Last August, I spent a week on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, where the indigenous Anishinaabe people are mounting a powerful campaign to resist the Line 3 pipeline or LN3, that Enbridge Energy plans to reroute through their land. The Anishinaabe, part of the Ojibwe nation, are also working to create autonomy and self-governance in their community. My colleague Carol Kalafatic and I wanted to see it for ourselves.
Winona LaDuke, a renowned Native American activist from White Earth, invited Kalafatic and I to come and see firsthand the work of Anishinaabe activists. I traveled with Carol, who is a fellow with the Resistance Studies Initiative and a long-term activist with indigenous movements. The Resistance Studies Initiative, based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, encourages solidarity and dialogue between academics and activists, deepening the study of unarmed resistance movements around the world.
As we set out to visit White Earth, Carol and I wanted to learn more about this movement-in-the-making and to understand how major pipeline resistance movements develop in the early stages, like the #NoDAPL Standing Rock movement and the Wet’suwet’ en resistance.
We anticipated that the struggle against the LN3 could become a major indigenous-led struggle in the United States — a prediction which is now coming true, as momentum builds and the campaign draws national attention. As we set out for Minnesota, Carol and I hoped to develop relationships of solidarity and collaboration before the struggle escalated.
On the reservation, we stayed in the town of Mahnomen, at the run-down Shooting Star Casino. The hotel was mostly occupied by older white folks, chain-smoking and playing the slot machines. It was depressing — a tragic and raw expression of the so-called “American Dream.” These people did not belong to the wealthy 1 percent, but they still hoped they might make it rich. Perhaps some of them knew, deep down, that the system is rigged; few, if any, will even win big enough to matter.
The Fight For Self-Governance On White Earth
The Line 3 pipeline will bring tar sands oil — the worst kind of dirty fossil fuel — from Canada through the United States. It will pass through over 40 wild rice watersheds and at least eight waterways, which are a traditional source of food for the indigenous Ojibwe people. This pipeline entangles us even more in an energy system that is destroying the climate, at a time in history when we should shift to a carbon-neutral energy system and economy. LN3 is exactly the opposite of what is needed in a world challenged by a climate emergency.
To me, it seems possible that White Earth will be one of the next major pipeline resistance campaigns, like Standing Rock in nearby North Dakota. The situation at White Earth is different than Standing Rock, but the struggle in Minnesota has the potential to bring different native communities together with allies in a broad mobilization of water protectors like the #NODAPL movement did. Both pipeline struggles demonstrate a prayerful, dignified resistance that inspires people around the world – and poses a real threat to the fossil-fuel industry with its colonial approach to “development.”
The White Earth Nation is situated in Northwestern Minnesota, on a large swath of land with mile after mile of straight roads, flat farming landscapes, and occasional houses here and there. The main streets are short, with few stores and many abandoned buildings, but you still see friendly faces and people greeting each other on the street. While exploring the area, we came across a small summer town by a larger lake and a trailer park. There were people enjoying the late summer days and driving around in small golf carts. It seemed like a poignant illustration of contemporary colonialization — a majority-white recreation area equipped with burger bars and soda machines, alongside a lake that once was harvested for its wild rice by a people that still struggled to survive.
The White Earth reservation has some 9,000 inhabitants, about half of whom are indigenous. They are governed by a Tribal Council, where the council chairman is a vocal water protector opposed to the LN3 pipeline. According to Winona LaDuke, not only are most of the Anishinaabe people supportive of the struggle against the pipeline, but most of the non-native people in this part of Minnesota are supportive as well. If that is the case, the struggle against LN3 will look significantly different than the one at Standing Rock. In Minnesota, there is an emphasis on the fact that white people stand in solidarity with the struggle, as demonstrated on a billboard erected by Honor the Earth which reads, “Welcome Water Protectors,” with a photo of a smiling older white man in a cowboy hat on Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm.
The farm, among other things, serves as a meeting space filled with activity and a hub for LN3 resistance. Here we encountered volunteers and horses, along with a number of young boys who learned about native traditions by participating in daily life on the farm. We gazed out over hemp fields and visited a market selling wild rice, CBD-based body cream made of hemp, clothes with “Honor the Earth” messages, pamphlets on Line 3, as well as books by LaDuke and other native authors.
Anishinaabe activists from the farm and White Earth are also involved in other Native-led activities to strengthen the community. There is an impressive effort to make the reservation energy-autonomous with hot water through solar panels, by producing and selling these high-quality solar panels in their own small-scale local factory called 8th Fire Solar. According to native leaders of 8th Fire Solar, the name refers to the Anishinaabe prophecies, which say that we have a choice between “a well-worn, scorched path, and one that is green and unworn. If we choose the green path, the 8th Fire will be lit, and a better future will be formed.”
