Winona LaDuke Feels That President Biden
Has Betrayed Native Americans
David Marchese / The New York Times
(August 6, 2021) — Right now in northern Minnesota, the Canadian oil-and-gas-transport company Enbridge is building an expansion of a pipeline, Line 3, to carry oil through fragile parts of the state’s watersheds as well as treaty-protected tribal lands.
Winona LaDuke, a member of the local Ojibwe tribe and a longtime Native rights activist, has been helping to lead protests and acts of civil disobedience against the controversial $9.3 billion project. “I spend a lot of time,” she says, “fighting stupid ideas that are messing with our land and our people.”
So far the efforts of LaDuke, who is 61 and who ran alongside Ralph Nader as the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1996 and 2000, have been in vain. The Biden administration declined to withdraw federal permits for the project,a stance that Line 3 opponents see as hypocritical given the president’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline as well as his vocal support for climate action.
“I have had the highest hopes for the Biden administration,” LaDuke says, “only to have them crushed.” Not long after we spoke, LaDuke was arrested and jailed for violating the conditions of her release on earlier protest-related charges, which required her to avoid Enbridge’s worksites. She has since been released.
How do you understand Biden’s decision to allow the construction of Line 3?
He’s hellbent on destroying Ojibwe people with this pipeline. Why do we get the last tar-sands pipeline, Joe? It’s kind of like when John Kerry went and testified to Congress against the Vietnam War and said, Who’s going to tell that soldier that he’s the last one to die for a bad war? Who’s going to tell those Ojibwes that they’re the last ones to be destroyed for a bad tar-sands pipeline?
What’s right about this? I organized people to vote for Biden. I drove people to the polls through seas of Trump signs. I drove Indian people to vote who hadn’t voted in 20 years. And what did we get from Joe? A pipeline shoved down our throats.
Are you saying that you think Biden has some specific animosity toward the Ojibwe?
No. He doesn’t have animosity, but he’s privileging a Canadian multinational. He knows that this pipeline runs right through our reservations. They know, and have a choice of what they’re going to support. I think it’s a trade-off for him: I canceled Keystone, and so we’ll just let this one go through, because it’s a replacement pipe. It’s not. It’s a new pipe.
It’s horrendous. It’s a violation of not only the treaties but also every ounce of common sense. It’s a drought right now. But Enbridge put in an amendment: They get five billion gallons of water
out of a region where rivers are 75 percent below normal. What’s with that? There was not a federal environmental impact statement on this pipeline, and the Biden administration just said we don’t need to do one. I mean, why?
Winona LaDuke (center) at Line 3 pipeline construction site.
(Photo: Kerem Yucel/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images)
When I’ve heard from people who work in the oil industry, people who are understandably anxious about keeping their jobs, they’ve said that the protesters are the hypocrites: “They want us to stop drilling for oil, but what do they think is keeping their lights on?” Does that argument make sense to you?
That’s a stupid thing to say. Who wants to hang around in the fossil-fuels economy when you could go electric? I’m waiting for my electric F-150.
The next economy needs innovation. I like what Arundhati Roy said. She talks about the pandemic as a portal between one world and the next. What do you want to bring through the portal? Your avarice? Your dirty rivers? Your dirty skies? Or do you want to walk through clean? Look, the world is changing. Those guys you mentioned got a playbook from the last economy, and it doesn’t work anymore. It didn’t work before. We told y’all that, but it’s time to move on.
I think if you were to ask people to picture where the country’s big social and political arguments — about things like cultural identity and systemic racism — are taking place, they would picture cities. But what’s the view of those arguments from where you live?
Well, we call this the Deep North, and there are seven Ojibwe reservations here. A lot of our land has been taken by non-Indians and the state. We should be the wealthiest people, and we’re the poorest. These guys built these towns off of us. I think about the myth of Paul Bunyan. You don’t actually believe Paul Bunyan was a real guy, do you?
No, but Paul Bunyan had a name. His name was Fredrick Weyerhaeuser.
