Indigenous Water Protectors Face Off With an Oil Company and Police Over a Minnesota Pipeline
The early morning sun was still low on a dirt road in northern Minnesota this March as a small crowd faced Aitkin County sheriff’s deputies. The crowd drummed and chanted messages of support for the seven people on the other side of the police line, who sat linked together from one side of the road to the other, locked to concrete-filled barrels. The chained demonstrators were stopping construction personnel from entering a pump station for Enbridge’s Line 3, a tar sands oil pipeline that has become the latest flashpoint in the fight to halt the expansion of the fossil fuel industry as the climate crisis deepens.
Big Wind, a Northern Arapaho 28-year-old from the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, greeted me from behind a mask. They described what water protectors, members of the Indigenous-led anti-pipeline movement, had recently encountered along Line 3’s route: an intensifying law enforcement presence including aerial surveillance at a pipeline resistance camp.
“It was actually really crazy — a DHS helicopter flew over camp yesterday,” Big Wind told me, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. They heard it before seeing it circle twice just above the tree canopy. “You could tell it was intentional and it was to intimidate us and to surveil us.”
As Big Wind described the low-flying DHS helicopter, a masked police officer approached us. Big Wind went on, “We see the police taking a more escalated response to the actions that have been happening here.”
“Can you describe that escalated response?” Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida cut in. “’Cause I’m the police, and I argue with you that we haven’t taken an escalated response. We’ve had a very even-keeled response.” Big Wind knew Guida well and was irritated by the interjection.
“A DHS helicopter flew over camp yesterday. You could tell it was intentional and it was to intimidate us and to surveil us.”
“I was literally talking about how there was a helicopter flying over,” Big Wind said, “a DHS helicopter — and you just interrupted my conversation.”
“We have no helicopters,” Guida replied. “We haven’t been in any helicopters. The stories you tell — they need to be true.” Big Wind retorted that the water protectors had video of the helicopter.
“Thought you didn’t want to argue,” Guida snapped back. “Take a look at the badges around here and find me the Department of Homeland Security. There’s none here.” Guida was proud of his recent record: Despite an influx of activists as the winter cold eased, his deputies had avoided making any arrests the prior week. “I don’t call that an escalated response. I call it exceptional public safety,” he told Big Wind. “Don’t tell lies about cops.”
The sheriff and I stepped aside to talk further. I asked him about the special Enbridge-funded account that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission had set up to reimburse law enforcement for pipeline-related expenses. For water protectors, the funding from Enbridge positions the police as biased toward the company — or at worst privatized operatives for Enbridge.
Guida assured me there was nothing wrong with the pipeline company’s payments to police. “Enbridge doesn’t pay for us,” he said. “It’s a reimbursement for expenses that are related to this line that we wouldn’t normally have.” Guida said the arrangement was better than taxpayers footing the bill, adding that a government-appointed account manager needed to approve every Enbridge payment. Guida said, “I don’t think that we have any connections with Enbridge — there’s a good separation.”
A few days later, Guida left me a voicemail to acknowledge a mistake: “I do have to apologize, because there was a helicopter that buzzed the camp,” he said. Big Wind had been right.
Big Wind’s camp is in a neighboring county, and Guida was unaware that another sheriff had called in Customs and Border Protection. Guida’s understanding of what was happening in the battle between the pipeline company and the water protectors was incomplete — a symptom of the sprawling, multiagency response to pipeline resistance.
For water protectors, the law enforcement denials and the escalating Enbridge-funded policing are part of a pattern of law enforcement working hand in hand with pipeline companies to police their opposition — and then refuting that a collaboration exists. From Standing Rock to Jordan Cove, private and public resources, sometimes intermingled, are put in service of what water protectors say amounts to a corporate counterinsurgency against their efforts to save the planet from the fossil fuel industry.
