Last fall, Dr. Erica Rotondo decided that she wanted to volunteer at the protests against the North Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation. As a doctor of osteopathic medicine, she could offer her services as a physician in the medic tents, and as someone just starting to set up her own practice, she had the flexibility to make it happen.
She offered her services, then drove to Sacred Stone camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, and asked for directions to the medic tent. She was told the medics were part-time, and there wasn’t one available that day.
“I said, ‘I’m board certified in family medicine,’ and they were like, ‘Let me just get the EpiPens and the walkie-talkie, and you’re the medic for Sacred Stone,’” Rotondo said.
She returned twice more to Standing Rock, and after her first visit, she helped form the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, which coordinates medical care between camps. Now a medical consultant for the Council, she spoke with the Cap Times about her volunteering experience.
What made you want to volunteer at Standing Rock?
One day in September when Amy Goodman from Democracy Now happened to be filming, and that was the day they had the attack dogs and were siccing the attack dogs on people. Pregnant people, kids.
I started to see all those videos, and I said, “No, you don’t get to do that.” I didn’t know who to contact. I looked for some sort of established-looking online presence and that’s when I found the website for the Sacred Stone camp.
A person contacted me back and said, “Oh wow, that’s fantastic. I’m a student getting my masters in public health and disaster relief. Absolutely, we would love your help.”
What was your experience like when you arrived at the camp?
There are two rules about going to be a volunteer at standing rock. The first is, can you be self-sufficient? You cannot become a victim because you showed up in a t-shirt and shorts and didn’t understand what’s happening or how to camp.
And then the second thing is, can you do chores? They give you that introduction that says, “If someone needs some wood or some water, we’re going to ask and we’re not going to care what your degree is.”
You can’t expect to get here and have some sort of red carpet rolled out for you or something like that. You have to examine your motives if you are expecting something like that to happen.
Tell me about the Medic and Healer Council.
We made sure that the person in charge of that is a Native American woman who is a ethnobotanist, which basically means she can tell you what every grass and every herb in that area has been used for for generations.
Part of the Medic and Healer Council is that the main healers in the medic tent should be the herbalists and the bodyworkers and the herbal-botany folks. They could do anything. People would come in and say, “I’ve got this.” We’d say, “Oh, they’ll make you a salve for that,” or “They’ll make you a tea for that.”
And so our job was not to be like, “I’m going to fix everything: here, take this benadryl.” Well, benadryl is not going to be as good as what they’re going to make for you right there.
You don’t want to be colonialist about it, and say, “I’m going to tell you what’s good for you.” It’s like, if you need my help, I’ll do this, but otherwise, these folks have got you covered over here. Everybody’s job is to keep their egos in check.
You spent a day on the frontlines. What was that like?
It was awful. It was October 27 I think, and it was pretty traumatizing. I went with a nurse, because you always have a buddy. You always go with a buddy, and you always keep sight of your buddy. And if you’re treating somebody, your buddy is watching where the police are so that nothing bad happens.
That was a really bad day, that was a day where they actually grabbed my friend (a medic). She was driving her car, but the police actually opened the door and grabbed her while the car was still in drive. And they arrested her, they arrested my other friend that was a medic. Doing the whole like, beating him on the ground, saying "Quit resisting," and beating him.
That was the day they shot a horse and it died. The point was like, “Know that if we shoot a horse, we’ll shoot you.” It was just a display of dominance. They had all the people with their guns trained on you and all their military vehicles, and it just felt like a predator was about to just kill you. Like they didn’t care about your humanity, they were going to run you over; they were going to violate you.
And this was on top of the fact that this was pretty much psychological warfare. They had helicopters buzzing overhead all night, like every seven to 11 minutes. Somebody timed it. They’d just circle over the camp. There’s nothing to see, there's no lights! There was a couple campfires. But the point was to keep us awake.
What kinds of things were you treating, especially on the front lines?
Mainly pepper spray and mace in the eyes and all over the body. I mean, it’s so painful, and these are not people who have spent their life protesting. People were like, “I think I’m having a reaction to it.” No, that’s just what it’s supposed to do, unfortunately. It was just holding somebody’s hand because they’re scared and can’t see.
They would shoot bean bags and rubber bullets. They’re not even called “non lethal” they’re called “less-lethal.” They would leave these huge welts.
I remember one guy, he’s just kind of running past me with his friends, and he was shirtless and he’s like “Look!” to his friend, and he does have a rib deformity from where they hit him. And I don’t want him to have a punctured lung. And I have my stethoscope, and I’m like “Can I just please listen to your lungs?” and he’s like “What?” and I’m like, “I see your rib there, can I just please listen to your lungs?” And he said, “Sure.” So he takes some deep breaths and I hear good air movement and so I’m like, “Okay, thank you!” and he’s says, “Sure!” and off he goes!
Do you foresee more action like this under the new administration?
I can see that happening, people feeling like they need to be more active and visible. I learned about so many groups that are already active. It was kind of my own ignorance, basically, that I didn’t know there were Madison chapters of these certain groups that they can tell you where the next pipeline is being laid; they are completely on top of this.
Once you say you want to do something, you learn you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are other people already doing this, and you just find them.
What’s your advice to people taking part in protests?
People are going to be following what they’re passionate about. You didn't see anybody there who wasn’t really called to get in their car and drive from Colorado to Standing Rock. I do think that you just find a way. You’ve got to love the internet. I did a search for twenty minutes and found Standing Rock and got connected, and now I’m this consultant on the Medic and Healer Council.
I just can’t say enough good things about the folks that are still at Standing Rock. You drive away and you wish you could stay, you always wish you could do more.