• April 14, 2021

Minn. Police Push Back Against Indigenous, Line 3 Pipeline Protestors

 Minn. Police Push Back Against Indigenous, Line 3 Pipeline Protestors

Students spot an eagle while canoeing on the Mississippi River in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

PALISADE, Minn. — When we met last month, Tania Aubid had been on a hunger strike since Valentine’s Day. A member of the Mille Lac Band of Ojibwe from East Lake, Minn., she used her body to protest the Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project — which would nearly double the capacity of the corroding Line 3 pipeline that transports hundred of thousands of barrels of tar sands oil from Canada to Wisconsin. If completed, the 36-inch pipeline corridor will pass under 200 lakes and streams, through 78 mile`s of wetlands. It will also traverse the Leech Lake and Mille Lac Ojibwe tribal reservations, which are supposed to be protected by an 1855 treaty.

This isn’t Aubid’s first pipeline protest. She spent nine months at Standing Rock, protesting and also going on a hunger strike to show solidarity with the Dakota people in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Now, she’s fighting pipeline construction at her ancestral home.

“It’s been a good process,” Aubid, who hadn’t eaten a meal in more than 20 days at this point, told The News Station.  

“I’m on the third week right now, along with another lady here at camp. We’ve both been checking in with each other, making sure that we’re doing good and able to get teas or waters, you know, just things to be able to keep in our system to keep us going,” Aubid continued, as her small frame was engulfed in a fold up chair on a brisk March day here in Minnesota.

The Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project is a $2.6 billion renewal and expansion of the existing Line 3 pipeline, which has been in use since the 1960s. The project is intended to expand capacity by adding a new pipeline corridor through northern Minnesota. It will replace the old, corroding pipe. Enbridge, a Canadian energy corporation and the company behind the pipeline, first proposed the project back in 2014, but it’s now here. 

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is one of four Anishinaabe tribes publicly opposed to the pipeline. Ojibwe people migrated from the land which is now Quebec to the Great Lakes region in the 1600s. Tribal leaders see the pipeline as an existential threat to their lives, their land, their water and their wild rice: a sacred crop to the Ojibwe tribes. 

Water protectors at a Line 3 pipeline protest. Photo by Lindsay Weber

Wild rice, or manoomin, grows in several of the watersheds Line 3 will cross — it is not only a staple in the diet of many Ojibwe tribal members but also an important symbol of the Ojibwe peoples’ relationship with the natural world. The Line 3 expansion threatens to destroy it.

At campgrounds set up in the woods just a stone’s throw away from the construction site, Aubid joins more than 200 fellow anti-pipeline activists — known as water protectors — and their allies. Rather than a protest, this water protector gathering is an expression of solidarity with pipeline opponents facing legal charges for participating in protests.

Thus far, more than 170 people have been arrested for protesting the pipeline through acts of civil disobedience. Since construction began, protectors have locked themselves inside the pipeline, chained themselves to construction equipment and physically blocked off roads leading to the construction grounds. Indigenous leaders say their civil disobedience is an act of sacrifice: their bodies and physical safety in exchange for the possibility of clean, livable lands.

“We’re putting our bodies and our freedom on the line for a reason — to show that we care about our Mother [Earth] and are willing to be uncomfortable and self-sacrifice and do something about it,” says Tara Houska, a member of Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe and founder of the Indigenous-led Giniw Collective, one of the organizations fighting against Line 3.

Many of those previously arrested have arraignments and court dates coming up, so Aubid and the others are showing solidarity in today’s muddy conditions, as snow melts back into the land, the annual sign of the frigid Minnesota winter giving way to spring.

Attendees gathered here to share stories of their arrests and energize their movement to stop Line 3. 

‘The supreme laws of these lands’

Springtime in Minnesota marks the beginning of maple syrup season, and the Anishinnaabe are syrup and sugar producers. Indigenous leaders joined with their water protector allies — a largely young, college-aged crowd — to tap trees for sweet sap in early March at the Water Protector Welcome center, a hub for anti-pipeline activists.