In Minnesota, the label is more than just semantic. The state permit for the Line 3 pipeline includes an unusual condition: “The Permittee, the permittee’s contractors and assigns will not participate in counterinsurgency tactics or misinformation campaigns to interfere with the rights of the public to legally exercise their Constitutional rights.”
Water protectors say Enbridge has violated its permit conditions. They point to the escrow account created for Enbridge to pay for pipeline policing, an intensification of surveillance, and a yearslong divide-and-conquer effort by the pipeline company aimed at local communities. Though questions remain surrounding what exactly the state of Minnesota meant by the permit provision, Enbridge and the police’s efforts seem to bear the hallmarks of corporate counterinsurgency. An Intercept investigation involving dozens of interviews, thousands of pages of public records, and reviews of academic literature suggests the pipeline opponents have a strong case to make.
“They were told not to do — what is it? — ‘counterinsurgency’ is the exact term they’ve used,” said Tara Houska, a 37-year-old Anishinaabe water protector from Minnesota and a veteran of the fight at Standing Rock. “I don’t understand how surveilling, harassing and targeting people on a daily basis is not counterinsurgency.”
Enbridge’s pipeline is just one battleground in a larger struggle with enormous stakes. Enbridge, a Canadian energy firm, is expanding and rerouting its old, corroded Line 3. Branded as a “replacement” project, the new pipeline would double the old Line 3’s capacity to carry tar sands oil from the Canadian province of Alberta to a hub in Wisconsin, where it can be more easily transported to refineries from the Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.
Rapidly ending the extraction of this particular fossil fuel is imperative to the climate crisis due to the nature of the oil: The processes required to transform sticky Alberta sludge into usable fuel make tar sands oil one of the most intensive fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. The risks are compounded when tar sands travel: Oil pipeline spills are endemic, and Enbridge has a particularly nasty record.
Most of the U.S. portion of the route, more than 330 miles, is in Minnesota. There, the conflict over Line 3 centers on both the larger climate considerations and local concerns, particularly of Anishinaabe people. Though the struggle against Line 3 has lasted the better part of a decade, the efforts were invigorated by mounting Indigenous-led resistance to pipelines that bisect treaty lands across North America. Opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota gave rise to what became known as the water protector movement in 2016 and was promptly met with a private-public crackdown at the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation.
The vagueness in the permit ‘s anti-counterinsurgency language has meant accountability is hard to come by.
As The Intercept reported in an investigative series beginning in 2017, Energy Transfer, the firm behind the Dakota Access pipeline, hired private security contractors who saw the Standing Rock movement as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” — going so far as say that water protectors “generally followed the jihadist insurgency model.” The security firm, TigerSwan, ran a counterinsurgency modeled on what the U.S. military did in Iraq and Afghanistan, infiltrating the anti-pipeline movement, conducting surveillance and spreading propaganda, while routinely coordinating with local law enforcement.
When Enbridge brought the pipeline fight to Indigenous lands in Minnesota, the public officials responsible for issuing a permit were well aware of what had just happened next door in North Dakota. Three years ago, Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner John Tuma, a Republican, spoke at a public hearing during the permitting process for Line 3. “I was not impressed with what happened out there,” Tuma said, of North Dakota. “This is the United States of America. Citizens of Minnesota have a right to protest.”
Tuma was in favor of explicitly prohibiting counterinsurgency in the construction permit. “I think what’s critical for me to know as we go forward is that those kind of activities, this insurgency-type stuff, the Pinkerton-style-type stuff doesn’t happen here in Minnesota,” he said. The anti-counterinsurgency language was inserted into the permit — but with no definitions to accompany it. The vagueness has meant accountability to the terms of the permit’s anti-counterinsurgency clause is hard to come by.
Tuma declined to comment for this story, but the Public Utilities Commission’s Executive Secretary Will Seuffert confirmed that the commission never defined the term “corporate counterinsurgency.” As for accountability, Seuffert said the state’s designated public safety liaison for the pipeline, Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, would be the one to monitor for such tactics and raise concerns if they occur. The Department of Public Safety did not reply to a request for comment.
