“I just wanted to say I love your work,” the waitress at Emily’s Lebanese Deli in Northeast Minneapolis said to Winona LaDuke last week as she refilled the two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate’s coffee cup. The woman didn’t specify what work, exactly, but it’s a good bet she was talking about LaDuke’s current fight against big oil, the Koch Brothers, and others who would jeopardize, as one pipeline and fossil fuels critic called it, “the survivability of all civilization.”
A member of the Anishinaabe nation from the White Earth reservation, and leader of the nonprofit education and research organization Honor the Earth, last spring LaDuke launched a “Love Water Not Oil” tour and joined a group of ranchers, farmers and tribal members who rode the route of the Keystone XL pipeline and set up a “Reject and Protect” encampment near the White House. Last month she was in St. Paul, testifying daily before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission against the proposed Sandpiper pipeline that would carry oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin, and turn Minnesota into “an oil superhighway” that many fear would pollute the area’s bountiful wild rice beds, lakes, streams, and rivers.
LaDuke makes it to the Twin Cities regularly; last week it was for the premiere of “The Jingle Dress” and a trip to the Xcel Energy Center to catch a Minnesota Swarm lacrosse game. On Tuesday (Feb. 17) she’ll join authors Louise Erdrich and Eve Ensler and musician Chastity Brown at the Woman’s Club Theater for a program on sex trafficking and violence against native women.
Before heading out to the film and game, over a lunch of salad and spinach pie, LaDuke talked with MinnPost about her ongoing efforts to honor the earth.
MinnPost: Your last year has been spent in very high-profile way, with “Love Water Not Oil.” You rode Keystone, and last week you testified before the utilities commission. In Minnesota, you’ve become something of a face for the fight against this ongoing encroachment of fossil fuels and limited leadership on alternative energy. Does it feel like a one-woman fight sometimes?
Winona LaDuke: No, there are many others. I had a plan. I was going to write books, grow corn for the wind turbine. Make things right. Create the community and the economy that I wanted in the North, for my community, and hope that that could be an example to inspire other communities. I just wanted to make it happen, and then they announced the Sandpiper and I thought, “That’s not going to work out.”
I’m a pretty smart young woman, but I didn’t know anything about pipelines. And I hear about this Sandpiper, and they want to run it through our reservation, and nobody knows about it, and I’m like, “What the hell?” So I thought I should do something because I have a skill set; I can do energy analysis, so my first job was to write a bunch of articles and explain it and make a bunch of Norwegians mad. Because nobody knew.
That’s what’s so wrong to me. People have a right to know, and their timetable is so fast, and they’re wrong. There’s a lot of people who really care about the North, who’ve retired to a lake home and love fishing, and this pipeline is going to mess with their stuff.
MP: It’s all about the Norwegians. But historically, you have more invested in the area than …
WL: It crosses our 1855 treaty area [PDF], the heart of which is harvesting. I’m an avid harvester. I don’t hunt, but I fish, I net, I pick birch bark, I pick medicines, I pick rice, I pick berries, I’m all over that place. I’d like to live the life the creator gave me, it seems like a good one, and that’s what I intend to do. This messes with what our instructions were.
MP: When did you first become aware of these pipelines and what they mean to the environment?
WL: I’m a first-world person, just like you. I like pipelines. I like infrastructure. I like sewer mains. I like pipes that work in my house, I like gas pipes if you’re in the city, water mains. I’m not opposed to pipelines. I’m opposed to pipelines that carry oil across the state that have no benefit. You know, if the earth isn’t giving it up easily, you should probably think twice about taking it. So if you have to explode the bedrock to get the gas out of North Dakota, that’s not consensual. That’s …
MP: Rape. Literally raping the earth.
WL: Exactly. That’s really really extreme. It’s the same thing as the tar sands — we live in an extreme extraction era. I think that people think there’s an inevitability with all of this. People have relinquished control, which I find to be incredibly problematic spiritually. We say we are powerful beings that have choice, but we don’t act like it. In our presence and in our persona, we act like we are people with choice. But what we did is we became people who could choose what cell phone we want, or what restaurant to go to, or whatever accoutrements. But basic things we relinquish control of.
We accept an industrial education; we accept an energy infrastructure that is ass-backwards. They are replumbing America right now, and none of us signed up for pipelines across the most pristine areas for really inefficient energy. It’s called stranded asset; in 10 years these are just going to be junk, because they’re so ecologically (out-dated).
MP: It seems like it’s all coming to a head now …
WL: I feel like for me, it’s this moment. I’m pretty agile. I’ve raised six kids. I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got horses. I intend to live this way.
MP: How goes the fight with [Canadian-based Sandpiper pipeline maker) Enbridge?
WL: Enbridge is trying to lay the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline, a really egregious pipeline, really highly battled, and they don’t have that in. Enbridge is trying to get a few big pipelines in, and it’s not running well for them. We’re their second battle. They have two battlefronts: One is in British Columbia and one is here, and neither are going as planned. They act as if things are, but nobody wants that pipeline there.
MP: What can Minnesotans do to help stop it here?
WL: They need to pressure [Gov. Mark] Dayton, and they need to pressure the Public Utilities Commission. I think ultimately, it’s going to be a political decision. On the 21st of March, we’re hosting an event called “What’s the Plan?” Minnesota had no idea this was happening. Minnesota is being asked to accommodate an industry that we don’t benefit from.
Dayton needs to decide that this pipeline should not go through the North. Think, Minnesota, think. What’s the plan? Is our plan to redo our infrastructure for a high risk, and then sit back and cross our fingers and hope things work out? Or do we want a real infrastructure and energy plan for Minnesota? What I want is infrastructure that is not leaking; 19 billion dollars is leaked out of gas mains that consumers are paying for but don’t they know it. Why don’t we fix [stuff]?
MP: What is the main schism between the earth, talking about it like we are here, and capitalism? Many people would see these pipelines as progress and jobs.
WL: I call it “predator economics.” We live in an economy that’s based on taking more than you need and not leaving the rest. It’s based on this idea of endless access. There’s no infinite access.
Our motto is “Love Water Not Oil.” You can’t have both. You’ve got to make a choice. You can’t inject trillions of gallons of fracking fluids into injection wells under the assumption that what goes down will never come up. That’s a pretty big leap of faith that Colorado is making, and that North Dakota’s making. You can’t do the BP oil spill, you can’t do extreme extraction, and you can’t do pipelines across wild rice watersheds. It’s one chain of lakes after another, and you can’t do it. You’ve got to make a choice.
MP: What’s your gut feeling? Do you think Enbridge will be given the go-ahead to plow ahead?
WL: No. I think that we have a very good shot at the Sandpiper, but we need Minnesotans to oppose it and we super need Governor Dayton to say “That’s a bad idea.” … We need to be far more thoughtful about where we’re going and what we’re putting at risk and what we’re investing in. Dayton did say a couple of times, “that’s a bad route,” and he needs to stick to that.