Amid record hurricanes, wildfires and droughts, battles are being waged over the fate of the Earth. Many of those battles are being fought by Indigenous people, and by others whose relationship to life, land and one another compels them to push back against an extractive, death-making economy that renders people and ecosystems disposable. On the front lines of the struggle to halt construction of Enbridge’s new Line 3 pipeline — which would bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin — Water Protectors have locked themselves to excavators and drills, and overturned cars and barrels of cement, while also deploying aerial blockades, including elaborate tripods and tree-sits. In scattered encampments that run along a 300-mile stretch of pipeline construction, a culture defined by mutual aid, and a spiritual and physical struggle to defend the Earth, has held strong in the face of brutality and an increasingly entrenched alliance between police and the corporate forces fueling climate catastrophe.
I recently spoke with Giniw Collective founder Tara Houska, a citizen of Couchiching First Nation, over a shaky internet connection, as she held space at the collective’s Namewag Camp in Minnesota. The camp, which is led by Indigenous women and two-spirit people, was founded by the Giniw Collective in 2018, as Minnesota’s final permit decision on Line 3 drew near. Houska says she invited Native matriarchs, including LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and Winona LaDuke, among others, to initiate the effort. “We laid out our prayers and our songs to begin this phase,” Houska told me.
Since then, the Namewag Camp, says Houska, has been “a home for many people.” Some people have spent years at the encampment, while others have held space for months, weeks or even a few days. “It really depends on the person or persons that are coming through,” says Houska. The culture of the camp emphasizes direct action, mutual aid and Native traditions. “We’ve trained well over 1000 folks in non-violent direct action, decolonization, traditional knowledge and life in balance,” says Houska. People who call the camp home are committed to stopping the pipeline, but Houska says making a home at Namewag also requires a commitment to mutual aid as a way of life. “I think we’re trying to create a balance, a place that is more reflective of balance, and deep values that are very much needed in the climate movement, and also just generally in the world,” Houska told me, adding that, “the first structure that was built in this camp was actually our sweat lodge.” The encampment also includes a “very large, beautiful garden.”
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Houska was not always an activist on the front lines. “I started out as a D.C. lawyer back in 2013, after law school, and worked on a lot of different issues for tribal nations, and saw the treatment of our people on the hill, and through the law,” says Houska. She engaged with legal efforts to thwart the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and efforts to stop the project that would eventually be known as Line 3, but Houska ultimately felt called to fight for the Earth “in a different way.” Houska travelled to Standing Rock in 2016 and “spent six months out there learning and resisting.”
While some Water Protectors involved in the Line 3 protests carry lessons from Standing Rock, the two struggles have manifested differently. The movement in Standing Rock drew an unprecedented assemblage of Natives from over 300 federally recognized tribes, and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous co-strugglers. Thousands of people converged on a cluster of camps, the largest of which was known as Oceti Sakowin. Houska says a variety of nations and groups are also represented in the Line 3 struggle, but rather than being relatively centralized, Line 3 encampments are staggered across 334 miles of pipeline construction. “We also have been fighting this pipeline during a pandemic,” Houska noted, “which means a lot of caution and precaution around COVID-19 and making sure everyone is healthy and safe, and that we’re not putting anyone at risk.”
Line 3 opponents say the pipeline, once fully operational, would be the carbon pollution equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants. As an editorial that will be published in 200 health journals worldwide this fall, ahead of the UN General Assembly and the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, states, “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature.”
The pipeline would also tunnel under 20 rivers, including the Mississippi, threatening the drinking water supply of millions of people. In 2010, 1.2 million gallons of oil spilled from Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline into the Kalamazoo River, in one of 800 oil spills the company experienced between 1999 and 2010.
While regulatory battles and legal maneuvers are crucial in any fight to stop a pipeline, Houska says that land defense, and the “building of a resistance community on the front lines” is an “under-respected, undervalued, but critical component to a healthy movement.” Houska says the work of building that communal effort, and sustaining it, has been “beautiful, hard, sad, [and] sometimes painful.” Houska explained: “Police have been getting pretty brutal in recent weeks. They’ve been shooting ‘less lethals’ at us, and using pain compliance tactics. So torturing people, really engaging in behaviors that are quite shocking, I think. Which means a lot of care, and community is really important for us on the front lines.”