The U.S. government’s 2009 Counterinsurgency Guide begins with a foundational idea: that defeating so-called insurgencies is not about armed force. “American counterinsurgency practice rests on a number of assumptions: that the decisive effort is rarely military (although security is the essential prerequisite for success); that our efforts must be directed to the creation of local and national governmental structures that will serve their populations,” the manual says, and “in particular, understanding of the ‘human terrain’ is essential.”
Scholars in the burgeoning field of corporate counterinsurgency research say that companies follow a similar model. By examining U.S. counterinsurgency strategies abroad, the police and private security response at Standing Rock, and resistance to extractive industries around the globe, researchers have cobbled together a set of corporate counterinsurgency symptoms that communities can watch out for.
The goal for corporations is to control territory in order to advance an economic project. In a recent paper, Alexander Dunlap, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo, says companies do so by using “hard” and “soft tactics.” Corporate counterinsurgency often involves private security, vigilante or police violence, Dunlap says, but just as important are propaganda efforts. Corporate forces construct countermovements as well as community development projects. Military-style surveillance is not just a means to harvest intelligence but also to seed paranoia among adversaries. As other scholars have pointed out, corporate counterinsurgents develop “persons of interest” lists to track individuals considered threatening and stigmatize activists as eco-terrorists, paid protesters, or members of criminal groups.
In the absence of definitions in the directive from the Public Utilities Commission, Minnesota’s multiagency coalition managing pipeline resistance, known as the Northern Lights Task Force, doesn’t seem to be making a big effort to avoid the strategies of counterinsurgency laid out by Dunlap and others. Instead, Minnesota public safety officials have, in private, embraced the approach taken at Standing Rock.
In December 2020, shortly after Minnesota approved the Line 3 construction permit, Nicholas Radke, the intelligence coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, distributed a Standing Rock After-Action Report from the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services. “The AAR is the best document I’ve read in 10 years of working for the state!” he wrote in an email, obtained by a public records request, to a handful of local officials along the pipeline route, as well as to Enbridge’s security lead for Line 3. “I’d recommend reading it word for word.”
In the document, many of the indelible public images of the Standing Rock movement — dogs being sicced on demonstrators or water hoses blasting water protectors in sub-freezing temperatures — are relegated to a timeline in the appendices. The main body of the report characterizes the police response to Standing Rock as an “extraordinary” demonstration of “professionalism, restraint, and courage,” celebrating that no one had died. The report praised law enforcement’s aerial and social media surveillance efforts but lamented that, unlike the security company, police hadn’t done better at developing its own informants, in part, apparently, because the movement was so Indigenous.
“While there was some human intelligence coming from sources in the camps, the very nature of the protest was a limiting factor,” the document says. “Non-Native Americans were often excluded from sources of information.”
Music played over a portable speaker as Winona LaDuke, a onetime vice-presidential candidate, tried out salsa moves in front of Enbridge’s Park Rapids, Minnesota, headquarters. LaDuke, a leader of the Stop Line 3 movement, and other water protectors do this every Tuesday, though Enbridge hasn’t used the building much since construction began. “The Park Rapids Enbridge building will sit vacant during the pipeline build-out, but Enbridge energy signage will remain to reroute protestors from other sites,” a Northern Lights Task Force planning document notes. The water protectors don’t mind: Salsa Tuesdays drum up support. Passing cars honked as the water protectors danced.
Across the street, the attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard was waiting at a Mexican restaurant to pick up dinner for the actor and activist Jane Fonda. Fonda was visiting to draw media attention to the anti-pipeline movement. Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s Center for Protest Law and Litigation, who has represented Fonda in cases related to her other activism, had come along to gather information for a potential lawsuit.
