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Judge Tosses Charges Against 3 Indigenous Water Protectors for Pipeline Action

“I’m glad to not be in jail,” says environmental activist Winona LaDuke. “I’m not a criminal, and Enbridge is.”

A Minnesota judge has dismissed criminal charges against three Indigenous water protectors who were arrested for protesting oil extraction on treaty-ceded Anishinaabe land. Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin were arrested in January 2021 after police saw video shared on social media of the three women singing, dancing and praying near construction crews for Canadian energy company Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. In a landmark opinion, Judge Leslie Metzen affirmed the protesters’ free speech rights, writing that “to criminalize their behavior would be the crime.” We go to the White Earth Indian Reservation to speak to Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe enrolled member of the Mississippi band of Ashinaabeg and a longtime environmental activist, about the case and the ongoing protests against Line 3. “I’m glad to not be in jail,” says LaDuke. “I’m not a criminal, and Enbridge is.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Here in New York City, protests continued Tuesday during Climate Week. In one action, Indigenous activists with Honor the Earth painted a giant mural in Times Square with the message “No Green Colonialism. Land Back Now!” Indigenous activists were also at the front of Sunday’s march of some 75,000 people to the United Nations calling on President Biden to end fossil fuels.

This comes as a Minnesota judge has dismissed criminal charges against three Indigenous water protectors who were arrested after protesting at the construction site of Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in January of 2021. The three women — Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin — were arrested after police saw video shared on social media of them at a Rally for Rivers ceremony on the banks of the Mississippi River on treaty-ceded Anishinaabe land as they sang, danced and prayed near construction crews.

WINONA LADUKE: Our beautiful water protectors, we are going to continue dancing in another really important location.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in a landmark opinion delivered last Thursday, the Aitkin County Senior Judge Leslie Metzen wrote, as respected members of Anishinaabe tribes, LaDuke, Aubid and Goodwin were expressing, quote, “their heartfelt belief that the waters of Minnesota need to be protected from damage that could result from the pipeline.” Judge Metzen concluded, quote, “In the interests of justice the charges against these three individuals who were exercising their rights to free speech and to freely express their spiritual beliefs should be dismissed. To criminalize their behavior would be the crime,” the judge said.

For more, we’re joined by Winona LaDuke, longtime Indigenous activist, author, an Ojibwe enrolled member of the Mississippi band of Ashinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Indian Reservation, founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Her first novel, Last Standing Woman, republished this year in a 25th anniversary edition. She’s joining us from the White Earth Reservation, Minnesota.

Winona, welcome back to Democracy Now! I’m sorry I said the names so badly.

WINONA LADUKE: It’s OK. It was early in the morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can say them?

WINONA LADUKE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could say them for us?

WINONA LADUKE: Anishinaabe. Anishinaabe. Aaniin, Ndinawemaaganag. Hello, my relatives. Boozhoo. Mino-gigizheb. It’s Anishinaabe. Thanks for calling on me. And I’m glad to not be in jail. Is that what you’re asking?

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the judge’s decision, exactly what this means?

WINONA LADUKE: Well, first of all, it was so significant. I cried when I read her decision, because she refers specifically to not only our religious freedom, but also our treaties, because we’re all members of the Mississippi band Anishinaabe, and our territory that we love and come from is right there. And in her decision, she says, “Treaties between the United States and Anishinaabe have been signed regarding these lands. This Court finds that it is within the furtherance of justice to protect the defendants peacefully protesting to protect the land and water on the land addressed in these treaties by dismissing this action against all defendants.” So it was about, you know, our religious freedom, our freedom of assembly, our constitutional rights, but also recognizing our treaty rights, which is what we have been saying. These are our territories, and we have a right and responsibility to protect them.

And I’m so grateful to the judge. But, you know, she was clear in her decision also saying that — you know, she just said, “In the interests of justice,” a phrase often and rarely applied to defendants less powerful and voiceless. For 40 years she served on these courts. These cases particularly awakened in her. You know, she talked about the fact that growing up in Minnesota, you had a cowboys-and-Indians education, and then you’re supposed to adjudicate cases, you know? So this woman took the time and 40 years of experience in seeing Indian people come up to the bar time and time and time and time again charged for being Indian, basically, for being Anishinaabe. She said something really profound, and she did the right thing. She brought justice, you know? And we appreciate her.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Winona, could you comment on how — the difference between how prosecutors in Minnesota treated you and the other free speech protesters versus how the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, who prides himself, supposedly, as being a progressive, who was much more lenient with Enbridge, brought a single misdemeanor charge against them for breaching an aquifer, which was dismissed?

