PORTLAND, Maine — In early November, an herbalist from Whitefield was drawn to the sacred Standing Rock Indian Reservation to join those protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“I just kept dreaming that I was there, over and over,” said 45-year-old Lauren Pignatello, who owns Milk and Honey Cafe of Swallowtail Farm in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.
She recently returned to Maine after three weeks at Standing Rock, where she tended to injured activists on the front lines.
The homeopathic healer loaded her truck with milk thistle, tea, medicinal plants, the natural yogurt and kefir she is known for, and headed west, leaving her seven children, ages 2 to 20, with her husband, Sean.
“I’ve never done anything like that,” said Pignatello, who makes her own tinctures and tonics and studied with the Passamaquoddy Tribe. “Plant medicine is what brought me there.”
When she arrived at a camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, her first-aid experience found instant use. She was pressed into service healing those injured in the fight to protect the Missouri River — and local drinking water — from an oil pipeline.
Pignatello said she lived in a teepee, where she worked for 16 hours per day, and estimates she helped about 600 people during her time there — everyone from “the wounded, to people with colds and flus.”
Armed with homeopathic remedies and herbal concoctions to ameliorate shock and trauma, she treated people for hypothermia, concussions and wounds, and she helped alleviate the chemical effects of pepper spray from protesters’ skin, she said.
Medic volunteer Jacque Arnold worked by the Mainer’s side in the teepee’s “healing space,” and he called Pignatello a savant and “an incredible healer.”
“It was a great honor to work with her,” Arnold said.
Her mettle was tested Nov. 21, when police deployed water cannons and tear gas on protesters at the Backwater Bridge. Pignatello arrived to find people screaming for medics.
“They were shooting rubber bullets, firing water cannons at point blank range. I grew up in NYC and know how to take care of myself, but it was really scary,” she recalled. “I worked washing people’s eyes out with milk of magnesia, put arnica on bruises and saw lots and lots of concussions. People couldn’t walk. There was lots of screaming and crying.”
Alongside doctors and nurses, Pignatello taught physicians to use natural remedies. The conditions were primitive. There was no running water. She made medicine by hand.
”She did quite a bit of medicine making in large batches for the camp,” said Arnold. “If there was a certain virus that was prevalent, she’d base it on that.”
Fire cider, elderberry syrup, detox tea and cough syrup was made by the gallons. Pignatello learned from indigenous people from all tribes.
“It’s a beautiful sharing of love and plant medicine and spirit. It was such a gift, working side by side with Native Americans, who had trusted me,” said Pignatello. “I formed amazing relationships. I’ll never forget it.”
Shawn Mercer of Orland, who also just returned from Standing Rock, was surprised by Pignatello’s stamina.
“When we got there, she had been there two weeks and had only been helping people. Never saying no. Giving people time regardless of what ailment,” he said.
He saw her “cutting frozen dungarees off Crazy Horse’s descendant,” he said.
Mercer said she attended to everything from skin sores from chemical sprays to innocuous sniffies.
“She never said no to anything,” he said.
Through crowdfunding, she used $4,000 for winterization gear — such as straw and hay to keep people warm — medical supplies and gas.
Though some camps are being dispersed after the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will seek a different route, she plans to return after Christmas with her son, Django.
“I will go back for a week. He will stay longer,” she said. “I felt a real connection with the core people working the medic tent. I will never be the same.”