“We’re looking at Enbridge, we’re looking at the sheriff’s offices, and we’re looking at the public safety escrow trust,” Verheyden-Hilliard explained, “because we believe that these three things have created a really extraordinary mechanism that fully financially incentivizes a level of repression to silence and shut down the organizing here.” The attorney didn’t need to look far for examples of how the police and Enbridge are working together.
The escrow account is the most obvious form of collaboration. In North Dakota, public agencies spent millions of dollars responding to pipeline protests. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission created the Enbridge- funded account so that, this time, the pipeline company would foot the bill. A publicly appointed account manager occasionally rejects sheriff’s office invoices that overreach, but so far Enbridge has reimbursed more than $1 million in expenses, for things like crowd control training, overtime pay, and so-called personal protective equipment, like riot suits and tear gas masks.
“The corporation gets to use the public police forces to crack down on their political opponents.”
“What that’s doing is essentially privatizing the public police forces to work in service to the pecuniary interests of the private corporation,” Verheyden-Hilliard said. “And, more specifically, it means that the corporation gets to use the public police forces to crack down on their political opponents.”
It also fits within the framework of counterinsurgency. Whether fighting in foreign wars or for corporate interest, winning the loyalty of local institutions against opposing forces is an imperative. “Police primacy is highly desirable as it reinforces the perception of insurgents as ‘criminals’ rather than ‘freedom fighters,’” the U.S. Government’s Counterinsurgency Guide says.
With promises of reimbursement on the table, police and Enbridge officials were communicating regularly in the year leading up to the final construction permit’s approval. Meanwhile, the interagency Northern Lights Task Force was pouring “countless hours” into building an elaborate infrastructure for quelling pipeline opposition. More than a dozen Northern Lights subcommittees met monthly or weekly. An agenda for a January 2020 task force meeting included a discussion of “Phone/car tracking possibilities to consider.” The group also planned to discuss potentially backgrounding organizers for links to terrorism and whether to launch a “public information campaign on who they are and what they have done in the past.” Multiple planning documents described law enforcement drone assets.
The Northern Lights Task Force didn’t respond to a request for comment. Guida, the Aitkin County sheriff, said his county isn’t tracking anyone’s phones or cars and the conversation might have been about tracking law enforcement vehicles. He added that he typically learns about what water protectors are doing by simply looking at Facebook. “So many people think this Northern Lights Task Force is like a group of ninja people wearing black suits,” he said.
As construction got underway, officials began “meeting daily with Enbridge” at the Northern Lights Task Force’s Duluth operation center. In Cass County, the corporate-police meetings happened “several times daily,” according to a reimbursement request submitted to the escrow account. The local sheriff, Tom Burch, told The Intercept that he believes that was an overstatement but acknowledged that the office does communicate with an Enbridge liaison nearly every day about pipeline activity.
By the time Verheyden-Hilliard arrived in Minnesota, the fruits of law enforcement’s preparations were apparent. Among the testimony she’d collected was story after story of law enforcement pulling over pipeline opponents for minor infractions. Earlier that day, as she drove in front of Fonda’s vehicle toward a press conference, a state patrol officer turned on her lights behind the attorney. After issuing a warning for not flashing a signal within 100 feet of a turn, the state patrol officer followed Verheyden-Hilliard’s car for 12 miles.
The warning wasn’t what the attorney was worried about. “Again and again, what they’re doing is they’re not generally issuing citations — they’re seizing the identity information,” she said. “We believe that this is an illegal surveillance operation to try and target and collect the identities of people.”
When I asked Guida about the stops, he said that his officers only pull people over when they’re breaking the law. When I pressed him about whether traffic stops were being used to collect identity information, he acknowledged that that’s standard procedure. He said, “Absolutely, there’s intelligence that comes from every traffic stop.”
Namewag, located in Hubbard County, Minnesota, is one of a handful of anti-pipeline camps strung along the oil superhighway’s route. “We also took lessons from Standing Rock,” explained Tara Houska, the water protector from Minnesota, when I visited this spring. “You can’t just be in one place.”
