Water Protectors load into canoes on July 15, 2021, before paddling up the Shell River to take part in a direct action against Enbridge Line 3 pipeline construction in Menahga, northern Minnesota. During a time of increasing climate crises, the fossil fuel project has been widely opposed by Indigenous communities and environmentalists alike. Credit: Tim Evans

By Maria Maring

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although Line 3 is far north of Urbana-Champaign, it is important that we acknowledge that the University of Illinois exists upon the traditional lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations.

 

Before I begin this oil pipeline story, a few disclaimers . . .

First, the political battle surrounding the Line 3 pipeline is a fast-moving target. Between the time that I visited the frontlines in July 2021 and the writing of this piece in November 2021, Line 3 was completed. Will oil still be flowing when you read this article? I pray not.

Second, I am cognizant of my whiteness as I write about this Indigenous-led movement. I aim not to be a white savior nor to replace Indigenous voices with my own. Being an ally is a constant learning process; therefore, I recognize and apologize for my naivety in navigating this delicate space. Merely, I witnessed this movement, and I want to share that story.

Third, this memoir only scratches the surface of Line 3. There are so many facets to this illegal pipeline, it is impossible to pay them all adequate attention in a single essay. I encourage you, reader, to continue your research and activism beyond this narrative.

 

• • • • •

 

I struggled to write after returning from Minnesota. The cliché “words could never describe” was never more applicable, as much as that frustrated me. Yet, every time I tried to recount my memories and synthesize my emotions, my mind became almost as thick and hazy as the wildfire-ridden Minnesota air.

So, let’s start with the most basic facts. Enbridge is a Canadian multinational pipeline company worth more than $163 billion as of 2019, and it boasts more than 3,000 miles of pipeline throughout the North American continent. It is to blame for more than 800 spills in the last 15 years alone. In 1991, Enbridge caused the largest inland oil spill to date when the old Line 3 released 1.7 million gallons of oil into Minnesota ecosystems. Nineteen years later, it caused the second-largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

The current Line 3 project aims to expand the corroded and leaking 1960s-era Line 3. This pipeline carries tar sands oil — from which the resulting gasoline produces 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional oil — from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wis. The Line 3 Replacement Program has established 337 miles of new pipeline through Minnesota and abandoned 282 miles of old pipeline. Line 3 also includes 13 miles through North Dakota and 14 miles through Wisconsin. The revamped pipeline crosses 200 bodies of water, including the headwaters of the Mississippi, and it carries more than 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day.

On the human rights side, there is a direct link between pipeline construction projects and sexual violence, against both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women and girls. The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance explains that temporary settlements of pipeline construction workers become places of “isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and racism.” In February 2021, two Line 3 workers were arrested for sex trafficking; two more were arrested in July. As of June 2021, more than 40 reports were made to a Minnesota crisis center about Line 3 workers harassing local women and girls. Already, one in three Indigenous women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, and they are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average — bleak statistics disproportionately higher than any other demographic. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) and No More Stolen Sisters movements have been striving to bring these discussions into the spotlight.

The new Line 3 invades the Fond du Lac Reservation and the 1855 treaty area surrounding the Leech Lake Reservation. Credit: Enbridge

Though the new Line 3 avoids Leech Lake Reservation, it still invades Fond du Lac Reservation, as seen in Enbridge’s Line 3 map. What is completely missing from the Enbridge map, however, is the lands ceded to the Anishinaabe people by the Treaty of 1855. Line 3 is explicitly illegal by encroaching on and endangering areas for hunting, fishing, manoomin (wild rice), and cultural resources of the Anishinaabeg, rights guaranteed in 1855. Not only is Line 3 illegal, but it perpetuates the colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

 

• • • • •

 

I began my journey last summer at the Water Protector Welcome Center in Palisade, Aitkin County. I chose Palisade over the countless other camps because it’s where most Water Protectors get their start, going through a vetting process to ensure they’re not spies. Also, I knew a few people at the camp, so I wasn’t totally alone. I made the 13-hour drive on pure adrenaline, not knowing what to expect. Previous to this experience, I had a very superficial idea of climate and social activism. I had romanticized the frontlines, imagining activists with flags slung around their shoulders, swinging off bulldozers like acrobats, fists pumped in the air — a Eugène Delacroix-esque scene. Alas, the frontlines were much more subdued than a battlefield.

The entryway of the Water Protector Welcome Center in Palisade, Minn. Credit: Maria Maring

The Welcome Center was founded on an activist’s private property-turned-base camp, situated on the headwaters of the Mississippi River and Highway 10. The landowners’ sheds served as storage for food, protest signs, and medical supplies. The front yard was littered with collapsible camping chairs, whiteboards with scrawled lists of supplies and protest ideas, and tons of artwork with slogans like “Love water, not oil,” “Water is life,” and my favorite, “This is not ecotourism.”

