By Frank Bures
Cover image by Keri Pickett ©
One morning in September, on a small bridge across the Mississippi in northern Minnesota, where the river is no bigger than a stream, a group of activists gathered in the fog to erect a teepee frame. They wore masks and bandanas over their faces. Behind them, heavy machinery idled, waiting. Across the poles of the teepee, the activists draped a banner that read: “Stop Line 3.”
The protesters were part of the “Ginew Collective,” a secretive group, run by Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) women, that has banded together to fight the replacement of Enbridge Energy Partners’ Line 3, a pipeline that runs from Joliet, North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. The new construction would replace a section of Line 3 that was built in the 1960s and is aging badly, but would follow a different route through the heart of Ojibwe Treaty Territory, where local tribes still have hunting, fishing and gathering rights. The bridge on which the activists were standing was near where the proposed pipeline would cross the Mississippi, pushing some 760,000 barrels of oil across the state each day.
The Ginew Collective is one of several groups that have cropped up since the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission initially approved construction of the pipeline last summer, against the wishes of the tribes, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the legions of “Water Protectors” who have traveled north over concerns ranging from protecting wild rice from oil spills to catastrophic climate change. Other groups include the “Ojibwe Warrior Society,” as well as several resistance “camps” along Line 3’s route. They are part of what The New York Times calls a “historic moment” in Native American political activism across the country. As Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said last January, “over the past year and a half, something has happened.…As a band, we are awake.”
The new Line 3 route passes near the White Earth Indian Reservation, where Winona LaDuke, one of the leaders of the pipeline resistance, lives. LaDuke, who ran for public office twice as Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential candidate, is executive director of Honor the Earth, an environmental group that she founded in 1993 with Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, of the folk-rock duo The Indigo Girls. For the past five years, she’s been at the forefront of the resistance movement, leading protests across the country, from Standing Rock to the People’s Climate March.
Last fall, I drove to White Earth to sit down with LaDuke. I’d first seen her speak when I was a college student in 1993, and I was captivated by her charisma and the moral clarity she seemed to exude. Later, I would cast my vote for her (more than for Nader). But now, as things seem murkier and more dire, I wanted to know where she saw things going—for the pipeline and beyond. “I think we’ve had enough,” she told me. “We’re done with stuff being taken from us. Our rice is our life.”
LaDuke was born in Los Angeles, in 1959, to Betty LaDuke, an artist from a Yiddish-speaking home in the Bronx whose work often featured themes of social justice, and Vincent LaDuke, an actor and publisher of a pan-Indian newspaper called Many Smokes. Vincent had been born on White Earth, but he didn’t stick around. Instead, he traveled the country and met Betty at a friend’s apartment in New York City. The two fell in love and moved California, where they lived on his sporadic income from bit movie parts as an Indian falling off horses, and later from her income as an art teacher.
When Winona was five years old, Betty got a teaching job at a college in Ashland, Oregon, and she and Vincent parted ways. Mother and daughter headed north. Betty put down roots to raise Winona. She remarried and had a son. Vincent went to Nevada, changed his name to “Sun Bear,” and founded an intentional community called the “Bear Medicine Society,” which he later moved to Washington state. “Our pathways grew apart,” Betty says now. “There was no bitterness.”
There was, however, some bitterness from other Native leaders. As his fame rose, and he became a kind of New Age guru, he was criticized for selling ceremonies to outsiders and labeled a “spiritual entrepreneur” or a “plastic shaman.” But for those drawn to his charisma and his vision, like Marline “Wabun” Wind, he had a simple message: “A lot of Sun Bear’s teachings were about self-sufficiency,” Wind told me. “We built a full farm. We had biodynamic gardens. We had cows and horses and chickens and goats and other animals. We tried to grow most of our food, and to preserve it. We built everything from the ground up.”
Winona didn’t see her father much over those years. She was busy growing up with her mother, stepfather (an entomologist), and brother in Ashland, a college town in the Cascade Mountains with its own Shakespeare festival. She played piano, skipped a grade, and found her calling in high school debate, where her team won many tournaments. The final topic her senior year was something she’d spend the rest of her life debating: National Energy Policy.
