Photograph by KEREM YUCEL / AFP via Getty Images

Fighting Line 3 From a Queer, Indigenous Perspective

As opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline grows, The Frontline talks to Big Wind, a two-spirit water protector who’s putting their body on the line.

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Last week was major for those on the frontlines of the Line 3 fight. For those who haven’t been keeping up, Line 3 is a proposed crude oil expansion project by Enbridge, a Canada-based energy company. It would run from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, through Minnesota where opposition is mounting, and end in Wisconsin.

 

While the project is finally receiving national attention due to a week of direct actions and violent arrests, this Indigenous- and women-led movement has been bubbling for years. The first time I covered Line 3 was in 2017 for Earther. Now, the resistance is finally paying off as larger outlets with wider audiences begin to cover the issue, putting pressure on President Joe Biden to break his silence on the controversial oil pipeline, which threatens the waters and homelands of the Anishinaabe Indigenous peoples in the region.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re hearing from Big Wind, a two-spirit water protector. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I spoke to Big Wind Thursday. They have been waiting for this moment for years. As a nonbinary member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and organizer with the Giniw Collective, Big Wind sees their duty clear as day.

Big Wind with their fist raised during last week’s gathering. Photograph Courtesy of Giniw Collective

YESSENIA FUNES

Tell me and our readers a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the effort to stop Line 3.

BIG WIND

Well, I grew up on an Indian reservation in Central Wyoming, and I grew up in a housing project that was right in front of an oil and gas field. And we played in the creek that was used for dilution. The average life expectancy on my reservation is 48, and there are cancer clusters because of the fracking and uranium near our reservation. My mom was a mile and a half away from an old uranium plume, so our groundwater is poisoned. We can’t drink it. We have to get water piped in. Throughout my life, I recognized how the extractive economy has negative health impacts on Indigenous people who are subject to a lot of the extractive practices—whether it be through the transporting, refining, or pumping of the oil.

 

That has been a lifelong journey for me. I didn’t really participate in direct action until Standing Rock. I went there in August 2016 and stayed until I was forcibly removed by the military. When I was at Standing Rock, I heard Ojibwe people talking about the Line 3 fight and talking about how they needed help and that it was going to be the next big thing. That was five years ago. So in the summer of 2018, a week after Namewag Camp opened, I came out here to Minnesota and have been living at camp and been a part of this campaign since. At that time, because the Wisconsin portion had just been built, we thought the Minnesota portion would begin immediately. One of the biggest things for me was coming into the Standing Rock fight after 50% of Dakota Access had already been built. I was trying to figure out how to help with Line 3. And this overall opposition is what allowed for the delay in construction. Now, it’s 2021. Active construction didn’t start until December 2020. And I think that in itself is a feat—prolonging and delaying it that long.

YESSENIA

Those of us who have been covering the fight these past four years have been waiting for this moment—the moment where it reaches national headlines across the U.S. You all succeeded to make that happen this past week. So what is currently going on in Minnesota? What’s the energy been like over there this past week?

BIG WIND

It’s been a long winter. For years, a lot of Indigenous matriarchs up here in the North have been wondering when allies and accomplices will join them on the frontlines. And I feel like there has not been a gathering, direct action, or number of arrests the size of this week. There had been about 250 arrests since December, and within a 30-hour period, that number nearly doubled with 200 arrests on Monday and Tuesday.

YESSENIA

So what has the energy been like with all these allies finally gathering together? With this really clear aggressive response from the police? What are you feeling right now after the week?

BIG WIND

Yeah. I have seen all of the counties escalating tactics since construction has started. You have a fund that was set up by Enbridge that’s allowing county sheriffs to bill for whatever they feel is necessary. We’ve seen these tactics coming, and when they deployed the helicopter without warning on Monday night, it was intentional. I think that they intentionally were trying to kick up construction debris to discourage people from being there.

YESSENIA

The hope for this week of action is that the Biden administration will be encouraged to kill the pipeline, right? What are you all doing exactly to help push him in that direction?

