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“We Can’t Make the Bleeding Stop on Our Own”: Interview with a Native Water Protector in Minnesota

A Native water protector at the #StopLine3 actions in Minnesota spoke with Left Voice about how fossil fuel extraction connects to the history of violence against Indigenous Communities.

Samuel Karlin

July 16, 2021
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Native-led water protectors have been fighting to stop construction on the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Enbridge, the Canadian multinational behind the pipeline, is violating Native treaties and is already responsible for one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history. Line 3 now threatens spillage in Indigenous environments as well as the Mississippi River.

One Native participant in these actions, Jaike SpottedWolf, traveled from the Pacific Northwest to Minnesota to support this fight, and spoke about this experience with Left Voice’s Sam Carliner. The interview covers the character of the actions on the ground and how they connect to the larger history of colonial genocide against Native communities, which persists today.

SC: What is Line 3 and why are there a lot of actions around it right now?

JS: Line 3 is a pipeline from Canada down into the Gulf of Mexico through the state of Minnesota. And it’s a perpetuation of pipelines that run through key reservation land throughout the United States. It’s like a new form of genocide. Every pipeline so far that has been implemented in the United States threatens water. This is stuff that you can’t just clean up and get back to normal in terms of resource extraction. For example, there are uranium mines in Diné nation that poison the water so much that there’s not enough drinking water and there are exorbitant cancer rates. So where pipelines and mines are concerned, people who live near them, i.e., Native Americans, are left with having to survive in those really hostile environmental conditions. Minnesota is in a state of emergency in terms of drought because they don’t have enough water. The Pacific Northwest, where I live, does have water. But we also have record fire seasons. Small towns on reservations are literally burning up. So this is all oriented around climate change and indigeneity.

SC: What is your background as an activist, and why is it important for you to show solidarity with these protests in Minnesota?

JS: I am Indigenous. I grew up in southern Idaho and moved to Seattle, where I lived, in 1997. And I guess my own connection is to generational trauma and what I’ve been exposed to in my native family in terms of preventable deaths. Not to say that that’s necessarily related to the environment, but when treaties are broken and the government comes in and says, “We don’t care what the treaty said or what your tribe said about the treaty. We are going to let this company do what it’s going to do anyway” — it’s violating that Indigenous person’s culture, their tradition, and everything that they know. Poverty is extremely high because the economy doesn’t exist the way it does in white America. So the depression, the anxiety, the mental health issues lead to self medicating, which leads to the bigger picture, which is, you know, youth dying, very young, suicide rates skyrocketing, and we’ve all lost our culture. Sorrow, heartbreak, devastation exist in Indigenous communities across the United States, but again, the surrounding culture isn’t even aware of it. So that’s what compelled me to become active in my own circles. And then, of course, when the riots broke out last year, the protests, I found an opportunity to expose more of what’s happening in indigeneity and begin speaking at a couple of different marches. I couldn’t make it out to Standing Rock, so I saw this opportunity and I just took it to come out and help.

SC: What type of response have you gotten from the cops, the state, and Enbridge surrounding these actions?

JS: I’ve heard of an activist who was in the media recently who was taken out of a car, put into a headlock, and had bruises on them. Their camera was confiscated for evidence. This is a known media person with credentials that was videoing a different action. So they’ll go to those lengths. On somebody’s private camp where they own the land, cops came in from Hubbard County and kettled the protesters overnight. They restricted people from being able to come and go, and they restricted food and drink from being brought into the camp as a means of keeping people quiet. So it can be really violent. We had one sheriff, however, up in a different county that honors the treaties. That is how we were allowed to create what they call Camp Fire Light and hold a ceremony there for eight days. He allowed us — I shouldn’t even say he allowed us. He didn’t abuse the law. And we were able to occupy a space Enbridge had built. When we knew we were able to hold that space, we started a ceremony. Some ceremonies lasted for days. We were able to be there for eight days until Enbridge delivered a letter of eviction, saying that we needed to remove ourselves from the land.

They are hustling to build this pipeline on the ground because they know the deadline is coming. They know we’ve been talking to the EPA. They know I flew down to Washington, DC, with three other activists from Minnesota. We did speak with the head of the EPA. Biden was supposed to be there. They know that we’re talking to these people and that they’ve got a very short timetable. So we’ve got about two weeks before the pipe is laid, and then things are closer to up and running than they ever have been within this particular pipeline.

SC: Biden painted himself as much better on climate issues, and there was a lot of hype around him appointing Deb Haaland to his cabinet and his talk of actually discussing racism. What do you think his response to Line 3 or perhaps lack thereof says?

JS: I mean, he lied. I’m not shocked. He’s another white male president. He’s another in a long line of politicians who have had to say what they knew the United States needed to hear at that time in order to get elected. He knew that he had to be the opposite of Trump, and that that would mean protecting the climate. That would mean talking about race, electing people into his cabinet, appointing them. But when we look at his history, he’s not a huge fan of critical race theory or intersectionality or doing anything to benefit communities. So why would he change all of a sudden? You know, like, I don’t really believe that somebody who’s as old as he is, who has been in office as long as he has, is all of a sudden going to change. He still has to please a large part of the House and the Senate. And he’s going to do that because politicians love to kowtow. And I hate to admit that, but I see him as nothing but a complete fake and a liar at this point. And if I could have him hear those words, I would be elated. He’s destroying Indigenous communities by doing nothing.

SC: What is it like at the camp?

