Politics

An Indigenous Leader on Why She Still Needs to Protest Pipelines, Even Under Biden

“It’s our place. Wild rice, it’s the only place in the world that grows it.”

Winona LaDuke, wearing a blue tank top and tan straw hat, talks to the Hubbard County Sheriff in uniform as LaDuke's fellow protestors and media look on.
Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke talks to the Hubbard County Sheriff near the stock pile of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Park Rapids, Minnesota last month. Kerem Yucel/Getty Images

After five years of constant protests, the movement to Stop Line 3, a proposed pipeline in Canada and the Midwest, has been rapidly escalating in the last couple of months. Made up primarily of Indigenous organizers, tribal governments, and climate justice organizers, the group is dedicated to fighting against the Canadian multinational fossil fuel company Enbridge, which is building the pipeline. A supposed replacement of the existing Line 3—a crude oil pipeline which stretches from Alberta, Canada to northwest Wisconsin—the new, bigger Line 3 is Enbridge’s largest ever project. If constructed, it would cut through three different Indigenous reservations in Minnesota, including land that the Treaty of 1855 gave the Ojibwe people the right to use for hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice.

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The climate and Indigenous justice groups cite Indigenous sovereignty, land and water rights, treaty rights, climate change, the financial risk of investing in a dying industry, and the harmful impacts of construction and spills on both Indigenous communities and the environment all as reasons to put a halt to the pipeline’s construction. But the state police force and Enbridge itself have been responding aggressively to their actions. Just this past week, Minnesota law enforcement (to which Enbridge has paid a hefty sum of about $750,000 as of April in order to police Line 3 protesters) arrested seven elder women protesting the pipeline in Wadena County.

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Among those seven women was Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe leader and Indigenous rights organizer who was jailed for three nights. A former Green Party vice presidential candidate and activist who has been fighting the construction of the new Line 3 pipeline replacement for nearly a decade, LaDuke has been appointed guardian ad litem for Shell River—which the completed pipeline would cross in five places—by both the 1855 Treaty Commission and her tribe.

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Slate spoke with LaDuke about organizing on the frontlines of Stop Line 3 and about protesters’ demands for the Biden administration when it comes to climate justice and Indigenous rights. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sofia Andrade: What’s it like to be on the frontlines protesting Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline right now?

Winona LaDuke: Here’s kind of how I’m describing it right now: This is the place where the wild things are. The place where rivers are clear. … It’s our place. Wild rice, it’s the only place in the world that grows it. And Enbridge wants to put the last tar sands pipeline through this. … It’s the last tar sands pipeline because everybody’s divesting. … It’s like the end of the tar sands era. And it’s this Canadian multinational that is running roughshod over northern states and the … people who live there, because we’re the people that live in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan where the Enbridge main line is. We’re the people here, and they’re running over us [and] a fifth of the world’s [fresh] water. And we’re saying, “it’s time to quit.” … [It’s] basically selling our human rights, our water, our political rights, everything, our land to a Canadian multinational. I think they’re crazy.

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We’re gonna stand here and fight it out, man. I’ve been living on Shell River for the past two months. … I spent most of my life around Shell Lake, right, but this is a river that comes from the lake and the lake is pristine. It has the best wild rice. Now I’ve been living in the river and it’s the driest here in history, in known in history. The river is 50, 60 percent lower than it’s supposed to be. And [Minnesota] just gave 5 billion gallons of water to this Canadian multinational to [build] the last tar sands pipeline. Now that’s crazy. … They’re basically putting an entire ecosystem at risk so that they can make a buck. I mean this pipeline is worse than Keystone

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You were also just arrested while on the front lines?

I was arrested last week. … I’m ashamed that the state of Minnesota would put a group of women elders in jail. Some for two nights, myself for three to protect this Canadian corporation. I’m fine. … [But] I don’t make little of it. Over 600 people have been arrested. If [the pipeline] is such a good idea, why have so many people been arrested? … You know, we’re standing there looking at a crime that has been committed by the corporation called the frac-out on the Willow River two weeks ago, and the cop was telling me that if I get out, out of the river I’m going to get arrested.

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Do you think that the Biden administration is doing enough to help the organizers and Indigenous communities trying to stop Line 3?

Are you kidding?! The federal government should be all over this! They’re doing nothing. Biden’s acting like he canceled one pipeline so he gets a gold star. But you don’t get a gold star from Mother Earth to let Line 3 go ahead. You don’t get a gold star from the planet. … So, [that’s] one. Two, they didn’t do an environmental impact statement.

You mentioned that Line 3 is even worse than Keystone when it comes to climate. Why is it important for Biden to look at this as a climate issue, especially after running on the most progressive climate agenda?

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This is the equivalent of 50 new coal-fired power plants. That’s really dumb. … Leave it in the ground. He needs to be the president that leads for a just transition. We expect [Harris] and Biden to provide leadership for a just transition, not to be basically prostituting for the Canadian pipeline industry. This is a really bad pipeline that runs through the heart of Ojibwe country in the middle of a time when the planet is on fire. This is not a good pipeline. In fact, there’s no more good tar sand pipelines.

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Enbridge has $24 billion worth of old pipelines sitting and slowly disintegrating … what you’ve got is a bunch of old pipes, and we need to move along. We need to make a transition away from that infrastructure. We need sewer and water pipes, pipes for people and for the environment.

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Federal lawmakers like Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced programs like the Civilian Climate Corps as part of a just transition away from fossil fuels. What would you want from a just transition?

We need it in northern Minnesota and we need it now. Or else we’re gonna spend the rest of our lives fighting over pipes and mines, and for a fifth of the world’s water. What we need is to build a just transition of local food, local energy, energy efficiency, renewable energy.

It’s 4,300 workers that Enbridge sent here. Give us 4,300 workers to change the economy, you know? We could do something with that.

How do you think the Biden administration should act to better support the other key aspects of the Line 3 protests, like Indigenous rights, treaty rights, and land and water rights? What are the demands there from organizers?

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Well across the board there’s Bears Ears, there’s Chaco Canyon. … Those are sacred sites that are facing desecration from oil and gas mining companies and big agricultural water projects. Protect the sacred. … Support the rights of Indigenous people in our world. We don’t live without our sacred world. We’re so hurt. And, you know, ensure that the just transition includes Indigenous people.

What do people need to know about what’s going on right now with Line 3?

It’s brutal up here. I’m watching a very destructive pipeline tearing through the heart of my territory. This isn’t abstract. It’s a brutal rape of the north, and I’m standing on the edge of the easement watching it with a bunch of women. That’s what it feels like. And I just spent three days in jail for it and I’ll probably spend some time [after]. That’s why Joe Biden should care. Because it’s wrong, what they’re doing.

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