The property continued to the banks of the river, where months of activists’ marching feet had stamped down the grass. Primitive campsites dotted the path. The constant white noise of the moving water was peaceful, the droning mosquitos less so.

When I arrived, acquainting myself with the sleepy grounds, the veteran camp members’ walkie-talkies started blowing up: “There’s cops on boats, I repeat, there’s cops on boats.” We proceeded to the easement — the strip of land that the government acquired for Enbridge to build underneath. Intruding on the otherwise contiguous tree line were huge bulldozers and broken land. On the banks of the river, Enbridge workers decorated in neon vests were roping off the area, lowering a small pump into the drought-ridden Mississippi and using their hardhats as hammers to plow stakes into the ground. We Water Protectors chuckled: Where’s OSHA when you need ’em? The water was extra murky and 10 feet lower than its typical level. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) personnel in riot-proof wear were aboard speedboats, protecting the pump. Why was the MDNR protecting the water thieves instead of the natural resource — water?

Enbridge had legally obtained permits from the MDNR to use 500 million gallons of water for construction purposes. Then, on June 4, 2021 (a couple of weeks before my arrival), the MDNR inexplicably amended the permit for 5 billion gallons of water amid a historic drought. It doesn’t take an expert conservationist to conclude that the amendment made no sense; there is good reason to suspect that the MDNR is taking orders from Enbridge.

As of April 2021, Enbridge had paid law enforcement upwards of $750,000. The rationale is to make Enbridge pay for the extra law enforcement costs associated with pipeline construction so that Minnesota taxpayers don’t have to pay extra — which isn’t a bad idea, at least for taxpayers. However, the police and MDNR are now inadvertently biased: The more hours they work, the more arrests they make, the more handsome their paychecks are. Subsequently, peaceful Water Protectors have been shot with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, surveilled, and cited with copious charges including felonies, leading to unparalleled stress on Minnesota’s legal systems. In the words of the Sierra Club: “Local police have been defending a pipeline company’s right to make a profit as the world burns, instead of defending our right to clean air, clean water, and a stable climate.” Enbridge has both the MDNR and law enforcement in its pockets.

In Minnesota, I witnessed that power dynamic firsthand. The Department of Natural Resources, the government entity that is supposed to safeguard our land, water, and air, instead protects the company violating Earth with corporate-funded weapons. In my naivety, I thought the Department of Natural Resources truly prioritized Earth’s well-being. When I instead witnessed the epitome of corruption, I felt so empty. Each night, lulled to sleep by the incessant beeping and drilling of the machinery just outside my tent, I cried.

 

• • • • •

 

My subsequent experience at so-called Shell City, Minn. was very unlike that at Palisade.

Winona LaDuke. Credit: Stop Line 3

For months, Winona LaDuke, an Indigenous environmental activist, founder of Honor the Earth, and hero of mine, had been occupying a campground on the banks of the Shell River, named for its absurdly dense population of freshwater mussels. Now, thanks to unpredictable weather patterns, water pollution, and acidification, the mollusk namesakes of Shell River are dying in swaths nationwide. Line 3 will only further jeopardize these organisms, which are essential for water purification and other ecosystem services.

I drove two hours from Palisade to Shell City for an event called Women for the Rivers. Though not as large as the Treaty People Gathering the month previous, a charter bus from Minneapolis brought about 200 people, in addition to the couple hundred out-of-staters like myself who came independently. We milled about the Shell City Campground, located mere meters from the Shell River. In the middle of the area was a huge tipi with beautiful artwork on all sides: deer and bears and fish and other creatures, each antler, claw, and scale given careful artistic attention. Near the wooden staircase leading down to the river were a few dozen canoes and kayaks all colorfully decorated with phrases like “Honor the treaties.” Honor the Earth was selling merch and manoomin in the corner of the campground. A hundred or so folding metal chairs faced the river in a semicircle, a microphone stand and amp at the ready. Cameras sat atop tripods as both local and national reporters waited.

There are three different tiers of direct action, organized according to arrest-ability: red, yellow, and green. Green means you do not want to risk arrest or fines whatsoever. This may look like peacefully walking in a march. On the other end of the spectrum, red means that you intend to stir up some trouble, perhaps by chaining yourself to machinery. Yellow is the in-between: If the moment arises, you are willing to incur a citation or two; if not, just as well. I declared myself yellow, so I reported to the registration desk to provide emergency contact information. We also were instructed to ink the bail fund phone number in Sharpie somewhere on our bodies, so that even stripped of all our possessions, we could still call for help from jail.

