WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
The new president has positioned himself as a climate leader, but that doesn’t mean anything to Indigenous people if it’s without action. The Frontline explores the Indigenous-led efforts to end the Line 3 oil pipeline set to cross through the Midwest.
In the Midwest, Indigenous advocates have been organizing to stop a crude oil pipeline for nearly 10 years. They still haven’t given up hope—especially not with President Joe Biden promising such ambitious action on the climate crisis. If the president thought Keystone XL shouldn’t exist, what about the other crude oil pipelines still under construction?
Line 3 is a replacement project from Canadian energy company Enbridge. I’ve been writing about this proposed 1,907-mile-long pipeline for a few years now, and the pressure hasn’t cooled down one bit. Though Enbridge markets the project as a rudimentary replacement, this project actually involves nearly doubling the amount of crude oil it’ll transport from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin. For anyone concerned about the climate crisis, that should be incredibly alarming. Now imagine what it’s like for the tribal nations whose ancestral lands this pipeline already cuts through.
That’s the thing, though. This battle isn’t only about them: The pipeline expansion involves more than 200 water crossings, including on the Mississippi River. Some 15 million people rely on that river for their drinking water. Anishinaabe organizers and allies have been clear that they’re doing this for people today who rely on these waters and lands—as well as those seven generations ahead.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into the efforts to stop Line 3. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The Biden administration has a ton of work to get to if it’s going to save the planet. At the top of its list should be to stop any further expansion of the fossil fuel monster Donald Trump welcomed into the White House with open arms.
Tania Aubid is on day three of her hunger strike. As a member of the Rice Lake Band of Ojibwe, the effort to stop Line 3 is personal. The pipeline threatens to destroy the wild rice her people consider sacred. She’s also worried about the worker camps that accompany these projects, bringing strange men into already-vulnerable tribal communities. But Aubid is not doing the strike alone; at least two other allies who are protesting Line 3 have joined her. The 52-year-old organizer isn’t new to this, either. About four years ago, she launched a hunger strike at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access pipeline.
“Along with these pipelines that come in, there are man camps that happen,” she says. “Along with that, there comes a high chance of missing and murdered Indigenous women in these areas.”
Though the resistance to Dakota Access continues, Aubid is currently focusing on Line 3. Since November, she’s been living at the Water Protector Welcome Center, which sits right on the Mississippi River where the pipeline is set to cross in Aitkin County, Minnesota. Organizers on the ground have even put out a call for others to join them. The pandemic complicates those efforts, however, so no one is expecting an international gathering like we saw in 2016 at Standing Rock. Still, with construction ramping up, groups are organizing frequent direct actions, training, and workshops to stop the project by any means necessary.
“If we stop one pipeline, that doesn’t mean other pipelines can’t harm the environment.”
Ground zero for this community building is the Water Protector Welcome Center. Shanai Matteson, who’s on hunger strike with Aubid, has been living here since last summer with her two children. While she’s not Indigenous, this is her home. Matteson grew up in Palisade, Minnesota, and has been following the pipeline’s trajectory. She has helped organize the welcome center in preparation for this moment. There are five Indigenous-led camps in total (including this one) organizing against the pipeline. Each has its purpose and strategy, but the welcome center centers cultural organizing and training, Matteson explains.
“We do a lot of educational workshops here,” she says. “We’re learning how to do things on the land. We’re learning about winter housing, different traditional foods. We’re learning from the Native people who are here with us.”
In early February, for instance, they held a mid-winter festival in Palisade where they shared information about the economic potential that could come from leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Those who joined found themselves surrounded by valuable information—but also fry bread tacos, chili, animal puppets, and music.“It Isn’t just about stopping the pipeline,” she says. “We actually need to imagine and create something better for the long term, and that includes jobs, doing green infrastructure work, transitioning away from fossil fuel energy.”
Other camps, however, are more focused on civil disobedience and putting bodies on the line to stop construction. James Michel, a 70-year-old environmental activist from Boston, visited the camps at the end of January to help with direct action. As a member of the Yet-to-Be-Named Network, he’s all about peaceful demonstrations and using his whiteness to stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. He and a group of about 14 volunteers followed all COVID-19 quarantine protocol to safely drive to Minnesota and helped in whatever way they could—from chopping wood and washing dishes to using a piano to block construction.
“We wanted to protest in a way that showed love and respect—and I think we did,” Michel says.
Like many others, he’s now hoping that the Biden administration hears their calls and does something—anything!—about this pipeline. “I’m very concerned about the deafening silence of the Biden administration on this pipeline,” he says.
Water protectors aren’t only counting on Biden, either. The project remains in litigation, so there’s still a chance the courts revoke any one of its permits or approvals. Advocates want to avoid what happened with the Dakota Access where the courts deemed it illegal after it was already operational. On top of that, organizers are mobilizing a movement to defund the project, too. Major banks such as TD Bank, Citibank, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase have a $2.2 billion loan with Enbridge that expires at the end of March. With enough pressure, these banks may just choose to opt out. Dakota Access saw success with a similar tactic where cities like Seattle even chose to cut ties with banks funding the controversial pipeline.
“That’s a moment when banks that are involved with that loan could easily and legally walk away from Enbridge,” says Alec Connon, a coalition coordinator for Stop the Money Pipeline, which is helping to organize the campaign.
Through this multi-pronged approach, Line 3 advocates are hoping President Biden will do what’s right and take action. If the Keystone XL is wrong, so is Line 3. Both would pull crude oil from the same source. As Simone Senogles of the Indigenous Environmental Network told me: “Biden is positioning himself as an administration that is going to meet climate change head on, and as part of that, he canceled KXL. In solidarity and in recognition that the fossil fuel industry and all its damaging effects are connected—as well as the natural world is connected—if we stop one pipeline, that doesn’t mean other pipelines can’t harm the environment.”