WINONA LADUKE: Right, and Enbridge breached four aquifers, is what we know. The crimes committed by this corporation are egregious and ongoing. They have never been charged. The one case in Clearwater County, the first aquifer breach of four — in other words, we don’t know — you know, there’s no more water that they’re making. And Enbridge is destroying and contaminating our water on an ongoing basis. There have been no charges brought for the other three aquifer breaches. And Enbridge negotiated kind of a hush settlement, like “We’ll deal with it, and then we’ll postpone it.”

Tens of thousands of people wrote to Attorney General Keith Ellison and asked him to drop the charges against people like me. I’m not a criminal. I’m a water protector. I’m an Anishinaabe woman who prayed by the river, danced, did my darnedest to stop the pipeline, tried everything, and then had charges in three counties. Tens of thousands of people said, “Drop the charges.” And there are still people with felony charges that need to have their charges dropped. And Enbridge needs to be charged, because they are the criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about this. Nearly a thousand people have been arrested at protests to stop Line 3 pipeline. While many charges were dismissed or settled, about 20 are still pending. A few weeks ago, we spoke with climate activist, water protector Mylene Vialard, whose trial for peacefully protesting Enbridge Line 3 was about to start in Minnesota. She was about to testify that day. She was found guilty of felony obstruction for her role in trying to halt construction and faces a year and a day in prison for her 2021 protest, when she attached herself to a 25-foot bamboo tower erected to block a pumping station in Aitkin County. Vialard, who lives in Colorado, had come to Minnesota to take part in this wave of Indigenous-led acts of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. When we spoke, I asked her about her concerns as she faced conviction and sentencing.

MYLENE VIALARD: I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid. I entered this fully aware of the risk I was taking, and not really believing that the justice system in this court would be served, would be hearing me fully. So, I am aware of what I’m risking, and I’m going — I’m going there fully aware of the risk, but I’m not scared. I know where I stand. I know what my purpose is here. I am grateful for you for hearing us today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s water protector Mylene Vialard. Winona, right after we spoke, she went into court, and she testified. So, she was found guilty, and she faces a year in prison. Can you talk about her and the other people who are still waiting? And are they all before the same judge that acquitted you, dropped the charges?

WINONA LADUKE: No, they’re not. They’re in front of a number of judges up north. And some may also be facing jury trials. We were facing a jury trial. And, you know, this is the Deep North. I was hoping that people would go with our side with a jury trial, but, you know, you don’t know up here. It’s pretty racist.

So, having said that, you know, these people should not be charged. Enbridge is charging people with stealing time, because they slowed down Enbridge, and so they had this time theft charge. I mean, the charges are ratcheted up. They were incentivized by Enbridge paying for all of the police, $8.6 million. And some of the prosecutors were disappointed that Enbridge wouldn’t pay for the prosecution, including Hubbard County, where we worked and were putting up our museum on treaty rights and culture.

But, you know, having said that, it’s just — it’s a shame what is going on in the North. It’s a shame to Minnesota. And what it shows is, you know, the planet is facing climate chaos. And here they are, justifying and defending a Canadian pipeline company that imports 75% of the tar sands into the U.S. and is trying to put a pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac, redo one. You know, late-stage addiction behavior is bad, and we need to sober up. And we need to protect the water and the human rights of people and the animals, and not the Canadian pipeline corporation.

So, you know, I plan to speak up and help support other folks, and we are hoping that what the judge ruled here will help the others, because we tried everything to stop this company, and none of us want to be arrested. But I’m going to tell you right now: I’m not a criminal, and Enbridge is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Winona, we only have about 20 seconds, but the protesters at the U.N. General Assembly went to Times Square with a big mural, “No Green Colonialism. Land Back Now!” What are you hoping to see from the Biden administration?

WINONA LADUKE: Well, we want the Tamarack mine stopped, as well as the mine out in Nevada, Thacker Pass. But they’re looking at trading our sacred Sandy Lake, where our people died by the hundreds, by the hundreds, our sacred lake for a Tesla mine. And we need to quit. What we need to do is reduce our consumption, get efficient, and not try to pretend that some new green colonialism is going to change things. There are many choices, like infrastructure for people, not for pipeline companies and not for Elon Musk. And that’s what we want. We want to protect the water. Thank you so much for taking a look at us in Minnesota, a fifth of the world’s water. It’s worth protecting. And certainly we are not criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Winona LaDuke, longtime Indigenous activist and author, who lives and works on the White Earth Indian Reservation, founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Her first novel, Last Standing Woman, republished in a 25th anniversary edition. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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