“Our community has a history of standing up to inappropriate resource extraction”
By Mark Reaman and Crystal Kotowski
Fourteen hours north of Crested Butte, one of the largest public demonstrations in the country is taking place—and it is not without some Crested Butte contributions.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and thousands of other Native people have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline since last spring.
And there appears to be a pipeline, or at least an active rural highway, between Crested Butte, the Gunnison Valley and Standing Rock, N.D. Several area locals have been there to support the action and others are planning to take the trip and supply the so-called water protectors with clothes and gear as the weather turns colder.
If completed, the pipeline would travel more than 1,200 miles from oil fields in North Dakota to a river port in Illinois. The tribe claims that the pipeline could threaten their sole water source and that they were not properly consulted before the pipeline was approved. They also claim that the pipeline will pass through and likely destroy Native American burial sites and sacred places.
Kirsten Atkins, a longtime environmental social justice activist from Crested Butte, has been to Standing Rock three times. Crested Butte filmmaker and activist Jeremy Rubingh was there last week with former Crested Butte town councilman Reed Betz.
“We packed our Subaru full to the gills of donations from our community in the Gunnison Valley—things like sleeping bags, tents, warm winter clothes,” Rubingh explained. “The drive to the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in North Dakota is a little over 14 hours from Crested Butte. The camp itself is at the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers. Nights are starting to get cold and the days are fairly short being so far north.”
Helping a brother or sister out
“Being there was an extremely powerful experience,” Rubingh said. “The seven councils of the Sioux haven’t gathered together like this for over 130 years, never mind the tribes from all over the country and the world. The flags from every band, tribe and indigenous group you can imagine line the entire camp. Even traditionally warring tribes have come together in solidarity there and are unified in standing up against this pipeline. There is constant ceremonial song and prayer around the main sacred fire and it is quite a thing to experience. It feels like a sacred and pivotal moment in time.”
Betz said when he and Rubingh arrived they were treated like relatives. “It is exceptionally important to note, and I’ve been explaining this to every person I speak with outside of Standing Rock, that this is not just a Natives issue,” he said. “This is the issue of our generation. This is an issue that affects all of us, and our basic human right to clean water. It just so happens to be on and centered through the indigenous peoples’ treaty lands. The natives continue to fight to protect water for their next generations, to come alongside those like-minded, as well as for those that oppose their efforts.
“This is, hands down, the most selfless fight to protect our Mother Earth and her people in the history of mankind,” Betz continued. “While at Standing Rock, I met water protectors from France, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Canada, the red, white, black and yellow people from all over this country and from around the world. There are people of all races, creeds, and colors from around the world gathered at Standing Rock, united in solidarity as one mind, one heart, one spirit, in peace and prayer.”
Rubingh said the water protectors are doing what they can against a powerful foe.
“To see first-hand the continued abuses of these people, their culture and the protracted threats to their very existence is very heavy and real,” said Rubingh. “In a fight to protect the little they have, to protect the very water that gives life from Montana to Missouri, they are confined to a small patch of Army Corps of Engineers land to wage this stand. In the camp it is tense. The Morton County sheriff’s department and the Dakota Access Pipeline company have small planes and helicopters that are constantly flying only a few hundred feet above the camp, incessantly harassing women, children, elders and anyone who is there to support. These aircraft fly night and day and are constantly monitoring activity in the camp. After a few days it really starts to wear on you, disrupts your sleep, makes conversations and communication hard and psychologically starts to impact you. It feels like a human rights violation beyond what should be tolerable in this country.”
On the front lines
Rubingh was there in part to film and document the activity. And he said that put Betz and him into some hairy situations. “We went up to the front lines on the day that made all of the headlines with the confrontation with law enforcement. It was absolutely terrifying and harrowing. The militarized law enforcement was in a huge line with armored Humvees to move protesters and an outpost camp away from the pathway of the pipeline. Helicopters were flying everywhere and one of the blockades across the road was lit on fire. As law enforcement advanced, people sitting in prayer and standing in resistance were pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets in some instances and arrested. They used flash-bang grenades and ear-piercing sound sirens to confuse and disorient the crowd. I watched an old woman who was crying and sitting in prayer get pulled off the ground and handcuffed. The conflict escalated and lasted hours. As the protesters were moved down the road towards the main camp a final standoff occurred at a bridge where several vehicles were set on fire. The police and protesters remained at the bridge for almost two days. The images I have from that day and night are absolutely haunting. At times it felt life-threatening.”
“I most certainly felt threatened and danger was imminent every moment we were there, especially after the invasion and raid on Thursday, October 27,” agreed Betz. “We were on the front lines just feet away from air blasts, sound cannons, tear gas and hundreds of militarized police from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, New Mexico, to name a few, as the police raided the protest and treaty camp just two miles north from the main Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock. Police were fully armed and armored with many Humvees, armored police vehicles, mace, Tasers and clubs. It is important to note that none of the water protectors were or have been armed. This has always been an unarmed, peaceful, non-violent demonstration protest. It was very scary and terrifying and felt like a very real wartime environment. I saw women with children get maced, air blasts shot in the crowd just feet away from where Jeremy and I were filming, horses and water protectors shot by police.”