LaDuke finished high school in 1976, then enrolled at Harvard, where she studied alongside people like Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman and Caroline Kennedy. One day, a speaker from the American Indian Movement (AIM) named Jimmy Durham came to campus. He talked about Indigenous people’s rights as international rights, and about colonialism, corporations and governments taking things from Native people. He framed things in a way LaDuke had never heard, but which resonated with her deeply.
Afterward, Durham asked LaDuke to assist him in researching energy policy. So, in 1977, she took her sophomore year off and got involved helping both the North Cheyenne, who were fighting coal mining on their land, and the Navaho, who were fighting uranium mining on theirs. That same year, the United Nations held its first U.N. conference on the rights of Indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere, and Durham asked LaDuke if she would go along as a researcher. “I probably had twenty bucks in my pocket, and I took it to Geneva,” she said.
At the conference, Durham was frustrated that the other AIM leaders didn’t seem to be taking it seriously. “Russell Means and those guys were being really cool revolutionaries,” LaDuke recalled. “But they weren’t figuring out the U.N. strategy.” Durham wrote a long letter, gave it to LaDuke, and flew home.
“I had just turned 18, and there I was with this three-page note to Russell Means, which said, ‘This is what you do. Get it together,’” LaDuke explained. “And he’s like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Winona…the researcher.’ I was not supposed to be there, but I ended up reporting to the commission on natural resources, because I was the one with the skill set to collect the documents. So I testified.”
Back in the U.S., LaDuke kept working to help tribes push back against energy companies in New Mexico, California and South Dakota. Then one day she was at a meeting for the Black Hill Alliance in South Dakota, and she ran into an AIM activist from White Earth, Vernon Bellecourt, who was also a relative of hers. He told her to go home and work for her own people; they needed her. So, in 1981, that’s what she did.
LaDuke wore many hats in those years—school principal, oral historian, ‘Slow Food’ advocate—but she was not done with energy policy. Because twenty odd years after she moved to White Earth, in the first decade of the 2000s, fuel began pouring out of the ground in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and flowing across Minnesota in a torrent.
LaDuke first got involved in the pipeline campaign in the summer of 2013, when Enbridge Energy Partners announced they wanted to build the “Sandpiper” line across the state of Minnesota to deliver Bakken crude to Superior, Wisconsin. By chance, LaDuke had heard the name “Enbridge” just a few months earlier. She’d been speaking at the University of Alberta in Edmonton when a local woman approached her to ask if she’d come to a hearing for the Northern Gateway pipeline. She agreed.
“I walked in and I saw all these tribal people from really remote northern villages,” LaDuke said. “They were coming in and crying because their water was contaminated, and Enbridge had sent them out with chainsaw pants to clean up the oil spill. I thought, ‘That’s really, really messed up.’ So when I heard they had this project in Minnesota, I said, ‘That’s not going to work. We can’t be like those people.’”
She immediately resigned from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which she’d founded in the mid-1980s as part of the tribe’s effort to claw back some of its territory, ninety percent of which had been illegally seized or stolen. “When it became clear the pipeline was coming,” LaDuke told me, “I knew I couldn’t run away. I knew I had to put my energy into the pipeline battle.”
From then on, LaDuke focused her energies on Honor the Earth, which joined a coalition of groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Headwaters, and MN350. Their goal was to stop the Sandpiper, which risked spilling oil across the state. But they also saw the battle as bigger than the pipeline.
This was a “turning point,” said Andy Pearson, of MN350. “Is the state going to uphold its commitment to the Paris Accord? Are we locked in to thirty more years of fossil fuel infrastructure here? Or are we taking this moment to move to something different? This is one of those places where Minnesota has some leverage to make a move in the right direction.”
In 2014, two smaller groups (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Friends of the Headwaters) sued the state of Minnesota to require an Environmental Impact Statement for the Sandpiper. They won, which delayed the approval significantly. Meanwhile the energy market shifted, prices dropped and, citing delays, Enbridge announced in 2016 that it would not pursue the Sandpiper. Rather, it would to focus on replacing Line 3, which runs from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
“To keep Line 3 safe,” company spokesperson Shannon Gustafson said, “we would need to perform 6,250 integrity digs over the next fifteen years.” Besides, she added, the demand is there: “There is no excess capacity on Enbridge’s main line system. And demand for capacity is expected to grow even under the most conservative forecasts.”
