AITKIN COUNTY, Minn. — The six-year-long conflict between an oil pipeline company and activists calling themselves water protectors may be narrowing down to a lone wigwam on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Activists believe the wigwam, a spiritual spot for elders to meet, will soon be the front line, and have organized massive protests of more than 2,000 people this week that they hope will “propel this issue to the top of the nation’s consciousness, and force (President Joe) Biden to act,” according to a statement from Treaty People Gathering, a protest group.
Although the new round of protests that began on Monday, June 7, was widespread, Juli Kellner, a spokesperson with the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, said the activism has not slowed down the Line 3 replacement Project, which stretches about 1,100 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. In fact, Kellner said, the pipeline is finished everywhere except in Minnesota, and the company plans to complete the project later this year.
Three days before the newest protest effort began, about nine people from Fargo, Moorhead and South Dakota traveled the 180 miles or more to the Palisade protest camp, about a city block away from the pipeline route, to offer their help to other activists, some who have been living in the forests there since December 2020.
One of the local activists, Clara Derby, grew up in Bismarck. She was in high school when the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy erupted in 2016. At that age, “no one really talked about it, ever,” she said. “It was demonized in Bismarck, too.”
She became involved in environmental issues after taking classes in college. “Now, it’s one of those things that makes me wonder why people aren’t as freaked out about it as I am,” Derby said.
Without a furnace at Palisade Camp, water has to be boiled to wash dishes. Latrines are situated away from living quarters, and the waste turned to compost is applied to gardens green with fresh vegetation.
Everyone eats together. They live in yurts and tipis and tents, warmed by wood stoves during the winter. They tap maple trees for maple syrup to pour over pancakes in the morning. Sometimes they have fry bread tacos for the evening meal. When it's hot, a rope swing dangling over the Mississippi River offers cool reprieve.
In the nearby forests, edible leeks and fiddlehead ferns grow in abundance. Nature’s alarm comes at the break of dawn with deer grunts and songs of ovenbirds. Mosquitoes and ticks make their presence known, seemingly impervious to the strongest repellents.
Coming from around the world, the Line 3 activists are unified in their belief that their struggle is one for survival. Some came to fight pipelines. Some said it was their duty to protect treaties and water, and others, like Derby, came partly to atone for the "sins of their ancestors."
Kellner said that when one part of the project gets shut down by protests, workers move to a different site.
“Our first priority is the safety of everybody involved, we want workers to be safe and our first responders to be safe, and we want to protect the safety of the protesters themselves,” Kellner said.
On Tuesday, sheriff's deputies approached the wigwam, built by Anishinaabe women Tania Aubid and Winona LaDuke, that sits in the pipeline's path.
Aubid showed law enforcement a letter from the 1855 Treaty Authority authorizing her to pray at the wigwam site, according to a live video feed of the incident made public by the Indigenous environmental justice group Honor the Earth.
Although the area does have a no trespassing sign, law enforcement left Aubid and other activists alone, for now.
"We have a Canadian corporation coming in here trying to make a buck at the end of the fossil fuels era and run over a bunch of Indigenous people, and we're not having it," said LaDuke, a protest organizer and executive director of Honor the Earth.
'An act of desperation'
Many activists are willing to face arrest for trespassing during protests, and they’re demanding that the Line 3 replacement Project be shut down because the pipeline runs through Anishinaabe treaty lands. They also believe Enbridge hasn't done adequate environmental, climate or tribal sovereignty assessments, an accusation that Kellner said is not true.
The pipeline, activists say, is endangering the 2,300-mile-long Mississippi River and its tributaries, upon which more than 18 million people depend on for drinking water.
Fossil fuels are yesterday’s energy source, Derby said.
“Why a lot of us are here is not to stop a pipeline, but to stop the need for pipelines and have the world think about turning to alternative energy,” Derby said. “We aren’t here to cause trouble, but we’re put in a spot where we are willing to put our bodies on the line. This is an act of desperation. It’s insane that we’re still investing in fossil fuels."
Tracey L. Wilkie, a Fargo resident and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, also traveled to the protest camp. She was taught as a child by elders that one day they would have to take a stand for their treaty rights.
“I am Anishinaabe, and we are descendants of the Anishinaabe in Minnesota, although we are called a band in North Dakota. I went to protect the water. It is a duty of mine,” Wilkie said.
Before protests began on Monday, Derby, along with new friends Steven Ranweiler, from Foley, Minn., and others cleaned up yurts, hauled water, and did other chores under 103-degree weather.
Ranweiler, a senior at Minnesota State University Moorhead, became active with environmental issues in high school. “As a kid, I wanted to be a super hero. I wanted to save the world. But I learned you have to work with and in a community to make anything permanent happen,” he said.
Ranweiler started off with recycling, making compost. He became a vegan. He plans to become a teacher, and is undecided how far he would go practicing civil disobedience.
“I’m supposed to prepare students for the world, but why if there isn’t a world that can sustain them?” Ranweiler said. “The problem is a systemic issue and you can’t make a compost pile and everything will be fine. We need systemic change.”
So far this year, hundreds of people have been arrested during protests along Line 3. Just this week, 179 people were arrested and 68 citations were issued as of Thursday, according to the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement agencies formed to monitor pipeline protests.
'We drink from the river'
Brian Holmer is the mayor of Thief River Falls, Minn., a town near the front lines of the protest. He supports the pipeline, but he also doesn’t shy away from saying protesters have the constitutional right to voice their opinions.
“We haven’t had much of an experience with them. People are real civil about it, and both sides just respect the fact that some people are going to disagree on certain issues,” Holmer said before the Monday protest.
With an estimated 2,000 or more activists involved so far in the protests, he said his city is ready because multiple law enforcement agencies are watching the protests. “All in all, I don’t mind the protest happening as long as it’s a civil one. But it’s zero tolerance when it comes to public safety,” the mayor said.
The last thing Holmer wants is to hurt the environment, he said, and he believes Enbridge is being proactive.
“We live and breathe nature up here and we don’t want to do anything negative up here,” Holmer said. “We drink from the river, and we don’t want to pollute it.”
Rusty Eichorn, owner of Glen’s Army Navy in Grand Rapids, Minn., which is a nearly 75-year-old reseller of all things outdoors, including tick gaiters and heavy winter clothing, said the pipeline has brought prosperity to his community.
“There’s no question about it. I believe that the pipeline is the most efficient way to transport oil. Period,” Eichorn said. “Our community, the local communities, have welcomed the workers with open arms. They’re filling hotels, they’re using restaurants. As a whole, the impact on the local economy is what we see from where I sit, and it’s huge."
Eichorn said he’s seen protesters along a nearby bridge, but doesn’t interact with them.
“In my world it’s a nonevent," he said of the protests. "But this is America, you have the right to do that and that’s fine. But they all get here by automobile and they don’t drive electric cars.”
Although some local activists returned from the Line 3 resistance camps before this week's protests began, everyone hopes the struggle ends soon.
Mark John Kruse, from Minnesota, gave up his job as a carpenter to join the pipeline fight last winter. He became active after going to Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It was there he heard a woman speak who inspired him to do more, he said.
“She said, ‘We’re all rainy droplets hitting the water and the ripples you bring back to your community.’ That has stuck with me ever since,” Kruse said.
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect location for Glen’s Army Navy. The store is in Grand Rapids, Minn.