JS: Camp Fire Light was shut down by an eviction notice almost three weeks ago. But the other camp still stands. So I’ve been a resident, if you will, of Camp Migizi since May 19. What that looks like, you know, the people do tend to shift weekly, sometimes daily. Some people can be there for Saturday and Sunday. Some people are able to stay for months. We’re bringing in our own supplies and everything from tents to lanterns to bathroom supplies to aid, anything that you know is essential for survival. And it looks a lot like Indigenous femmes running this movement. Three of us are Two Spirit, that’s essentially what your nonbinary equivalent would be in Indigenous circles. So these camps are being run by Indigenous people, so there’s that element to it that’s very different from that white patriarchy that we’re used to seeing in boardrooms and places of authority and politics. There’s no hierarchy in decision-making. It’s not up to one person. There’s a lot of community hashing all this out with a lot of discussion. Depending on what job needs to be done, people will show up and contribute. This community is coming back to Indigenous roots where you’re trading again, you’re pitching in because the job needs to be done, not because you’re making money for it. The labor is not exploitative. It’s whatever your body is able to bring at the moment and within your abilities. And there’s no shame around what you can or can’t do.

SC: Did some of the discussions of racism from last summer have an impact on some of the people who are showing up to these actions?

JS: I do have to believe that, because it was long and ongoing and as much as, you know, Covid devastated many, many communities, we would not have had long sustained protests without being locked down. With all of that protest happening, all the education that was happening, especially on social media, you couldn’t avoid the perspective. That allowed especially white culture to finally put to use all that agony or despair that they were having about feeling hopeless and helpless in this moment and gave them a direction, I guess, in which to run in order to be able to better help these communities. So when they started touching base with housing and with food insecurity and with poverty and mental health or the lack of health care in the country on a really extreme level, because they finally had the time. They were able to investigate a little more thoroughly, you know, not just Black issues, but Indigenous issues, Asian American issues. And that’s what gave them this information that resource extraction is another form of genocide and that genocide is still continuing in America today. So this was another way that they could show up and help.

SC: What else can be done to raise awareness of and build solidarity with Native issues?

JS: It almost feels like people become paralyzed or they feel so guilty because maybe their ancestors had something to do with genocide or maybe they currently are living on Native land. Like, I lived on Duwamish territory, but now I live on Ojibwe territory out here in Minnesota. So maybe they feel so guilty that they are currently existing on Native land that if they don’t say anything at all, they won’t be at risk of losing what they have or they won’t have to reconcile what their ancestors did. As much as we weren’t taught the true history of what they call the “Indian Wars,” which were really cultural genocide and colonization, I think that still everybody knows deep down inside that the Native Americans were murdered for land and resources. There’s no way around that. So having to admit that on your own turf? I can’t get people to come to the table to have these discussions and to own up to how we are still suffering in a genocidal way. That has to be my biggest frustration and my own biggest heartbreak.

I do want to mention the residential school situation. Those stories broke before I came out here in May. It is almost the middle of July, and the United States has not started their search. There are over 300 schools in this country that held Native babies, children, teenagers, and on those grounds, you’ll find dead bodies from all of the abuse, the sexual abuse, the physical abuse, the starvation, lack of resources because they refused to treat these children like human beings, and that isn’t being discussed. We need to pay attention to these schools. It’s really concerning in terms of how Native erasure occurs and how we are always swept under the rug. And if this was a white community and hundreds of bodies had been found anywhere, there would have been a full-on search. The Catholic Church would have been brought to a fucking trial at this point, and they would have pushed that along very fast and very hard. I don’t know that we’ll ever see an actual investigation because America would have to reconcile its hands in genocide against Native Americans.

Today it’s the pipeline, but 120 years ago it was that they just wanted our land. So they were taking these children away from their families in order to assimilate them to American culture, to Christianity. So it may not feel like it had a lot to do with climate change, but in a roundabout way it does.

And pipeline construction is continuing Native abductions. Two pipeline workers were found to have young children, teenagers, and women in their capacity for sex trafficking. This is very current and not talked about. Native women, teens, and children are the most trafficked demographic in the United States percentage-wise. We saw a lot of it in North Dakota. Pipeline workers come out of state to work these jobs. They get lonely, they can’t handle their sexual impulses, and they get involved in trafficking of these women and children. And they go off the map completely because these areas are so rural, because oftentimes law enforcement is in on it. And they’re turning their heads or sometimes taking hush money in order to keep the trafficking going. This has been an epidemic in Indigenous communities for decades, where you can look up a list of Indigenous people that have gone missing over the course of the past 50 years. Very few of them have been found, and many are found horribly mangled. It doesn’t necessarily always have to do with pipeline work, but within the past 10 to 15 years, pipeline owners bring in people that are making a lot of money that feel like it’s OK to exploit these bodies and will pay a trafficker whatever it will take.

SC: What can people do to help those of you protesting Line 3?

JS: There’s ways that people can support in an auxiliary way, less physical than showing up at camp. As much as we would love to see the bodies. The actual physical support of showing up at a camp gives us the opportunity to share what’s going on in Indigenous communities. But if you can’t come in person, because this is the middle of America and nobody wants to be in Minnesota in July, I understand. And donate whatever you can to the cause, because we are traveling all over the state all the time. Donate to a bail fund, because at one point or another a Brown body is going to be arrested who should not be in jail. And for anybody who can’t do those, get the word out. Whoever is paying attention and who has those networking connections, please, please get the word out to people that can do something. Make it known to those people in those circles that there is a human rights crisis here in America, and it’s not just Black lives. I’ll support Black lives till the day I die. But Native communities also need help. We need help. It’s really severe, and we are dying every day, and we can’t make the bleeding stop on our own.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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