Houska and other members of the camp, including Big Wind, were tense. Another water protector had just been pulled over right outside of camp for having expired tags. Run by the anti-pipeline Giniw Collective, Namewag is focused on direct actions like locking down to equipment or holding sit-ins at construction sites. Direct actions and other protests against Line 3 have seen more than 500 people arrested or issued citations.
Collective members assert that, at this late stage of development, there is little other recourse — and that the tactic gets results. “If it were not for the hundreds of people that have been arrested fighting Line 3 so far, there’s no way — we wouldn’t have national news outlets out here covering this story,” Houska told me.
Since nonviolent direct action can run afoul of the law, the camp became a target for surveillance. The police stops had ramped up with the spring temperatures, leaving people on edge, which they figured was part of the point. “I honestly don’t think that there’s a car here that hasn’t been pulled over,” said Big Wind. “When you’re in that constant state of crisis, I think they don’t want you to be making the right decisions.” (The Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment about the stops.)
“When you’re in that constant state of crisis, I think they don’t want you to be making the right decisions.”
The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which is near the Namewag camp, had called in reinforcements for a week in March when Extinction Rebellion, a climate group known for its splashy direct-action protests, had declared it would be in the area. The police coordinated with Enbridge security personnel, documents show, and patrolled the pipeline route. It ended up being a relatively quiet week for demonstrations, but in a single day, Big Wind said, police pulled over seven water protectors in the area.
The lines between the activities of the tar sands company, law enforcement, and pro-pipeline community members tend to blur and overlap, but wide-ranging efforts at surveillance have been clear. In one case, an unidentified bearded man with an earpiece regularly walked his dog by Namewag. The water protectors followed the man one day and spotted him in a silver truck — with the dog but without the beard. “Should we all, as a camp, get like the glasses with the nose and the mustache and start wearing those?” Houska said, making light of the creepy situation.
It wasn’t the only example of apparent subterfuge. In the winter, water protectors climbed into a section of pipeline to slow construction. Once there, the water protectors told Big Wind, a person who looked Indigenous crawled in to talk to them. “They said, ‘Hey, I’m with Giniw. Umm, it’s not safe here. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here,’” Big Wind recalled. The water protectors, who have formed tight-knit communities, had no idea who the person was.
Enbridge has also taken control of land adjacent to nexuses of the resistance. In October 2019, the company purchased a plot of land right next to Namewag and, since then, drones have regularly appeared over the protest camp. Reporters at Gizmodo were able to confirm that some of the drones spotted along the Line 3 route, including above water protectors’ homes, belong to Customs and Border Protection, but others remain unidentified. Drones also appeared above the solar energy business, 8th Fire Solar, which is a project of Honor the Earth, a nonprofit headed up by the activist LaDuke that is heavily involved in the anti-pipeline movement. As Enbridge had done at Namewag, in July 2020, the company quietly purchased the strip of land next door to the solar business.
Across the street from 8th Fire Solar, the neighbor had posted a sign in their yard, reading “Minnesotans for Line 3.” The blue signs, which dot the pipeline’s path, are the physical manifestation of another aspect of Enbridge’s campaign: its work to recruit local communities’ support. The online presence of Minnesotans for Line 3 is as robust as its yard signs. The group spent around $20,000 on Facebook ads in March and April alone, circulating testimony from motel, restaurant, and construction supply store owners about how friendly pipeline workers are and how much they’ve boosted business.
Minnesotans for Line 3 describes itself as a “grassroots organization of people who understand how important it is to have reliable energy to power our economy,” but a disclosure form unearthed by the DeSmog lists Enbridge as a sponsor of a Minnesotans for Line 3 TV ad. Pipeline opponents say that the group is an astroturf organization, a grassroots group hiding the fact that it is sponsored by a corporation to advance the corporation’s agenda.
