Roaring Fork activists join fight at Standing Rock |

Roaring Fork activists join fight at Standing Rock

Ryan Summerlin
Protesters in Standing Rock, North Dakota, opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, reported that law enforcement turned high power water cannons on them in below freezing temperatures Nov. 20. Among them were some Roaring Fork Valley residents who traveled to join the protests against the 1,170-mile oil pipeline crossing Native American ancestral land.

Protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota, have drawn numerous Roaring Fork Valley residents to make the trek and lend support to Native American “water protectors” opposing the project.

On Friday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was closing to protesters sites that it controls, including the site of recent flare ups and one of the major camps where protesters have been staying for months. The Corps plans to close its areas Dec. 5, and anyone still on that land could be charged with trespassing.

Native American tribes and others from across the country have rallied with the Standing Rock Sioux to oppose construction by Energy Transfer Partners of a 1,170-mile pipeline that would run from North Dakota to Illinois, crossing Native American ancestral land and, activists say, threatening their waters.

Fearing a leak into the water supply of nearby Standing Rock Sioux land and other communities, protesters at the site are resisting in particular the pipeline going under the Missouri River.

Those who the Post Independent interviewed listed at least a dozen people from Garfield and Pitkin counties who’ve gone, many of whom have made multiple trips to haul supplies and offer manpower to the movement.

Roaring Fork Valley residents have reported seeing rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and concussion grenades used against protesters, though authorities have denied use of any explosive devices.

Among the Roaring Fork Valley locals who’ve recently made the trip, Sonja Linman and her son Sawyer Linman, were at Standing Rock when the conflict turned volatile Nov. 20. The Linmans confirmed news reports that law enforcement turned water cannons to douse protesters while temperatures were in the 20s.

“People from our area are very interested in protecting the environment, and we’re at a significant global tipping point” in terms of the environment and First Amendment rights, said Sonja.

Sawyer, a 2014 Glenwood High School graduate and Colorado State University junior majoring in ethnic studies, got up close and personal to the conflict Nov. 20.

The escalation revolved around a bridge that protesters were trying to clear of abandoned vehicles. This blocked bridge was the protesters’ only access to the nearby town of Bismarck, and therefore their only access to a hospital or other emergency services.

But trying to clear the bridge, protesters came up against military vehicles and razor wire fencing, said Sawyer. When they tried to move the blockade, law enforcement responded with water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and concussive grenades, according to protesters.

The Linmans said some protesters had started some fires for warmth, what Sonja and Sawyer called “sacred fires,” and law enforcement has since said they were trying to douse these fires.

Authorities also reported after the incident on the bridge that they were seeing increased aggressiveness from protesters, some of which were throwing rocks and using slingshots.

Sawyer was on the bridge taking photos, close enough to get hit with tear gas.

“It was incredibly intense,” said Sawyer. “This was 100 percent an escalation by the police. All the protesters were unarmed. It was actually pretty sickening. People were rubbing their eyes from pepper spray and coughing from the tear gas. These are people trying to protect what’s rightfully theirs, but this corporation has enough money to make them untouchable.”

“It was a disturbing use of force.”

Sawyer saw an elderly woman kneeling down and some young men, strangers to her, pouring milk into her eyes so she wouldn’t be blinded by the pepper spray.

Sonja said the confrontation was a profound experience, “a breakdown of our First Amendment rights.”

On Nov. 20 a woman was also reported to have her arm severely injured from a concussion grenade.

“For the police to believe that was such an antagonistic act worthy of freezing people and throwing a concussion grenade so closely to (a woman from New York) that she lost almost all the flesh between her elbow and wrist is appalling,” said Shawna Foster, minister at Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist church in Carbondale who has also traveled to Standing Rock. “The police may have a shaky legal ground to stand on – they are protecting private property in violation of treaties – but they have lost moral ground with the escalation of violence.”

“(The protest at Standing Rock) was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen,” said Sawyer.

Still, the morale among protesters is incredibly hopeful, and everyone’s supportive of each other, he said. “The whole crowd is about peace and prayer and unarmed protest.”

Some Roaring Fork Valley residents participating at Standing Rock suspect law enforcement was jamming cell phones to interfere with phone calls and video recording.

