrests have been made by law enforcement. Private security personnel working for the pipeline company have loosed attack dogs on demonstrators, and police (accompanied by armored vehicles) have been documented raising weapons against unarmed demonstrators gathered in prayer and song.
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. Events there were a clarion call for her group, Sacred Feminine 4 Revolution, which seeks to foster 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.”
They worked in the camps 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, 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 a message home posted to Facebook in early September Coravos wrote, “Every morning we go to the kitchens to collect the prayers of all the women who cook and serve the people to carry with us. Every morning we travel down to the waters together, in song, and place our feet in the sacred mud.” 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, seven Nations with four 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’s emphatic expression remained: that those gathering at the camps were unified by the call to protect water.
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 6 a.m. each day, then 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 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 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.” Walker 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 that the complexity in distributing needed goods among the camps 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 facing 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 there is to make sure that people are able to stay through the winter,” said Coravos.
Wool socks, winter boots, insulated winter sleeping bags, and insulated tents capable of withstanding freezing winter prairie winds are the most needed supplies.
On Oct. 9, a day before the federally observed Columbus Day, a federal appeals court rejected the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to permanently stop construction on a section of the NDAPL. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II vowed to continue fighting the pipeline. “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not backing down from this fight … We will not rest until our lands, people, waters and sacred places are permanently protected from this destructive pipeline.”
With construction workers and equipment active on the site seven days a week, the pipeline company has stated it will complete the pipeline by the end of 2016. On Oct. 15 over one hundred militarized police wearing body armor and carrying batons and rifles were deployed against resistors gathered at the construction site.
Coravos left Vermont again in mid-October to continue work in North Dakota, but is back in town for the moment.