An 1855 treaty between the United States and Ojibwe tribes established the Leech Lake and Mille Lac Ojibwe reservations, which the new Line 3 corridor will cross through. It also grants tribal members land use rights to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice in the territory the Anishinaabe ceded to the United States. Indigenous water protectors say the Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Project is in violation of their treaty rights.

Since we did not give [Enbridge] our permission to put that pipeline in, they are trampling over our treaty rights: the supreme laws of these lands

Tania Aubid said.

If the project is completed, as it is set to be by this summer, it would transport 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil each day — the existing pipeline only carries 390,000 barrels a day in its corroded state. 

Tar sands oil is a particularly noxious crude oil which emits up to three times more pollution than the same quantity of conventional crude oil and creates hazardous byproducts, like petroleum coke during the refining process.

Enbridge defends the project by arguing the construction is a “modernization project”– the pipeline is already in use and the new corridor is just replacing corroding parts of the existing pipeline. But the project will nearly double the amount of oil the pipeline transports daily, and it could cost up to $287 billion in climate related damages, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Arguably the most pressing concern for many water protectors is a pipeline leak. The pipeline crosses through hundreds of bodies of water, including untouched lakes and wetlands, some of the largest wild rice beds in the world and the nation’s second longest waterway: The Mississippi River. And, in the event of a spill, tar sands oil is close to impossible to clean up.

For water protectors, it’s not a matter of if the pipeline will leak but when. The pipeline has already spilled three times since its construction in the 1960s.

“Look what happened to Kalamazoo,” Aubid says.

She’s referring to the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill, in which Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline burst, unleashing more than 20,000  barrels of crude oil into the water. The Federal Department of Transportation fined Enbridge $3.7 million, citing 22 probable violations Enbridge committed relating to the spill.

The 2010 oil spill on the Kalamazoo River. Photo courtesy of taxpayers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The resistance to Line 3 has been ongoing since the project was announced seven years ago. Opponents opened the first pipeline resistance camp in 2017 in Northern Minnesota, and they have continuously participated in civil disobedience as well as legal appeals to shut the pipeline down. 

Pipeline opposition ramped up as Enbridge began construction at the end of 2020, after receiving the final permit needed from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Enbridge began construction the next day. 

Indigenous-led organizations, including Camp Migizi, the Giniw Collective and Honor the Earth, are leading the Stop Line 3 campaign. Several resistance camps, where water protectors live in tents, yurts and cabins full-time near the construction grounds as they protest Line 3, have grown in numbers of late as more people join the movement.

Art, who is among those who asked we not identify them because they are facing legal charges as a result of their participation in pipeline resistance, is a 30-year-old indigenous water protector. They — as Art prefers to be called — are originally from the nation’s capital and moved up to Northern Minnesota in December, shortly after Enbridge began construction, with what they called a “broad, dope queer Two-Spirit Indigenous community.”

Art was one of 74 attendees cited at a protest in Grand Rapids, Minn. in early March. Protesters gathered by a rest stop in the Northern Minnesota town to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the largest in-land oil spill in US history, which took place in 1991 in Grand Rapids and spilled 1.7 million gallons of oil into the frozen Prairie River. 

The culprit? The original Line 3 pipeline.

The Line 3 protesters say police officers in Grand Rapids surrounded them when they took to the street. Within minutes, more than 20 Itasca County sheriffs and Minnesota state troopers’ cars arrived, according to multiple protesters who attended. 

They felt ambushed.

“We were engaging in peaceful protests,” Art says. “We were simply saying that ‘hey, we’re a group of people that are concerned about the environment, and we want to stop the construction of Line 3.”

“We took to the streets, and then within like, three seconds, the police showed up,” Art added. “And it wasn’t one cop car, two cop cars. It was 23 cop cars that arrived.” 

The water protectors’ fight against Line 3’s construction is intensifying. As the weather warms and the Mississippi thaws, Enbridge workers will begin drilling a tunnel under the mighty river to allow the pipeline to pass underneath.

Photo by Lindsay Weber

Looking Ahead

Water protectors know they need to keep the pressure up now. Their strategy is two-fold: delay construction of the pipeline while simultaneously pressuring state, local and federally elected officials to put an immediate stop to it.