Kirsten Atkins returned from her third trip to the protest site on Tuesday. Last week, she said, was chaotic. For example, she awoke Saturday night to a giant blaze on the hillside near the camp.
“It was striking the difference this time compared to the other two,” Atkins said. “The atmosphere is very different. The intensity is escalating with the military police presence. I have been involved for years with civil disobedience actions and I have never seen that type of police presence. And now they are using helicopters to keep an eye on the people 24/7. That is putting people on edge, which I guess is the purpose. But it is much more tense than it was a month or two ago. The people are getting worn down. Last week was a bunch of chaos.”
Atkins said that because it is getting cold the number of water protectors has declined, but she estimated there are still about 1,000 people on site.
The Crested Butte connection
Rubingh has thought about why there seems to be a connection between those protesting in North Dakota and those living in Crested Butte.
“Our community has a history of standing up to inappropriate resource extraction. Many of us here have been working to protect our water for decades now,” said Rubingh. “We are also a tribe ourselves. Our community is tight, we share common culture and wild desire for love, life and our mountains that make us who we are. We are also a very educated and intelligent group of people. We know that constructing a pipeline of this magnitude without proper environmental review is unacceptable. We know that it isn’t a matter of ‘if’ this pipeline has a spill or leak, it’s a matter of ‘when.’ We care about each other here and I think that generates an empathy that means we also care about others who have less than us.”
Betz is on that same page. “We’ve been fighting as a unified community for 40 years to protect what is sacred here in Crested Butte—our right to clean water, to protect our way of life, our environment and our sacred lands that surround us,” he said. “The parallel between Standing Rock and our community goes hand in hand.”
Atkins said people should understand that despite the escalation in tension, there are still moments of positivity at the site. “In the middle of all the chaos last week there was still a lot of beauty and singing and praying,” she related. “The people there still have hope. They are still finding joy in the situation and praying. That feels really good.”
How can you get involved?
According to Rubingh, Betz and Atkins there are plenty of things people from here can do to help the people on the ground there.
“Simply sharing this story with as many people as possible is incredibly important,” Rubingh suggested. “We need this issue to crack through mainstream media in a meaningful way in order to get the attention of key decision makers. Our local affinity group that is supporting Standing Rock efforts is also collecting donations. We are accepting good-quality gear like down jackets, waterproof shells, non-cotton layers, sleeping bags, and complete four-season tents. We are also collecting cash donations for things like cords of wood, hay bales, wood stoves and insulation. You can ‘like’ and stay in touch with the local support group to receive updates and information about local events on the Facebook page, Colorado Western Slope Solidarity with Standing Rock.
Donations to the legal fund are also helpful to get peaceful protesters out of jail and to cover legal expenses.
Betz said anyone who wants to get more involved can touch base with him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crested Butte’s Anne Moore is helping to gather donations for future trips to Standing Rock.
“This Earth which we love so much has every right to be protected, nurtured and thought of in a forward looking fashion,” Moore said of her motivation. “Those who deny this right are also those who would tell you that climate change is not real and that war is good business. For me I must help in any way that I can. Where to start is the most difficult for most people, which I understand. It’s really a matter of reaching our hands out to each other to form a chain.
“I will drive around and pick up any donations,” Moore continued. “I am dropping some items off to a Gunnison group heading up this week. I also have a drop-off table at my place in the Meadows (A3). I know of a group here in the Butte who is heading out on [November 19] so I will continue to collect donations until then. Paying forward our abundance has been something that we always do here in Crested Butte. As a kid coming up in the Crested Butte Community School, we put together boxes of shoes, dental care items and non-perishable food items to our sister town in El Salvador. Many Crested Butte kids went down there to help build and bring supplies over the years. It is the most natural thing in the world for the people of Crested Butte to take care of those in need, and that includes our brothers and sisters who are standing up for what is right!”
Rubingh is planning another trip north to bring more donations and continue filming the documentary that he is calling “Flowing Water, Standing Rock.” “In the next two months we will be attempting to float the Missouri River from its headwaters in Montana to the Standing Rock reservation to help bring awareness to this issue as well as tell the story of the watershed and the importance of conservation. We will undertake this adventure with a group of native paddlers, using traditional canoes for most of the trip.”
Atkins said a meeting was planned for Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the Secret Stash to discuss some next steps. “It is important for people to look at the future,” she said. “Get involved. Get to work. There are many ways to get involved but we also need to pay attention to things happening here in our back yard. Keep an eye on what is happening in the North Fork and Thompson Divide.”