Earlier this month, on a hot day amid a statewide drought, thousands of people marched with banners along a Minnesota highway near the Mississippi headwaters, where the river begins its 4,000 kilometre (2,500 mile) journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
It is also where Canadian company Enbridge plans to bury the Line 3 pipeline.
The project, the largest in Enbridge’s history, would replace a 1,700-kilometre (1,000-mile) oil pipeline that runs from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin – and for years, it has drawn Indigenous opposition over concerns that it will contribute to climate change and infringe on treaty rights.
On June 7, the same day as the march, about 200 people set up tents on platforms the company built to allow heavy machinery to roll over the marshy land, in an effort to prevent construction.
Another group blocked the road to an Enbridge pump station and locked themselves to equipment. A US Customs and Border Protection helicopter hovered about 20 feet above the pump station, kicking up a cloud of dust in an attempt to clear out demonstrators.
“They’re exercising their treaty rights by being in that encampment,” explained Bineshi Albert, an organiser with the Indigenous Environmental Network, who travelled from Oklahoma to attend the march.
In the 1800s, Ojibwe people signed 44 treaties with the United States government that created the state of Minnesota and guaranteed tribal rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice, a sensitive sacred plant. Now they say those rights are threatened by pipeline construction, oil spills and climate change.
In total, police arrested 179 people, charging them with trespassing, public nuisance and unlawful assembly. Police posted photos showing deflated vehicle tyres at the pump station. Enbridge said 44 workers were evacuated from the pump station. “We respect everyone’s right to peacefully and lawfully protest, but trespass, intimidation, and destruction are unacceptable,” the company said in a statement.
In early June, Ojibwe people called on allies to join them to delay construction and demand US President Joe Biden’s administration cancel Line 3 permits.
Biden cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline during his first week as president, and demonstrators want him to do the same for Line 3. Administration officials have privately met with Line 3 opponents, but publicly his administration has not addressed the Line 3 demonstrations.
After a spring construction hiatus, work resumed this month on the replacement of the corroding, leaky oil pipeline. In Minnesota, the project takes a new route south of the original line, dipping under untouched waterways.
If completed, it would restore the pipeline’s original capacity to ship 760,000 barrels of oil per day. The line would carry bitumen, a heavy oil that sinks in water, making it hard to clean up. Enbridge says the project will be done by the end of the year.
From the company’s perspective, Line 3 has “passed every test”, completing a six-year regulatory process that included 70 public meetings, a 13,500-page Environmental Impact Statement, four reviews by administrative law judges, and 320 route modifications in response to stakeholder input. But the project faces multiple legal challenges to its permits.
The Minnesota demonstrations are connected to a larger movement against pipelines and extractive projects across North America. Both Canada and the US attempted to use laws and boarding schools to extinguish Indigenous culture, but Indigenous people have held onto their traditions and are reclaiming the land. Indigenous women, in particular, are leading this movement because their teachings dictate that they share a sacred connection to water.
With the growth of Canada’s oil sands, companies have worked for years to gain buy-in from Indigenous communities to build or expand pipelines on their land, and while they have reached agreements with many, others have said no.
This lack of unanimous consent has culminated in the We’tsuwet’en blockading their traditional territory to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Tiny House Warriors fighting the Trans Mountain expansion, and most notably, tens of thousands of people gathering at Standing Rock to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Civil disobedience is just one strategy deployed against pipelines; Indigenous communities have also filed court challenges and pressured banks to divest from fossil fuels. As they assert their rights, Indigenous people are surveilled, arrested and criminalised.
‘A clean playground’
As demonstrations continued on June 8, Tania Aubid, a member of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stayed away from the crowds.
Instead, she moved into a sacred lodge that she built with the help of Winona LaDuke, executive director of Indigenous justice non-profit Honor The Earth. The lodge stands between the Line 3 pipeline route and the Mississippi in an attempt to peacefully prevent construction.
After she arrived, a livestream showed several officers surrounding the structure. Aubid said her lodge is protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and held up a letter from the 1855 Treaty Authority, a group representing beneficiaries of the 1855 Treaty, confirming the space is protected. An officer with an Aitkin County badge told her she was trespassing, and said, “You know what you’re doing is wrong.”
“It’s not wrong!” Aubid responded.
The video shows the officer making a call and he then told Aubid she could stay. Al Jazeera sent questions about the incident to the Aitkin County Sheriff and the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement overseeing Line 3 protests, but neither replied in time for publication.
Aubid told Al Jazeera she built the lodge because it is important for her to practice her ceremonies: “That’s what my family and others who are the original people from these lands have been doing for millennia.” She said she opposes the Line 3 pipeline because it is important for future generations to have a healthy environment and “a clean playground”.
Connection to the land
After a year of coronavirus health measures, vaccines have made it safer for protesters to gather in large numbers, and renewed civil disobedience and mass arrests, as well as the Biden administration’s focus on climate change have all brought attention to the Line 3 struggle. Visits from celebrities and politicians including Jane Fonda and Ilhan Omar have also helped.
Albert said people from all over the world – from Honduras, Bangladesh, Eastern Cherokee from North Carolina, and Navajo and Apache from Arizona – attended the June 7 march in Minnesota.
“It was great for the local community to see and feel the support of folks from across the country, and across the world,” Albert said over the phone, as she and Simone Senogles, another organiser with the Indigenous Environmental Network, drove to the resistance camp of 200 people in tents near the Mississippi headwaters this week.
“For those who can go out there on the water at the Mississippi camp, it’s a reclaiming of the connection to the land,” Senogles said.
“It’s healing for us, and in my opinion, this kind of strategy is very long-term thinking, where we occupy the land and reclaim our food systems, our ceremony, our language, our relationship to the land, because that is environmental protection. When you have empowered culturally competent Indigenous people, then the land is healthy.”