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Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers talks environment, activism ahead of Duluth festival

The folk rock duo is among the acts featured in the Water is Life Festival, which starts Sunday in Duluth.

Indigo Girls will be performing at the Water is Life Festival on Sunday in Duluth.
Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, will be performing at the Water is Life Festival on Sunday in Duluth.
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Legendary folk rock duo Indigo Girls are converging in Duluth on Sunday as part of the Water is Life Festival. They’ll be joined by a host of national music and movie stars, plus Minnesota artists, including Native and non-Native musicians, activists, models, and more.

“With Water is Life, we’re focused on the preservation of water and recognizing that water is, in fact, life,” says Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers. “We are also working to support the women who are in the frontlines of supporting Mother Earth because right now there’s just an all-out assault against women— in reproductive health, in mother earth, water, in every way. Women are at the forefront of those protections.”

Among the lineup for the festival are Duluth’s own Low, folk rock singer Ani DiFranco, who has performed in the past with Indigo Girls, as well as Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell. Also watch out for Minnesota musicians like Dessa, David Huckfelt, and Annie Humphrey, from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, and Gaelynn Lea. Cree and Salish singer Instagram star Tia Wood will perform, along with Joe Rainey Sr., Keith Secola, and Corey Medina.

Dessa
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Dessa
Emceeing the festival is Indigenous hip-hop artist and co-founder of Rez Rap Records Thomas X, from the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota. Stars from the FX on Hulu series “Reservation Dogs,” including Gary Farmer and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, as well as Woon-A-Tai’s partner, model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse, will be part of a panel.

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The festival, presented by the organization Honor the Earth, is geared toward raising funds to support the Water Protector movement, an Indigenous-led fight to protect water from fossil fuels, and other Indigenous-led environmental campaigns.

Like many artists, Indigo Girls canceled many shows during the pandemic, turning to options like Zoom and drive-in concerts to keep up their practice. Saliers says she’s working on two different musicals, while her counterpart Amy Ray is readying to release a new album. In the meantime, they’ve joined the board of Honor the Earth, an organization they co-founded with Winona LaDuke in Massachusetts 29 years ago.

The Indigo Girls met LaDuke, who twice ran for vice president on a ticket with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, at an Earth Day concert at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts. Prior to that, the duo had already been involved with mainstream environmental groups like Greenpeace. “It felt like what we learned about environmentalism driven by an Indigenous perspective changed our whole scope— Amy’s and mine — about how we wanted to be involved with environmental work, as related to social justice, preservation of Native culture, and sustainability” Saliers says. “It was like a brand new day for us once we decided to form Honor the Earth.”

Gaelynn Lea
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Gaelynn Lea
Saliers says she takes the role of being an ally with humility. “We’re using our voice to sort of bridge between our communities,” Saliers said. “And to use music and art as a platform for raising money and awareness for Indigenous communities, whatever the need may be.”

They both see LaDuke as their mentor. “We are learners,” Saliers says. “We try to give voice to those who don’t have as much, and who don’t have as loud of a microphone or speaker system as we do in certain contexts.”

Honor the Earth has fought nuclear waste dumping, and is currently taking on the Huber Mill near the Leech Lake Reservation, the proposed copper-nickel mining operation from Talon Metals in Aitkin County, Enbridge Line 5 in Wisconsin, and an oil refinery in Superior. This work comes at the heels of the organization’s long battle against Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which runs through Anishinaabe treaty lands and has many water crossings, including the Mississippi River.

“Corporations like Enbridge have absolutely no respect for the treaties, for the water,” Saliers says. “The leaks in those lines will ruin ecosystems. The disrespect for trampling sacred ground is just almost inconceivable.”

“The fossil fuel industry is a dying industry and they all know it,” Saliers says.

Tia Wood
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Tia Wood
Some of the funds raised by the concert will go toward legal costs for water protectors, as well as grants toward continuing the fossil fuel fight. In addition, Saliers sees music as a way to galvanize peoples’ spirits.

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She recalls a gathering during the Line 3 fight, when water protectors were gathered by the river. “It was a very painful time for the activists, Winona, and all the community members who were being arrested and seeing land clear cut, and things dug up in the land,” she says. “Spirits were low. And at one point in that gathering, the music started, and people danced and people sang. I cannot exaggerate the power of music to lift our spirits during dark struggles.”

For Saliers, she’s glad to be a part of an event that brings together artists— particularly women artists, to honor the earth. “It’s a critical time,” she says.

Honor the Earth: Water is Life Festival begins at noon Sunday, Sept. 4 at Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth ($40). More information here.