Lauren Pignatello has seven kids at home. She has two bustling businesses. She had never camped out before. But there was something stronger than the Catholic guilt of leaving her family, the frigid North Dakota temperatures combined with the deep unknown that inspired Pignatello, an herbalist, to stuff her truck with supplies and drive, alone, to Standing Rock last November.
Hundreds of Native American tribes and thousands of pipeline resistance supporters had convened on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“I talked to my oldest daughter about it, about how I wasn’t sure I could leave all of them,” says Pignatello. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Mama, you have to go. You will always be grateful that you went, and we will all be so proud of you.’”
Pignatello, who, along with husband Shawn, runs the Swallowtail Farm and Creamery in Whitefield, felt so deeply about following her passion to help and heal the pipeline protesters, it barely fazed her when her truck broke down four days into the road trip. “When I was back on the road, it felt like I was going home. I felt like I was heading back somewhere I had been before and that made everything feel so right,” she says.
Little did she know that barricades had been set up past Minnesota to stop activists from driving to Standing Rock. There were soldiers with masks and tanks who were confiscating the donations from people’s cars. “It was not socially acceptable to be going there to help,” Pignatello says. “So I had to lie and say I was going to the casinos.”
When she finally arrived at the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, she was greeted with intense chaos. “There were so many people, so many friendly faces, so many sick people. There was a tone of ‘check your ego at the door.’ Just observe and listen.”
So she did.
Pignatello was put to work cleaning, but once it was learned she was an herbalist, she was sent to the Rosebud Camp and installed in a 22-foot “medic tent” with no electricity or running water. There she found “the most amazing donations from all over the world—fire ciders, elderberry, plants, tonics, herbs. It was a beautiful blend of Western and plant medicine.”
With no time to fully enjoy the bounty, Pignatello was immediately thrown into a pace that would lead to a month of sleepless nights. “At Milk and Honey in Portland, I do an average of three consults a week. Here I was doing 100 a day in a teepee.”
Each dark morning at 5 a.m., Pignatello would prepare the daily teas. Her golden milk offers powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients such as turmeric and cinnamon, her chaga is said to boost immunity and the respiratory blend helped with the terrible cough that everyone seemed to have. She also performed routine first-aid treatments and eased food poisoning.
Her devotion to caring for the endless line of people took a violent turn when many of the protesters were injured by rubber bullets, freezing water and tear gas during the standoff at the bridge in late November.
“I spent that night washing burning gas off the faces of kids, mostly under 25, who were fighting for their land,” she says quietly. “They were tired and freezing. But they kept going back to the bridge. Sometimes I saw them, these brave Rainbow Warriors standing up to the ‘Big Man,’ come through four or five times that night.”
She asked them, “Why do you keep going back?”
And they would say, “We have to. We are doing this for everyone.”
Maggie Knowles used to cover the dining and theater scene in Boston. Then she had her son, so now she writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.
Pignatello is back in Maine now collecting donations to get a plow out there to keep the outhouses clear. Contact her at: email@example.com.