Indigenous Water Protectors Fight to Stop Construction of the "Pandemic Pipeline"

Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke (center) stands with other water protectors against construction of the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota on Jan. 9. (Photo: KEREM YUCEK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Indigenous Water Protectors Fight to Stop Construction of the "Pandemic Pipeline"

Biden halted Keystone XL, but Enbridge’s Line 3 would pipe the same tar sands oil into the U.S. and across Anishinaabe treaty lands.

Members of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa gather periodically at Grandma's Table, a sacred site on the tribe's northern Minnesota reservation, to perform moon ceremonies, teach their children how to build fires, sing and dance. Grandma's Table is where Taysha Martineau first learned to proudly speak their name in the Ojibwe language. In December, Martineau could only watch as Canadian oil giant Enbridge (authorized by the Fond du Lac tribal chairman) began digging up the site to make way for its Line 3 oil pipeline.

Disease and colonialism have long been intertwined in American history.

"That was, for me, the final straw," says Martineau, co-founder of the Indigenous community support group Gitchigumi Scouts. "It was as if someone had stormed into church and left the broken body of your grandmother on the altar."

In early January, Martineau and other water protectors--the activists opposing the pipeline--set up a resistance camp on nine acres of land they bought with $30,000 from a GoFundMe campaign. In defiance of their chairman's decision, six water protectors live permanently at Camp Migizi ("bald eagle" in Ojibwe), and dozens gather there daily to join direct actions against the pipeline. Six demonstrators had been arrested at press time.

Though President Joe Biden revoked the federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, construction continues on Line 3. Like Keystone, Line 3 would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. If completed, the $4 billion expansion project will replace an older, smaller Enbridge pipeline and deliver 760,000 barrels of oil per day to a transportation terminal in Superior, Wis.

Camp Migizi's campaign is the latest obstacle for the embattled pipeline, which has been planned since 2013 but slowed by legal challenges, petitions and Indigenous-led resistance.

The White Earth and Red Lake nations, the Sierra Club, and Indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth are pursuing legal action against Line 3 in federal court, claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately evaluate the environmental and cultural impact of the pipeline. Water protectors at Camp Migizi hope to delay construction at least until that case can be heard.

According to Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, Line 3 violates treaty rights of the Anishinaabe peoples, which includes the Ojibwe/ Chippewa. More than 50,000 Anishinaabeg live in Minnesota, where tribal territory spans 3 million acres. Treaties guarantee them the right to harvest sacred wild rice, which is central to the Anishinaabe economy and ecosystem. The pipeline would run through the center of wild rice territory.

Juli Kellner, a spokesperson for Enbridge, says the company has demonstrated "ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty." Kellner also says the project provides local economic benefits and will increase the operational safety of Line 3.

Landowners and Indigenous people in northern Minnesota, however, are skeptical. Enbridge caused one of the biggest inland oil spills in U.S. historywhen a pipeline spilled more than a million gallons into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in 2010. From extraction to combustion, the pipeline would also emit 193 million tons of greenhouse gases a year -- more than Minnesota's total 2018 emissions.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, water protectors say the project poses another threat: It will pour out-of-state workers into rural Minnesota. Thousands have already moved into the area, and one report finds around 3.5% of them tested positive for the coronavirus.

Enbridge maintains it has instituted strict Covid testing and screening protocols for Line 3, but LaDuke is not convinced. "It's genocidal," she says. "It's just so wrong."

Health officials, tribal leaders, and environmental advocacy groups have also stepped up to voice their concerns about plowing forward on this "pandemic pipeline." In December, the Chairman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe sent a letter against Line 3 to Governor Tim Walz, citing rising Covid death counts in the region, shortages of nearby ICU beds, and the strain already facing the Reservation's ambulance system. A petition to the governor signed by hundreds of healthcare workers echoed this sentiment, warning that "A major outbreak in a rural area with limited healthcare capacity ... will have ripple effects across our entire state healthcare infrastructure."

Like disease, sexual violence is deeply rooted in historical processes of colonization and genocide.

Disease and colonialism have long been intertwined in American history. European diseases were a major factor in the destruction of Indigenous cultures during colonization. Centuries of forced dispossession and relocation have continued to make Indigenous communities vulnerable to disease. Lack of funding, hospital beds and supplies at the Indian Health Service--the federal division that oversees healthcare for 2.6 million tribal members--exacerbates this vulnerability. Indigenous people have the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in both Minnesota and the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they have died at almost twice the rate of white Americans. New data on "excess mortality" rates in the state suggest that Indigenous Covid deaths have been severely undercounted and that Indigenous communities are especially at risk of indirect Covid deaths stemming from loss of income or averted medical care.

Before Covid, Martineau was focused on a different Line 3 threat: the "man camps" that oil companies often set up in rural areas to house temporary workers. These camps, consisting primarily of young men with disposable incomes and no ties to local communities, are documented breeding grounds for violence and have been linked to increases in sexual assault and sex trafficking, particularly against Indigenous women and children.

Like disease, sexual violence is deeply rooted in historical processes of colonization and genocide. In the words of Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of Lubicon Cree, one of Canada's First Nations, "Violence against the Earth begets violence against women."

Martineau says that local law enforcement, recognizing the severity of this problem, has put in extra efforts this year to prevent sex trafficking associated with out-of-state workers. Nonetheless, Martineau remains "vigilant" in watching for predatory behavior, especially since Camp Migizi is full of women, children, and elders. Minnesota ranks ninth in U.S. states with the most cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

LaDuke, an economist by training, calls fossil-fuel capitalism "predator economics," or "Wiindigo economics." (In Anishinaabe lore, Wiindigo is an insatiably greedy monster.) Transient workers and the corporations that send them are a feature of this extractive system. "Transience," LaDuke writes in her book To Be a Water Protector, "means we do not come to know and love a place; we move on, and as such are not accountable to that place."

Enbridge is not just building a new pipeline; it's also abandoning an old, crumbling part of Line 3. The abandonment of the old pipeline is as much of an issue to water protectors as the construction of the new one. "Instead of fixing or removing it, they want simply to walk away," LaDuke says.

The water protectors at Camp Migizi are resisting these Wiindigo economics by centering a commitment to the land that runs deep into the past and the future.

As Martineau says, "Many of us have made promises to our elders and the next generation that we will do everything we can to stop Line 3."

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