But LaDuke and the other water protectors would force the issue, in the belief that shutting down the line will speed the transition to renewables and to local energy production. “She’s a great strategist, and she refuses to back down,” says Honor the Earth board co-chair Paul Demain. “She isn’t afraid to sit in front of a dozen Enbridge guys, get in their face, and start asking questions none of them want to answer.”
The fight against pipelines in Minnesota started before the protests at Standing Rock. But the momentum of actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL have spread across the country. Activists continue to protest the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Appalachia, and the Mariner East pipeline in Pennsylvania. These battles have become flashpoints in a larger war over not just the individual projects, but over the larger direction of the economy.
In Minnesota, protests continue across the state and in its capitol. Last spring, after an extensive review period, an Administrative Law Judge recommended that Line 3 be approved only along the same corridor, but only if the old pipeline was removed. This past summer, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave initial approval to an entirely new route. In October, the commission finalized that second decision.
Honor the Earth and the other groups plan to appeal the approval. Enbridge has yet to secure a couple of permits, but the company has already started “pre-construction”—logging and repair roads around the proposed line. The Ginew Collective and others have mobilized to block this activity. Currently there are at least three known resistance camps, with more likely in the works.
“This is the last pipeline,” LaDuke told me. “This is the last battle, and that battle is in Minnesota…We expect thousands of people to join us. There’s a very volatile situation in the north country, and the question is, do they want to shoot me for a Canadian pipeline company? Because I am not moving.”
When I visited LaDuke last fall, instead of sitting down in her office, I rode along in her pickup as she ran errands in the town of Detroit Lakes. We stopped at the grocery store to get food for the eleven or so people living at her home (children, grandchildren, and water protectors who had migrated to her orbit). We stopped at Menard’s to get plastic to cover her yurt. We stopped to load 500 pounds of horse feed for her new farm, where she grows hemp and food.
It started snowing. The roads were slick, and the ditches littered with cars. We headed out of town toward White Earth. As we drove, I peppered her with questions about the pipeline, about her past, and about the future she envisions.
“I’ve spent most of my life fighting stupid energy projects,” LaDuke said. “We’ve won most of the battles. The problem is you might win now, but then they come back. So what I figured out was that while we were defeating projects, we were not changing the level of consumption.
“I’m ready for the next economy in Minnesota,” she continued. “I’m tired of this one. It’s just destroying everything. It has too many poor choices. Nothing has trickled down to my economy. The next one is going to be regional. It’s going to be one that has renewable energy, local and organic foods and hemp in an integrated economy.”
Years ago, far from White Earth, LaDuke’s father had tried to create a place where people could come, grow their own food, live off the land, and remove themselves from the system he hated. As we rode through the storm, I asked LaDuke what she makes of Sun Bear’s complicated legacy. “People say he was controversial,” she said, “but I think he was probably more misunderstood. Did he hold gatherings where people paid? Yeah. Did he invite in a lot of non-Indians? Yes. But it was his belief that we all have to work in this together.”
There is a world of difference between LaDuke and Sun Bear, but like her father, she dreams of a world that is independent, strong and sustainable. And, also like her father, she’s trying to build that at home. LaDuke is trying to bridge the gap between the old world and the new, between Native and western—between the world that needs pipelines and the one that doesn’t.
In Pondford, we drove to LaDuke’s new “business incubator” called Akiing, which houses a small manufacturing facility for solar thermal panels. A few blocks away, she pointed to a piece of land. “This is the lot I’m thinking of buying,” she said. “It’s got some great houses on it. I was kind of inspired by a movie called Welcome to Leith, about a town in North Dakota that the Nazis bought. So I was like, ‘Why don’t we just buy a town?’ I mean, half of it’s for sale. What if we just did cool stuff here?”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I’d like to see manufacturing. Light manufacturing. Organic food. I think the hemp economy will make up some of it. I’d like to have our ceremonial drums back. I want them home.” She pointed to another lot. “All this is for sale here,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. Every year I spend my money on building this up here. I’d like to see us be well. That’s my retirement plan: That our nation is strong, and I can still fish and eat off my land.”
Frank Bures is the editor of Belt Publishing’s forthcoming Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, and the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes. He previously wrote about Richard Florida for Belt. Read more at frankbures.com.
*Portions of this story first appeared in Minnesota Monthly in March 2018.
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