In December, the Sierra Club, Honor the Earth and the White Earth and Reed Lake Bands of Ojibwe filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn the US Army Corps’ permit to construct Line 3. The lawsuit is pending, so physically delaying the pipeline’s construction could prove fruitful for the water protectors as they await the lawsuit’s outcome. 

Their hope is that federally elected officials intervene on their behalf immediately. President Joe Biden’s recent Keystone XL cancellation offers them some hope that, perhaps, their sacred lands will also catch the president’s eye. 

“Joe Biden and [Minnesota Governor] Tim Walz both have the power to stop Line 3, and they both have not yet,” says Sarah, a 22-year-old college student and water protector who asked that we not use their name because of pending legal charges. “At this point, that seems like the only viable way to be stopping this pipeline, because water protectors can hold up construction, they can delay construction, but they can’t stop it on their own.”

Enbridge is funding the local police response to protests and direct actions: The Minnesota Public Utilities Committee requires Enbridge to reimburse local police agencies’ time responding to anti-pipeline demonstrations. And a February report from The Intercept revealed local sheriffs office’s are billing Enbridge for tens of thousands of dollars worth of riot gear, tear gas, batons and pepper spray.  

Winona LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and founder of the environmental organization Honor the Earth, is facing six charges for her participation in protests and demonstrations against the pipeline. She points to Enbridge’s funding of the police response as evidence police are attempting to quash the movement entirely.

“We feel like the police are incentivized by Enbridge because Enbridge pays for overtime,” LaDuke told The News Station. “Enbridge pays for what seems to be a lot of excessive behavior …I’ve seen people standing on the side of the road be arrested for unlawful assembly more than once, and it seems rather difficult to arrest someone on the side of the road, which is public right of way, for an unlawful assembly.”

Water protectors know the stakes are high — the number of activists facing charges is likely to grow in the weeks to come. Law enforcement agencies have been training for months to respond to direct actions they predict will take place once they begin drilling beneath the river this summer. But the solidarity event is a testament to their ongoing resistance.

“It’s mostly defendants here, right?” Tara Houska, founder of the Giniw Collective, asks a group of water protectors. “Who has been arrested?”

Seven or eight attendees raise hands.

“Who here feels deterred from still fighting Line 3?”

No hands rise.

As construction draws near completion, water protectors expect more and more people to join the movement against Line 3. Most of the people here joined the movement at the end of last year or or earlier this year. 

Photo by Lindsay Weber

“These are some of the biggest numbers we’ve had so far just here, and this is going to keep happening and keep escalating,” Jay — a 20-year-old college student and water protector who requested we change their name for legal reasons — told The News Station. “I’m assuming in a couple of months, we will have hundreds if not thousands of people up here.”

Sage smolders in fire pits as an organizer calls on all water protectors facing legal charges to gather in a circle in the center of the campgrounds. The sound of drums fills the air as defendants receive a tobacco plant in the palm of their hand. Leaders say a prayer for the defendants, offering them healing and protection as they face their legal battles. 

Since my time with them in early March, several more water protectors have been arrested. And Aubid’s hunger strike ended on March 23. She went 38 days total without food.

But her fight is not over yet. That same day, attorneys for Indigenous tribes, environmental and Indigenous rights groups and the Minnesota Department of Commerce made oral arguments in a Minnesota appeals court against the Line 3 pipeline permit.

To water protectors, this fight is about more than just a pipeline. It’s about the future of life on Earth. Ojibwe tribes have lived in the Great Lakes region for more than 400 years. And Aubid thinks a state like Minnesota, which prides itself on its natural beauty, could become the framework for what a cleaner future could look like.

“We can put the animals to work, like the horses, the cows. Canoes, bikes, skateboards, horses, being pulled by the oxen, that kind of thing,” she says. “Instead of having to rely on the fossil fuels to get us from one place to another.”

Lindsay Weber

Lindsay Weber is a journalist at Macalester College and editor-in-chief of the school's student newspaper, the Mac Weekly. She spent summer 2020 reporting on her hometown of Wilmington, Delaware for the state's largest publication, Delaware Online/The News Journal. Find her on Twitter at @lindsayalice17

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