Houska says sustaining the struggle also means making time to acknowledge “the hurt that we’re experiencing in real time” while also naming and uplifting “the reasons we’re engaging in struggle, [which is for] the littles, and those to come, and the four-legged and the winged, and the rivers, and the wild rice.”
Houska also notes that the violence of fossil fuel extraction embodies the longstanding violence of colonialism, with large influxes of transient workers at so-called “man camps” (temporary housing camps of mostly male pipeline construction workers) destroying the life-giving ecosystems that sustain Native communities, while also inflicting violence on Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. For years, Native leaders have sought to raise awareness about the measurable increase in sexual assaults, murders and disappearances of Native women in areas where “man camps” are established. To highlight this threat, Water Protectors hosted by the Giniw Collective’s camp recently staged a blockade action in front of the Line 3 “man camp,” in which an “all-BIPOC group of mostly Indigenous femmes [and] two-spirits” locked themselves to an overturned vehicle, and other equipment.
“Man camps” are the modern embodiment of colonial raiding parties that have historically seized upon Native land, looted Indigenous resources and inflicted sexual violence on Native women. Today, pipeline workers and police inflict the violence of colonialism on Indigenous people, enacting the true character of capitalism for the world to see, while relying on the public’s lack of concern for Native people and the environment as they commit atrocities in plain sight.
A war is being waged against land and water defenders in the U.S., just as a war is being waged globally against environmental activists, by corporations and world governments, in order to maintain the repetitions of capitalism: extraction, exploitation, destruction, disposal, and the consolidation of wealth and resources. Globally, violence against environmental activists has hit record highs in recent years, with Indigenous people facing disproportionately high rates of murder and brutality for their organizing. Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but steward over 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. In some parts of the world, such as Colombia and the Philippines, the assassination of Indigenous activists has become increasingly common. Here in the United States, Indigenous activists have faced escalating violence and criminalization while acting in opposition to pipeline construction and other extraction efforts.
While many people recoil from any discussion of the reality of climate change, catastrophes like Hurricane Ida, and the Dixie and Caldor fires in California, are making the subject harder to avoid. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2021 climate report, environmental catastrophes will continue to accelerate over the coming decades, but human beings still have something to say about the severity of the damage. Coming to terms with the existential threat of climate collapse can easily lead to distress and despair, but with so much at stake, it is imperative that we not only absorb statistics and haunting images of destruction, but also zero in on the front lines of struggles like the fight against Line 3, where Water Protectors are modeling a relationship with the Earth that could help guide us into a new era.
The Theft of Water
The Giniw Collective has been vocal about Enbridge’s overuse of local water supplies during an ongoing drought. Enbridge was initially authorized to pump about 510 million gallons of water out of the trenches it’s digging, but in June, the company claimed it had encountered more groundwater than it had anticipated, and obtained permission to pump up nearly 5 billion gallons of water, in order to complete the project. According to Line 3 opponents, Enbridge paid a fee of $150 to adjust its permit.
Giniw Collective members say it’s unconscionable that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would allow Enbridge to displace so much water, particularly during a drought. “We’ve been in an extreme drought all summer long,” says Houska. “The rivers have been dry, the waterfalls are empty, and the wildfires have spread into Ontario and up on the north shore of Lake Superior.”
Activists organizing against Line 3 and members of the White Earth Nation argue that Enbridge’s voracious consumption of local groundwater threatens local wetlands, including cherished wild rice beds. “With higher than average temperatures and lower than average precipitation, displacing this amount of water will have a direct detrimental impact on the 2021 wild rice crop,” wrote Michael Fairbanks and Alan Roy, tribal chairman and secretary-treasurer of the White Earth Nation.
According to the UN, “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions.” Scientific projections suggest that many regions of the U.S. may see their water supplies reduced by a third, even as they face increased demand for water due to a growing population. As world temperatures rise, and water scarcity continues to escalate, Enbridge is displacing 500 billion gallons of groundwater to build a pipeline that will transport 915,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil per day, threatening more than 200 water ecosystems — including 389 acres of wild rice, which are a source of sacred sustenance for the Anishinaabe.