Another record lists Minnesotans for Line 3’s ad buyer as Velocity Public Affairs, a PR firm that used to openly promote its work for Enbridge on its website. In 2019, Velocity trademarked the name “Respect Minnesota.”
The Respect Minnesota campaign, which water protectors view as an astroturf effort, centers around a neutral-sounding pledge that community members can sign, promising to abide by what Houska called “passive-aggressive ‘Minnesota Nice,’” including by obeying the law. The initiative is described on its website as being led by the Local 49 Operating Engineers, which represents pipeline workers, with other signatories including related unions, local community leaders, chambers of commerce, and Enbridge subcontractors Michels and Precision.
Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner told The Intercept that questions about Minnesotans for Line 3 should be directed to the group itself. Minnesotans for Line 3 did not address its relationship to Enbridge but said, “Minnesotans for Line 3 represents thousands of people in every county across Minnesota who support replacing our energy infrastructure with something that is newer, and better to protect the environment and support the economy.”
In a statement, Respect Minnesota pointed to its union organizers and said, “We’ve publicly stated that Respect Minnesota is supported by those unions as well as Enbridge, Michels and Precision because they see the value in promoting respect and a safe environment for everyone.” Kellner said, “Enbridge is just one of the businesses, unions, community organizations, and thousands of individuals from around the state who have taken the Respect Minnesota pledge.”
Matteson thinks Enbridge has used Minnesota’s historic economic dependence on extractive industries and its conflict-avoidant culture to draw support from descendants of European settlers.
Shanai Matteson understands the attractiveness for locals of a vague appeal like “respect.” She moved to Honor the Earth’s Welcome Water Protectors camp in Aitkin County last summer, but she’s also from the area. The nearby land where Matteson’s grandmother was born is now part of the pipeline route.
Matteson sees Enbridge’s efforts to rally support from the local community as soft counterinsurgency tactics. Donations to fire departments and other local services, even environmental causes, are part of it, though she understands that local acquiescence to the pipeline as about more than money.
After settlers invaded Indigenous land in Minnesota, mining became a key means for European descendants to support themselves. “That story about our way of life as extraction is so deep,” she said. Matteson’s grandfather worked as a miner and her uncle is a retired member of the same union that claims the Respect Minnesota campaign. Matteson thinks Enbridge has used Minnesota’s historic economic dependence on extractive industries and its conflict-avoidant culture to draw support from a wide range of descendants of European settlers in her community.
She pointed toward Bob Marcum, who sits on the board of the nearby Long Lake Conservation Center’s foundation. An environmentalist and active member of the Democratic Party, Marcum testified at a Public Utilities Commission hearing that Native people were not being adequately consulted on Line 3. Yet when Matteson asked her dad to see if Marcum would sign an anti-pipeline petition, she was told that he would not. Enbridge has given money to the center and Paul Eberth, who long acted as the Line 3 project manager, sits alongside Marcum on the foundation board.
I met with Marcum in the conservation center’s enormous student dining room. Marcum, who is 68, was nervous about our conversation and agreed to talk only as a private citizen, not as a representative of the foundation. The conservation center, which is run by Aitkin County, is his family legacy — his father founded it as one of the first environmental education centers in the U.S.
When I asked if he thought Enbridge’s involvement with the Long Lake Conservation Center was a type of “green-washing” — a way for major contributors to the climate crisis to present an environmentally friendly appearance — Marcum was clear: “I kind of made a gentleman’s agreement when we started working together that that’s not something we do.”
Marcum acknowledged that Enbridge has contributed at least $40,000 to the center over the years — a relatively small portion of the its $750,000 annual budget. Marcum’s shrinking eagerness to openly criticize Enbridge, though, seemed more related to his growing friendship with pipeline boss Paul Elberth. “It turns out Paul brings his kids out here, and he wants the very best for his kids. When you find him away from his desk, and he’s taking a few days off, he’s up in the Boundary Waters,” Marcum explained, referring to the popular wilderness canoeing destination on the border with Canada. “He’s just a very nice man.”