Linman said they witnessed their phone batteries being drained immediately, as helicopters overhead flew with their lights off.

“If the truth isn’t being allowed to get out, then we are vulnerable at the deepest core, and we’re being oppressed.”

The Roaring Fork Valley community has an environmentally aware culture and has experienced its voice being ignored “for water, air and land,” she said.

“We are a community of diversity, and we recognize that indigenous people have a lot of wisdom that we can follow to become more sustainable.”

That this movement is connected and led by indigenous tribes puts us in a place of humility, said Sonja.

She called the events at Standing Rock the “deepest level of erosion of our First Amendment rights.”

The Linmans also disputed some media reports of propane bombs, other weapons, alcohol or other drugs at the scene. The organizers themselves search incoming participants for such items, said Sonja.

The organizers had earlier signed a petition to force any armed protesters out of the camp because they don’t want violence or escalation, said Sawyer. “They want a frank discussion about why this is wrong.”

Roaring Fork Valley locations like Yampah Mountain High School have been collection points for donations that have been hauled to Standing Rock in periodic supply runs. The next haul is moving out Dec. 2.

Sonja Linman was on the last trip, which hauled about 1,200 pounds of water, food and medical supplies. Warm clothing is another item much needed at the protest sight, she said.

Foster, the minister at Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist church, is at Standing Rock for the second time this month.

An Episcopal priest put out a call for clergy earlier in the month, and overall about 540 clergy showed up to answer the call, she said.

In Fosters’ trips she’s brought supplies like firewood, heaters, wood stoves, tents, food and warm clothing.

The fact that these protests were taking place during the Thanksgiving holiday added a bitter layer to the protests. Foster heard some responded to the holiday, saying “no thanks, no giving.”

“When I realize what a celebration of colonialism Thanksgiving is, I couldn’t celebrate it like I usually do,” she said. “I don’t feel good about preparing the foods my mother taught me to make when I know that native peoples are still being oppressed and my people are not honoring the treaties or the environment. I took my kids because I wanted them to see what Thanksgiving means to native peoples – that for many it is a commemoration of their genocide.”

Recent conflicts have also sparked on a hill called Turtle Island, where police patrols are disturbing historical burial sites. The hill is near one of the main protest campsites, and a creek separates the two.

This is also part of the 1851 contested treaty territory being processed in court, said Foster.

Many have tried to get onto the hill, taking canoes and extending walking bridges over a river to the other side while police had formed a line on the hill, then on the banks. Later law enforcement drove protesters back with pepper spray and tear gas. The Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that this land, which it controls, will be closed to protesters.

Amy Kimberly of Carbondale also left with two others for Standing Rock earlier in the week.

“I feel there are some serious human rights violations and great injustices going on,” she said. “It’s important to bear witness as well as do everything we can to stop injustices. If we can’t stand up for clean water and be listened too, we’re all in trouble.”

Kimberly planned to work with Code Pink, a women’s international activist group from San Francisco that’s active at Standing Rock. “There is some strong all-women action happening up there in the next week.”

Kimberly said she’d heard that the number of was expected to swell to between 4,000 and 6,000 people over the holiday weekend. “People are choosing to spend the holiday by making a stand.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is also there, and those who want to participate sign legal paperwork that allows them to help you if you get arrested, she said.

The organizers also have trainings to teach participants about different types of protest actions.

On her way to Standing Rock after having heard news reports of recent conflict escalations, and this being her first time in this type of protest, Kimberly said she was a little nervous. “I’m disheartened that this is the democracy we live in. I think all are horrified; we’re watching with mouths open. I have to believe that we’re better than this.”

Dave Taylor of Carbondale, who traveled to Standing Rock earlier in the protests, said Roaring Fork Valley residents are drawn to the protests largely because they are environmentally conscious. He added that permitting for the pipeline was improperly segmented and probably wouldn’t have passed so easily if it was permitted as a complete pipeline.

Some individuals have been more aggressive in their protest and radical in their approach, but 99 percent of the people there are peaceful and have been met with brutal force, he said.

Everyone up there has experienced that, but it’s gotten worse in the last few days with some serious injuries, he said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.