The White Earth Nation has brought a “rights of nature” lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in an effort to defend wild rice, or manoomin, which means “good berry” in the Ojibwe language, against the destruction being waged by Enbridge. According to Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, for the Ojibwe people, manoomin “is like a member of the family, a relative,” which means “legally designating manoomin as a person … aligns with the Ojibwe world view.” As Pember writes, “According to [the United Nations’ 6th Assessment on Climate Change], recognition of Indigenous rights, governance systems and laws are central to creating effective adaptation and sustainable development strategies that can save humanity from the impacts of climate change.”
The suit is only the second rights of nature case to be filed in the United States and the first to be filed in tribal court. But as Pember notes, “Several tribes, however, have incorporated rights of nature into their laws.”
According to the nonprofit organization Honor the Earth, “The proposed new oil pipelines in northern MN violate the treaty rights of the Anishinaabeg by endangering critical natural resources in the 1854, 1855, and 1867 treaty areas.” In a statement outlining the alleged treaty violations, Honor the Earth explains, “The pipelines threaten the culture, way of life, and physical survival of the Ojibwe people. Where there is wild rice, there are Anishinaabeg, and where there are Anishinaabeg, there is wild rice. It is our sacred food. Without it we will die. It’s that simple.”
Buying the Police
During the movement in Standing Rock, we saw that resistance to pipeline construction can generate significant costs for local governments. In 2018, Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz claimed that protests that aimed to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) cost the county almost $40 million. But rather than serving as a deterrent to other municipalities considering pipeline permits, the cost of the NoDAPL protests have been leveraged by authorities to more blatantly merge the interests of police and oil companies.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission included a provision in Enbridge’s permit for the project that requires the company to establish an escrow trust that would reimburse local law enforcement for any mileage, wages, protective gear and training related to the construction of Line 3. In order to access the funds, law enforcement agencies submit requests for reimbursement to a state appointed account manager — a former deputy police chief — who approves or denies the requests. In April of 2020, The Minnesota Reformer reported that Enbridge had paid over $500,000 to local law enforcement in support of pipeline construction. That number has since ballooned to $2 million.
Protesters who have engaged in direct action to stop Line 3 say police have bragged to arrestees that they are enjoying themselves and getting paid overtime.
“The level of brutality that is experienced by Indigenous people and allies in struggle with us is extreme,” Houska told me. “About a month ago now, I was a part of a group that experienced rubber bullets and mace being fired at us at very, very close range,” said Houska. “I was hit several times, but I also witnessed young people with their heads split open, bleeding down their faces … and sheriffs have been using pain compliance on people, which is essentially torture. They dislocated someone’s jaw a couple weeks ago.”
As Ella Fassler recently reported in Truthout, “More than 800 Water Protectors have been arrested or cited in the state since November 2020, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approved the Line 3 permit.” The total number of arrests along Line 3, since November of 2020, has surpassed the total number of arrests during the Standing Rock protests, in which nearly 500 people were arrested. The charges Water Protectors and land defenders face are likewise escalating. According to the Pipeline Legal Action Network, 80 Water Protectors were charged with felonies during July and August of 2021, and as Mollie Wetherall, a legal support organizer with the legal action network told Fassler, “It’s clear that they really are in a moment where they want to intimidate people as the construction of this pipeline winds down.”
Direct actions similar to those that garnered misdemeanor charges two years ago have more recently led to felony charges. According to the Giniw Collective, which has bailed out hundreds of Water Protectors, individual bonds have often run between $10,000 and $25,000, making bail fundraising a crucial point of solidarity work.
Disturbingly, in late July, two Water Protectors were charged with felony assisted suicide for allegedly crawling into the pipeline as part of a lockdown action. Officials claim the pipeline was an estimated 130 degrees and lacked oxygen. The criminal complaint lodged against the two activists claims that they “did intentionally advise, encourage, or assist another who attempted but failed to take the other’s own life.” The charge of felony assisted suicide carries a 7-year prison sentence, $14,000 fine or both. If convicted, the Water Protectors could face up to 13 years behind bars.