His name was Andrew Carnegie. Those guys built empires off of our backs. The dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people is central to the issues of critical race theory. Indians are arrested much more than non-Indians. Our incarceration is longer. Same thing if you’re looking at police brutality: We have higher rates of death in custody than others. Everything about being oppressed, we got ’er.
So we see a clear alliance with Black Lives Matter. Do you remember that Donald Trump came to Bemidji, Minn., on his campaign? He didn’t come to see the Indians. He came to see the white people who live here. There’s a lot of non-Indian people who hate us. There’s non-Indian people who live on the reservation who put signs up to support Line 3 that are nowhere near Line 3. They just put them up because they hate Indians.
Where do you think that hate comes from?
Indian-hating is about these people living on stolen land. To justify the theft of land you have to make us less. That’s the dehumanization that we have been facing. Our land is held by federal, state and county governments and large non-Indian landowners. Indian-hating is a practice of the Deep North.
In 2000, LaDuke and Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party’s vice-presidential and presidential nominees.
Is it hard to resist the urge to hate back?
I don’t put energy into them. I don’t like to be around them. Why would you engage in their negative-ass [expletive]? Did you ever watch Archie Bunker? They’re all like Archie Bunker up here. My strategy is white people should work on white people’s racism. It’s too much work for me. I’d rather just grow hemp than help those people sort out their [expletive].
In your last book you wrote: “I think about white people every day. How often do white people think of Native people?”
Answer that question yourself. How often do you think of a Native person? I wonder how those Indians are doing over there? Maybe once every two weeks?
My question is, What do you want white people to be thinking about Native people?
What I want is, I want white people to quit being white people. White is a social construct. I want them to know who the hell they are, and I want them to be not a patriot to a flag but a patriot to a land. That’s what I want. The transience of white people has put us in this situation where they don’t even know who they are, where they come from; the idea that I’m just going to keep moving to greener pastures.
What happened to community and place? I want people to find something and take care of it. I want them to let go of their white privilege and be good humans. We need to address these things, and some people are not going to get it. I’m hoping those people still get that they want to be able to drink the water. Even if you’re a Proud Boy, you need the water.
LaDuke speaking at the Capitol in opposition to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997. Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly, via Getty Images
Rather than a lack of a sense of community, isn’t the bigger problem that too many people’s ideas about community and place are not expansive enough?
Yeah, I do think that Americanization is about being insular — the nuclear family, the slightly extended nuclear family. I’m not a nuclear-family person. I live in my community, but my extended family — I feel responsible for hundreds of people in our community. Some people only take care of themselves. That’s sad, and it’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in now. Instead of, “Let’s make sure everybody has enough food,” we’re busy hoarding toilet paper.
You’ve criticized Enbridge for “paying” the local police. But isn’t what’s happening that the company is reimbursing law enforcement for expenses that they wouldn’t have otherwise incurred? Maybe it’s just doublespeak, but that is a slightly different thing than funding them, right?
They’ve incentivized oppression where cops can get extra money if they take more patrols. So a lot of people are stopped — no reason to stop them but to rack it up. And you know, a couple days ago I was on the river facing a bunch of cops, and I said the corporation violated the law. They had a spill. It’s called a frac-out.
I said, “You’re here to arrest us, but they’re the ones who committed the crime.” It’s this betrayal of what you think your officers are for. You assume that “to serve” would mean to serve you. The other thing is, I can feel the body-burden of hatred. There’s this hating on water protectors and Indians that they’ve incentivized by trying to criminalize us. I really feel it some days.
What’s the outlook for the rest of the summer?
Hell. They’re cutting, they’re grinding, they’re welding, they’re smashing, they’re laying pipe. They’re all around you, and they’re coming toward you. That’s pretty traumatic. A lot of cops, a lot of destructive equipment, a lot of people scared. They’re going to try to put this pipe in. They’re rolling over us. We’re going to do our best to stand in these places, but that’s the outlook. Hopefully a lawsuit stops them in their tracks after they brutalize us for another month. I’m not saying that Enbridge is beating me up, but they are. They’re kicking my ass right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.