Not long ago, Paul Eberth took on the position of tribal engagement lead for Enbridge, not just for Line 3, but also the controversial Line 5 pipeline in Michigan. It’s a sign of how crucial demonstrating Indigenous support has become for one of the largest global oil transport corporations. And Eberth’s job isn’t easy.
Besides the protest movement’s Indigenous leadership, three tribes — the Red Lake Nation, the White Earth Nation, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe — have been behind the most significant legal challenges to Line 3’s construction. The pipeline route does not pass through their reservations, but it does pass through lands to which the tribes retain treaty rights. They argue, among other things, that they were not properly consulted. Meanwhile, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe rejected Enbridge route alternatives that would have expanded the portion of the old pipeline that passes through their reservation. The corporation found a new route.
An Enbridge proposal provided to Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper demonstrates how much tribal buy-in is worth to the pipeline. The company proposed a package worth more than $25 million to the Red Lake Nation to drop its lawsuit and publicly communicate its opposition to “unlawful protesting.” They offered $1.25 million in community investments, including toward powwow facilities, on top of another $25 million for a solar energy project that would power Line 3.
The Red Lake Nation rejected the offer. “The letter was just disregarded,” Tribal Secretary Sam Strong told me at a pipeline resistance camp set up through a tribal council resolution. The camp, which is on treaty land, overlooks the intersection of the pipeline easement and the Red Lake River, still frozen during my visit this spring. Enbridge continued to push, hiring Red Lake tribal members to promote the pipeline and trying to buy local support. Strong told me, “That divide-and-conquer strategy is the same strategy that the federal government used to terminate Native people.”
Red Lake wasn’t the only tribe approached by Enbridge — and other efforts were more successful. The Fond du Lac band, whose reservation is bisected by Line 3, opposed the pipeline before accepting its own version of the proposal made to Red Lake. The details of the Fond du Lac deal have not been made public, but a letter sent to tribal members in January, shared with Indian Country Today, indicates that the $400 monthly payments all tribal members receive from tribal enterprises are now coming from Enbridge.
There is still dissent among tribal members. Taysha Martineau, a 28-year-old Fond du Lac water protector, crowdfunded the cash to buy a strip of land next to the pipeline easement on the reservation and established the Migizi camp. Setting up the camp was not an easy decision for Martineau. Given Enbridge’s success at winning the tribe’s support, continuing to resist the pipeline risked damaging important relationships. Of all the resistance camps along the route, Migizi is the most controversial because it lacks the support of Martineau’s tribe. And perhaps more than anyone I met, Martineau has been subject to the full range of Enbridge and law enforcement tactics.
Martineau was singled out by law enforcement even before the camp’s establishment. In December, the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office emailed around photos of Martineau and labeled their partner, who is also a pipeline opponent, a “professional protester.” Given how small the community is, the recipients were not anonymous officials: One was a tribal officer Martineau had turned to during a tough period of her youth. The same officer arrested Martineau later that winter. “Those are the choices that we made as individuals, you know,” said Martineau. “But that’s also part of the division that this company is presenting here in our community.”
The rifts only deepened. Early this spring, pipeline opponents from outside the reservation tossed an electronic device into a construction site. Police responded swiftly — bomb squads, phone alerts, and evacuations. Though the device turned out to be harmless, community members, rattled by law enforcement’s reaction, were upset with the demonstrators.
Fond du Lac residents, including the tribal chair and Martineau’s family members, went to the camp to confront the water protector. They demanded that people from outside Fond du Lac leave, but the greatest ire was reserved for Martineau. “I believe it was, you know, law enforcement-induced mass hysteria to turn the community against the opposition,” said Martineau. “And I think it was effective.” (A Fond du Lac representative declined to comment on what happened at the Migizi camp.)