BIG WIND

I understand that that’s a strategy our people are utilizing. For me, when I look back at history, we can’t rely on these officials to do things for us. A lot of us have been to these local trade commissions, have been to the hearings, we’ve written these letters, we’ve talked to these politicians, and nothing has worked. They haven’t stopped the pipeline. And the only thing that I see on the frontlines is actually stopping these pipelines is people chaining themselves to the machines, people crawling into these pipes. Direct actions are stopping this pipeline. And that’s why these politicians are finally listening because 450 people have been arrested. They wouldn’t be listening if there weren’t people literally stopping this from happening. We’re at a pinnacle point where they’re starting to recognize that if they don’t utilize that power that has been thrust upon them, we will take our power back into our own hands to ensure that we stop this pipeline.

 

 

“When we talk about the abuse that’s done to the land and to Indigenous people, they go hand in hand at the end of the day.”

BIG WIND
GINIW COLLECTIVE

YESSENIA

What would you say is at stake for you, personally, should this pipeline be built?

BIG WIND

I was born at the headwaters of the Missouri River, and there is a nexus point where the Mississippi and the Missouri become one. Then, they lead to the ocean out by Louisiana. I know that all the waters are connected, and when I think about that, I think about the damage that can be done when something this large can be allowed because of money and profit. Everyone who benefits from this land, anyone who drinks water, we have an obligation out here. This has become a national issue because of the overwhelming opposition.

YESSENIA

And what about when you think of your identity as a queer, Indigenous person? How would you define your relationship to the extractive industry with that specifically in mind?

BIG WIND

It’s crazy because here at Namewag, the majority of people at camp are queer. Nearly half use gender pronouns. Behind the scenes, there are so many queer people up here in the North fighting this pipeline who understand the intersectionality between the oppression that we all face as BIPOC queer people. I identify as a two-spirit person, and I have a duty to be at the forefront of the frontlines and to share my perspective. When there was war and conflict in a community, that was the role we played. I try to play that role to my best ability as a queer, nonbinary, two-spirit person here on the frontlines.

YESSENIA

How would ending this project and others like it aid in the liberation of you and your peoples?

BIG WIND

The extractive economy brings in a lot of out-of-state workers. There are pipeliners on Grindr trying to find people to hook up with. So it’s men and queer people, too, who are dealing with this extractive economy. When we talk about the abuse that’s done to the land and to Indigenous people, they go hand in hand at the end of the day. They see us as inferior, and they see the land as a commodity. That’s their perception. The violence that’s done against us and the violence against the Earth are connected.

YESSENIA

Wow. I’m glad you mentioned LGBTQ workers and their presence on dating apps like Grindr. So much of the attention around sexual violence has been, rightly so, on women and children, but it hasn’t at all looked at gay men or the queer community. I’m just really struck by that risk because that has not been talked about really.

BIG WIND

Yeah. I have a friend who lives on the rez, and he was talking about how so many pipeliners are on Grindr right now. And I was like, Legit, what? We had this big discussion. For me, I think about the times where there are Indigenous gay, trans, and two-spirit people who are going out into these situations and don’t make it back home. How many of them actually make it back home?

 

Because we know, oftentimes, these pipeline workers are very machismo, burly, straight-acting types. If they feel that their masculinity is threatened in any manner in that interaction, they will try to oppress you, especially if you’re a person of color or a femme. I wonder about that all the time. That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do, too. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I feel there are a lot of power dynamics between white cis men even within the gay community.

YESSENIA

100%. I really appreciate you sharing that, Big Wind. So tell me: What comes next? Especially if the White House stays quiet?

BIG WIND

This has been a long campaign. There have been multiple opportunities for people in power to stop this pipeline. There are a lot of people who are reaching out because they know that President Biden has the ability to stop Line 3, but we’re not putting all our eggs in that basket. At the end of the day, we know that this is a multi-pronged strategy. We’re going to continue to push politicians in power to stop this because they have the ability to, but we’re going to continue to fight this pipeline as it’s being built through Anishinaabe and Dakota homes and territories. And that’s not going to stop.

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