For refusing to embrace the death march of capitalism, and resisting the destruction of most life on Earth, two Line 3 opponents are being charged with attempted assisted suicide. “These are 20, 21, 22-year-old people, who are literally chaining themselves to the machines, crawling inside of pipes, doing everything and anything they can to have a future,” says Houska. “And the charges being waged, like felony theft and felony assisted suicide for people who are trying to protect all life, [are] absolutely appalling, and a horrific reality of Water Protectors being imprisoned while the world burns around us.”
Members of Congress, including “the Squad,” signed a letter to President Biden on August 30, 2021, calling on the president to “uphold the rights guaranteed to Indigenous people under federal treaties and fulfill tribal requests for a government-to-government meeting concerning Line 3.” Among other concerns, the letter cited the troubling financial ties between Enbridge and local law enforcement, stating:
Law enforcement entities in the region have received around $2 million from Enbridge to pay for police activity against water protectors, which has included staggering levels of violence, tear gas, and rubber bullets. While Enbridge was required to pay these costs under project permits, leaders have noted they create a conflict of interest as law enforcement are incentivized to increase patrols and arrests surrounding pipeline construction.
Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar also hosted a press conference on September 3 to draw further attention to the struggle to stop Line 3, which included remarks from U.S. Representatives Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Sen. Mary Kunesh-Podein. During the press conference, Omar declared, “The climate crisis is happening and the last thing we need to do is allow the very criminals who created this crisis to build more fossil fuel infrastructure.” Bush, Presseley, Tlaib and Kunesh-Podein also visited the Giniw Collective’s Namewag Camp to hear from Water Protectors firsthand about the struggle. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that she had planned to join the group as well, but her plans were derailed by the climate impacts of Hurricane Ida in her district.
Finding a Home on the Front Lines
Despite the brutality protectors have faced, people have continued to answer the call to head to the front lines. After years of engaging in solidarity actions at banks and financial institutions that are funding the construction of Line 3, one activist — who asked to be identified by the name Marla, so as not to facilitate state surveillance of her actions — left her job as a nanny in Chicago and headed to the front lines in May of 2021. “I had never seen a pipeline before,” Marla told me. “I had only done solidarity organizing up until this point. Land defense was something new entirely to me, but I knew that bank actions alone were not going to stop this pipeline.” Marla saw heading to the front lines as “a tangible way to show up as an accomplice for Indigenous sovereignty.”
While living at Namewag has meant bearing witness to police violence, deforestation and constant state surveillance, Marla says it has also meant experiencing “a microcosm of the world we all want to build.” Marla says the Giniw Collective’s camp “an incredible place to live in community and resistance.”
“Living at Namewag shows us what a post-capitalist world could begin to look like,” says Marla, “where labor is valued because it keeps our community safe, skilled up and fed from the land.” Marla says the camp is a place “to see accountability in action, to learn and unlearn, and do better.” While police and the surveillance state can be intimidating, Marla says, “We keep each other safe working overnight security shifts by night and supporting folks taking action by day.” Marla also describes the camp as a joyful place, even amid pain and struggle. “Cooking meals from the garden, living outside among the trees, washing the camp’s dishes, [providing] elder and childcare, and making space for joy — all of these things sustain us.”
“People have consistently been showing up for the struggle,” Houska told me. “And that is a beautiful thing to witness and be part of.” Houska says that almost 90 percent of Line 3 construction is now complete. “We are still resisting, in the face of that reality,” says Houska. “So, if you’re planning to show up, please show up with your heart, and your good intentions and do your best to find your way to the place that calls to you.” Houska also encourages supporters to “use whatever platform or voice and agency you have to call on the Biden administration, and also to call on other people around you” to take action to stop the pipeline.
“This fight is not just about looking upwards,” says Houska. “It’s also looking at each other. This is our world, and no one else is going to protect it, but all of us.”
To learn more about other powerful movement work like the struggle against Line 3 and mutual aid efforts across the country, check out our podcast “Movement Memos,” which will release its next episode on Wednesday, September 15.