Tara Houska is no amateur when it comes to pipeline resistance. The attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation set up camp at Standing Rock and stood with Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrators for six months, helping raise legal funds for water defenders facing charges. Four years later, she’s back on the fossil fuel front lines — but this time, it’s personal.
Her target is Line 3, which will carve through Anishinaabe territory in northern Minnesota, just three hours from where she grew up. The pipeline will carry tar sands more than 1,000 miles from Alberta to Wisconsin. In March, Houska and six other Indigenous activists were arrested for trespassing and detained overnight. Their crime: sitting and praying in a waaginogaaning, a traditional, domed structure they erected on a pipeline construction site in northern Minnesota. The demonstration underscored the spiritual relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land — a connection Houska and others believe the pipeline will sever.
Enbridge, the Canadian energy company behind Line 3, claims it is merely replacing a 60-year-old pipeline that is likely to corrode and leak if it isn’t updated. But opponents see the plan as an expansion of it, because it will carry twice the amount of oil. Houska says Line 3 violates Anishinaabe rights granted under the 1837 White Pine Treaty by endangering wild rice, a plant unique to the region and sacred to her tribe. The pipeline faces legal challenges from tribes, environmental groups, and even the Minnesota Department of Commerce, all of which say the environmental risks far exceed the need for additional oil.
Houska, who was a Native American affairs advisor to the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, has used her political know-how to pressure elected officials to intervene. Still, she thinks lawsuits and lobbying aren’t enough. She formed Giniw Collective in 2018 to mobilize resistance and train protesters in direct action. Beyond the waaginogaaning demonstration, Indigenous protesters have blocked construction by chaining themselves to machinery, a boat hauled to the site, and even each other. Authorities have arrested more than 250 people since construction began in November, Houska says. To her, protesters’ courage and personal sacrifice send a message more powerful than any petition.
Fix talked to Houska, a 2017 Grist 50 honoree, about her approach to protest, how fishing and foraging count as direct action, and why the time has come for women to lead the fossil fuel resistance. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why are you in this fight? What makes you get up every morning and risk arrest?
A. The pipeline will go through [northern Minnesota, near] where I’m from, and it will jeopardize wild rice. Our people maintain a treaty right to safely harvest wild rice, which sits at the heart of our identity. We were told to migrate to where the food grows on water, and this is the only place in the world where wild rice [is naturally found]. Ojibwe people have been here for thousands of years.
The Line 3 fight is an extension of the fight for Mother Earth that’s happening all over. It’s about whether we’re going to continue to allow fossil fuel bullies to steal from future generations. Climate data can sometimes distance us from the real problem, but Line 3 is a reminder that there are human beings who are losing their homes as we speak, whether it’s through displacement to build pipelines like this or to rising seas and extreme weather.
Q. What strategies are you using to halt Line 3?
A. I advocate a multipronged approach. Along with other folks, I’ve been meeting with White House officials. President Biden is positioning himself as the climate president and has made addressing this crisis a top priority. We’re asking that he stand with his word and recognize that the cancellation of Keystone XL is not nearly enough; he can and must intervene on Line 3, too. I also helped launch the Defund Line 3 campaign and organize a Global Day of Action in 85 cities.
Direct actions are often undervalued. Everyone likes to dump their energy and resources into policy and letter-writing and sign-holding. Those types of advocacy are familiar and don’t involve a lot of risk or personal sacrifice. But there’s something deeply powerful when people are willing to physically stand with their word and address a problem with the urgency it requires. That’s happening all over the globe. But oftentimes those activists are under-supported — or worse, killed.
Giniw Collectiv is an Indigenous woman- and two-spirit-led group focused not only on defending the land and training folks in direct action, but on getting people onto the land to understand what they’re defending. People have been harvesting wild rice, fishing, swimming, hunting, and developing connections with these places we’re trying to protect.
Q. Fishing and hunting aren’t usually what people think of when it comes to pipeline resistance. Why is it important for protesters to engage with nature?
A. There are a lot of young people here; in fact, I’m one of the oldest people in camp. This intimate engagement with the surrounding ecosystems has helped a lot of them feel empowered and helped them find their voices. This resistance is not just about fighting an evil thing. It’s also building leaders, and building a model for understanding that we can live with the earth in a different way. Indigenous folks have been doing that for millennia — other folks just forgot.
Human beings aren’t going to solar-panel and wind-turbine our way out of the climate crisis. There is a lot to be said about upcycling and transitioning ourselves away from fossil fuels and into a green economy. A just transition is crucial. We can’t exist in the delicate balance of the earth’s ecosystems without recognizing the importance of mutuality and respect. Nurturing a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth is foundational to creating a better world.
Q. A key argument from those who favor the pipeline is that Line 3 is creating jobs for struggling communities. What’s your response?
A. That argument is propaganda by the fossil fuel industry, which does not care about local economies. It doesn’t care about job creation. It cares about getting its product to market so it can pay its shareholders. Enbridge promised that 75 percent of the workers building Line 3 would be from nearby communities. In actuality, only about 33 percent of the workforce lives in Minnesota. If Line 3 is constructed, those jobs end when the project ends. Just like pipelines, they don’t have long-term viability.
I would love to see more investment in rural places so the people living there don’t have to destroy the world around them in order to survive. The only good-paying jobs available to many people involve mining precious metals or cutting down our forests. It’s all extraction. We need job training in modern, regenerative economies.
Q. This resistance effort seems to be led, in large part, by women and two-spirit people. Why do you think that is?
A. A number of prophecies have said this time would come about. We’ve been under a patriarchal system for quite some time, and look where we’ve ended up. There is a balancing occurring between the masculine and the feminine. Around the world, land defense and racial justice movements are being led by women and non-gender-conforming folks like two-spirit people.
[In Ojibwe mythology], Giniw is the golden eagle that lives between two worlds It reflects balance and fluidity. And as each generation has become a little more healed and inclusive, I’ve noticed an opening for nonbinary and two-spirit people to make their voices heard. From an Indigenous perspective, these people have masculine and feminine spirits inside of them. That balance is exactly what the world needs, and what this resistance effort needs.
Q. How can people support water defenders resisting Line 3?
A. The best thing you can do, if you’re able-bodied and have the means, is come stand with us or organize folks who can. If you can’t do that, hammer on the banks to divest from fossil fuels. The Stop the Money Pipeline campaign, of which Giniw Collective is a founding member, has resources to help. Alongside that, contact President Biden, climate advisor Gina McCarthy, and Jaime Pinkham at the Army Corps of Engineers, and pressure them to cancel Line 3.
Standing with life requires us to be strong and brave. We aren’t going to stop the climate crisis comfortably. People should educate themselves not only about the issue, but what we can do about it. Recognize that when we engage in personal sacrifice, we are sending an incredibly powerful statement, not just to the decision-makers, but to each other. We’re saying that we’re willing to stand with the earth, and to stand up for someone who hasn’t been born yet.
Clarification: This article has been updated to better reflect the nature of Houska’s aid to those facing charges and the location of the pipeline in relation to where she grew up. It has also been updated to better indicate where Fix added clarifying language to her original comments.
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