By Julia Isaacs

As a Quaker, I have read many books about the courage and spiritual strength of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Alice Paul, and others. I got a firsthand look at nonviolent action in late July, when I spent a few days with the water protectors working to stop the Line 3 tar sands pipeline, which the Enbridge company is expanding through Anishinaabe treaty lands in northern Minnesota.

The hostility against the Indigenous-led water protectors was evident even before we arrived. A few miles outside our campground, a pickup truck barreled past us, “coal rolling” and giving the finger to our three-car caravan festooned with #StopLine3 banners.

Upon arrival, we were offered places to pitch our tents, a camp-cooked dinner, and an invitation to join the campfire circle. Sitting around the campfire, we heard many stories of a confrontation that morning near one of the many river crossings for the pipeline. A white woman, impatient that traffic was delayed by a ceremony, physically attacked (slapped in the face) an Indigenous youth, a runner from Standing Rock. The sheriff let the white woman go without charging her for assaulting a minor. Tempers rose, and the situation became volatile. At one point, an elder Indigenous woman walked up behind a young Indigenous man and said to him, “Breathe.” And he was able to step back and stay nonviolent. And he thanked her.

After hearing about this and other events at Camp Firelight, I was not sure what to expect when we traveled on Saturday to another frontline camp. Primarily a camp for holding sacred space, Red Lake Treaty Camp had been the site of a major action on Friday, July 30. An intrepid group of water protectors led by lawyer and activist Tara Houska scaled the double row of barbed wire protecting the Enbridge equipment. Law enforcement reacted with tear gas and rubber bullets (!), and 20 were arrested and spent the weekend in jail.

It seemed relatively quiet when we arrived on Saturday, except for the constant grinding of construction machinery and the hot dusty wind. I felt privileged to hear the drumming and singing of Indigenous men, while Indigenous women danced around the sacred fire. This was all under the stare (often through binoculars) of an assortment of Enbridge-supported state troopers and local sheriffs standing on the hill above us.

Photo: Julia Isaacs

More than a dozen motorcyclists from Red Lake Nation arrived, forming a semicircle of bikes around the drumming and dancing. As a song ended, they all revved their engines at the same time, and I caught myself thinking somewhat gleefully, “THAT will make them [the cops] nervous.” Oops! I had just fallen into such a “we/they” position that I was relishing the discomfort of the sheriffs. They were just doing their job — though it’s a terrible job, defending a Canadian pipeline company that is illegally stealing water during a drought, in addition to destroying the wild rice beds and the climate. To help me connect with the men on the hill staring down at us, I looked at the fresh watermelon in my hand (hospitality from the camp kitchen) and reminded myself that the watchers on the hill would also enjoy a bite of watermelon on a hot day. That helped me feel more connected to them, as people like me.

An elder Indigenous woman who was seated watching the younger dancers kept saying, “I wish those men on the hill could come down into camp and the young women could talk to them and let the officers know why they are defending the wrong side. I wish we could talk one-on-one.”

Yet, it seems very hard to talk one-on-one. The hostility toward the water protectors goes far beyond the Line 3 pipeline and the Enbridge dollars pumped into local communities and law enforcement agencies; it is fed by longstanding racism against Indigenous people. For example, the white landowner leasing land to Enbridge told the local sheriff to “arrest any Injuns” that got anywhere close to his land. As another example, I share two stories swapped over coffee and the morning campfire by two Indigenous women. One woman said she assured her mother she would “dress black” while traveling to camp from the East Coast, wearing a basketball sweatshirt and hiding her wampum to keep herself safe on the journey. The other woman responded with a story of her school-aged son resisting her request that he take pride in his heritage. The son said he already was seen as black, and he didn’t want to go any lower in the pecking order of the school playground.

At 350 Madison, we say that racial justice is climate justice. These words took on more life as I shared space with Indigenous activists, seeing them face physical and non-physical attacks by local white people, with law enforcement taking the side of those doing wrong. I witnessed the Indigenous water protectors remaining spiritually grounded and steadfast in their nonviolent resistance, even in the face of racist hostility. Those of us who are non-Indigenous climate activists have much to learn from our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Let us join them in forming a community of water protectors, working together to resist Line 3 in Minnesota, Line 5 in Wisconsin, or any other pipeline carrying tar sands oils, one of the most noxious and carbon-intensive fossil fuels on the planet.

Photo: Julia Isaacs