When we visited the office and factory of 8th Fire Solar, four people were busy expanding the building, constructing a new wing for more offices and storage space. A sense of pride and enthusiasm shone on everyone’s faces as they toured us around and explained what they were doing.
As if this weren’t enough, the Hemp and Heritage farm also boasts an activity center, a store, and a community radio station with Native-led programs. Next to the factory the Honor the Earth tour bus, which is used during actions, is parked. It is adorned with a beautiful mural, with an image a water protector and the words “love water not oil” painted across the side. So many things we encountered on the reservation, like this mural, were created with a deep sense of dignity and imbued with an artistic style derived from strong traditions.
During our time on the farm, we learned about a long-term effort to restore and revive wild rice harvesting in the many lakes throughout this region. Wild rice is a vital traditional source of food for many native peoples. Importantly, restoring the practice of harvesting wild rice work is part of a struggle for “food sovereignty.” This work aims to recreate local knowledge of food production, making communities less dependent on buying food transported from distant places or foreign countries.
Food sovereignty is crucial in this era of the climate crisis, and it also makes communities less dependent on the cash economy and capitalism. This enables them to be more resilient in the face of financial breakdowns and dealing with long-term unemployment or underemployment, which are constant stresses in Indian Country.
Creating an autonomous, self-governed daily life in the community is an important part of the struggle to revitalize Native American cultures, and to continue resisting the violent colonization that started 400 years ago and never stopped. The pipelines are just the latest threat against all that is sacred for the Anishinaabe.
At White Earth, Honor the Earth activists have spent the last seven years struggling against Line 3, preparing for massive civil disobedience if necessary. They have researched the consequences of pipeline construction on the local ecosystem, attended open hearings, organized protests, filed legal complaints, and even produced a documentary about the struggle. Activists have also filed lawsuits and worked on court cases.
One of the many creative actions that Honor the Earth has organized in the LN3 resistance is to send an invoice to Enbridge for damages to Mother Earth. They calculated the costs in economic terms, then sent mailed Enbridge an invoice for $222,066,505,636.38 in the name of “the Creator.”
Activists are prepared for direct actions, and willing to break the laws of the colonizing U.S. government, to stop a project that threatens their way of life. They are equipped with treaties between the Wabanaki and the U.S. government, showing their legal right to the land, although it is well documented that the United States has broken every single one of the treaties with Native American nations.
People are already organizing and setting up camps along with the proposed areas of the pipeline. The construction work on the reservation continues, as the Anishinaabe work to build a greener economy and an autonomous community. The ways they are fighting for sovereignty — by harvesting their own food, producing their own electricity, and protecting natural resources — chart the path forward for how we all must shift our way of life.
Our Role As Co-Conspirators In Indigenous Resistance Movements
One day Carol and I decided to search for wild rice lakes with another visitor to White Earth. Jessica is American but lives in the self-governed community called La Acequia. After a long struggle to occupy their land, inhabitants at La Acequia now practice agroecology, or ecological farming, in Andalusia, Spain. Jessica now works for an organization supporting ecological farming and villages around the world. She is interested in learning about how the traditional harvesting of wild rice is done today. The process has been industrialized and commercialized over many years, and the traditional way of harvesting wild rice is at risk of being forgotten.
We set out to look for information about where to find the best lakes to harvest wild rice, but quickly realized we were in for a challenge. We asked several people inside the reservation in towns like Mahnomen, which is dominated by white settlers, but it turned out that they did not know anything about wild rice. One person said, “I have never thought about it.”
We were surprised, given the fact that the reservation has many local places named after the crop, like Rice Lake, and even the town name, Mahnomen, is the Ojibwe word for “wild rice.” For us, it felt like a symbol of how marginalized Native American traditions have become, even on the reservation, and how profoundly indigenous ways of life have been disrupted and dismantled by settler society.
Our visit to White Earth deepened our understanding of both the Anishinaabe’s long-term work to build self-governance and their immediate mobilization against the threat of the new LN3 pipeline. We found opportunities to collaborate with the activists at White Earth, like contributing to a water protector curriculum for university courses, which aims to equip allies to become better informed in the struggle. The trip inspired us; if people who struggled for 400 years against genocidal colonialism are able to stay hopeful, creative, and energized, then why can’t others like me who are born privileged step up, learn, and engage in resistance together with them?
It can be confusing to try to assume the role of a “white ally” in indigenous struggles. But after our visit to White Earth, it felt clear what my role is. I listen, learn, join in, and follow the lead of indigenous activists. I contribute the knowledge, experiences, and skills I have, based on what is needed and according to their values and principles. I aim to be more than an ally, but rather to be a co-conspirator in a powerful decolonial struggle.
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Featured Image: Gichi Gami March, Line 3 Protest, Duluth MN, September 28, 2019 Photo: Rise Up Times