As noon approached, we took our seats. The presentation began with the distribution of sacred tobacco to offer to the river. We passed around burning sage nestled into a mussel shell, beckoning the smoke into our auras, preparing us for the direct action that would follow.

The speakers ranged from LaDuke to Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune to a youth from White Earth Reservation, and they all had a similar message: We must hold President Joe Biden, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and the state of Minnesota accountable, and together we can stop this environmental degradation and blatant racism against the Anishinaabeg.

After the speakers, we traveled 1 or 2 miles from the campground to the easement. Some folks boarded the charter bus and drove there. Some mounted horses and maneuvered along a trail. Others, myself included, paddled kayaks and canoes down the Shell. We all brought bouquets of flowers as symbols of peace, love, and hope in the oppressive face of Enbridge.

At the intersection of the pipeline and river, the tree line broke to make way for a sprawling, ugly boardwalk running perpendicular to the river. We dismounted from our boats and splashed into cold water, the insidious “black snake” of the pipeline sleeping just below our feet. We “yellow” and “red” folks hiked up the steep incline of the boardwalk to the construction site — which is technically trespassing on federal property. The “green” folks stayed in the river to pray and chant.

Police guarding a Line 3 construction site near Shell City Campground in Shell City, Minn., on the day of the Women for the Rivers event. Credit: Maria Maring

At the crest of the boardwalk, the construction site came into view. On what would otherwise be a wooded area, the ground was barren. Tall metal fences surrounded the bulldozers and spotlights and drills. Three police officers were waiting for us. I took note of the guns, tasers, and yellow plastic handcuffs on their hips. They were calm, even robotic. As some Water Protectors tried to engage with the police — spitting facts about MMIWG2S and the environmental degradation and economic pitfalls that come with a pipeline — the officers gazed past us as if we weren’t even there. No arrests were made.

I sat down on the hard wood and closed my eyes. I listened to the drums and song in the distance. I thanked — not God, but some entity — for the opportunity to be here and do what is important. I thanked the universe for such a beautiful day, for such a beautiful ceremony, and for such beautiful company. The horses whinnied and the dogs barked with the songs as if they, too, knew the lyrics. At that moment, I knew that even if Line 3 became operational (which it did), good people fighting the good fight do exist. Suffering immensely every day from climate anxiety, I often feel alone and doomed, but not then. In that moment, I felt empowered and unafraid.

I had to depart the next day. It was morning, and most people were still snoring in their tents. Emotional, I retreated to the bank of the river to stand in her and say goodbye and thank you. LaDuke was also there. I tried to keep a distance from her, not wanting to disturb her meditations, and also not wanting her to see me cry. But she approached me and thanked me for coming to Minnesota and fighting Enbridge alongside her and everyone else.

She chuckled to me, “You know, redheads are my lucky charm.”

I didn’t feel so lucky when Line 3 became operational three months later in October 2021.

 

• • • • •

 

According to the United Nations, the definition of genocide is: “Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as … deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” I’d say Line 3 fits the bill. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is currently investigating Enbridge for its offenses against the Anishinaabe. However, bureaucratic wheels turn slowly, and oil is now flowing.

Like the arrival of the pilgrims, like Manifest Destiny, like Termination, like every treaty that has been broken over the centuries, Line 3 is another instance of the U.S. government stealing Indigenous land, life, and liberty. Line 3 is the epitome of modern-day colonization and genocide. Days after Line 3 became operational, LaDuke published an opinion piece in the Star Tribune, and she concluded, “It’s time to quit acting like Columbus.”

Still, good things are happening. The Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International reported that as of August 2021, Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed the equivalent of one-quarter of U.S. and Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden proclaimed Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year. During the entire week of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, momentous demonstrations occurred in Washington D.C., during which more than 650 people were arrested, all demanding that Biden declare a climate emergency.

Most pertinently, Line 3 was initially scheduled to be operational in 2017. Water Protectors successfully caused such a ruckus that it wasn’t completed until 2021. Success is a convoluted and subjective thing. Though Line 3 is operational, we were successful. In the words of LaDuke:

In one narrative, the Canadian corporation (Enbridge) won. Columbus conquered anew, proof that might and money remain the rulers. Then, there’s another. That’s the Ballad of the Water Protectors — a movement born in the battles in northern Minnesota and North Dakota, a movement that will grow and transform the economy of the future.

About the Author …

Maria Maring is Q Magazine’s Volume 4 Student Editor. A senior from Carbondale, Ill., she is double-majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and Spanish, with a minor in National Resource Conservation. She is also an iSEE Communications Intern.

Her research trip to Minnesota was sponsored by a generous donation from Janelle Joseph.

 

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