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake defended the law enforcement response in an email to the Intercept. “I think that is an unfair and completely inaccurate description,” she said. “If we ignored a call like that and people got injured or killed, I wouldn’t want to be explaining why we ignored it.” She added that distributing images of lawbreakers to other jurisdictions is a common practice among police.
The divisions will not be easily repaired. “I love my community unconditionally, but my mother’s never going forget or forgive the way they treated me,” Martineau said. “And I worry about my children.”
On the cusp of summer, Enbridge began preparing to drill under more than 20 rivers and waterways. With time running short, water protectors are traveling in growing numbers to stand with the Anishinaabe-led movement — and being greeted by an intensifying police response.
So far, Enbridge and law enforcement have only shown flashes of the kinds of spectacular displays of repression that defined Standing Rock. In early June, water protectors gathered for the largest direct action yet against Line 3 at a pipeline pump station. A Customs and Border Protection helicopter sent a cloud of dust and debris over the protest. It was identical to the one that Guida, the Aitkin County sheriff, denied and later conceded had buzzed the resistance camp in March. Though authorities denied that they intended to use rotor wash to disperse the crowd — a combat tactic — the helicopter’s low flight path in an area where water protectors were locked to construction equipment appeared to violate Federal Aviation Administration rules.
In the aftermath of the protest, Enbridge stressed to the media that a Native-owned business’s contract work was disrupted. Meanwhile, members of the Northern Lights Task Force, who were in town to assist during the weekend of action, used the Long Lake Conservation Center as a staging area. Customs and Border Protection Public affairs officer Kris Grogan told The Intercept that the agency couldn’t comment on the June 7 flight, which is under investigation, but that a key mission of the agency’s Air and Marine Operations is to support law enforcement partners.
Pipeline opponents are urging the Biden administration to intervene to stop construction — and he still could. On June 23, though, the administration defended the U.S. Army Corps’s decision to issue a federal permit for Line 3, arguing in a court filing that Red Lake’s legal challenge should be thrown out. That same day, tribal members were defending themselves from an attempt by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to evict the Red Lake Treaty Camp from the side of the highway. In the following days, the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office moved to barricade the entrance to the Namewag camp.
The pipeline fights in the upper Midwest represent only one point in a global spectrum of corporate efforts to suppress water and land defense movements. In places like Guatemala, the confrontations can grow much more deadly, say Simon Granovsky-Larsen of the University of Regina in Canada, and Larissa Santos of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, who recently wrote a paper offering their own rubric for identifying corporate counterinsurgencies.
I asked Granovsky-Larsen and Santos whether they thought Enbridge’s response to the Stop Line 3 movement fits the definition. “It aligns very much with what we understand as corporate counterinsurgency,” Santos said.
She was less convinced, though, that the actions of Enbridge and the Northern Lights Task Force violate the spirit of the Public Utilities Commission permit. Instead, she proposed that the permit language was itself part of the strategy, sending a message meant to preempt concerns that counterinsurgency tactics would be used. Santos suggested that the commission seemed to be saying, “It won’t be the same that happened to Standing Rock. We have an agreement.” She said, “I see this as an information strategy from above to pacify resistance.”
Enbridge, for its part, did not respond to The Intercept’s specific questions about whether a counterinsurgency was underway. Kellner, the spokesperson, said public agencies were responsible for both the escrow account as well as security. “We understand there are differing opinions about the energy we all use,” Kellner said. “As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully.”
I asked the researchers whether it’s even possible to build a tar sands oil pipeline in an era of climate crisis without counterinsurgency tactics.
“Absolutely not,” Granovsky-Larsen replied. “I don’t see any scenario across Turtle Island” — a common name used by Indigenous people for North America — “where tar sands extraction and transport could gain the necessary legitimacy where a company wouldn’t feel the need to either implement counterinsurgent tactics — or a harsher form of repression.”
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