Katie Leblanc

Republished from Honor the Earth August 17, 2022,

We sat down with Winona LaDuke as she headed back from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located nearly 300 miles north of Fairbanks. In the years of LaDuke’s travels, a constant remains: inspiration, determination and strength grows with each trip. From striding across ancient Caribou lands to holding her ground in a small, rural, Minnesota courthouse, Winona draws strength from a beautiful natural world that gives a strong spiritual foundation to keep up a remarkable pace of resistance and organizing. LaDuke is not interested in merely surviving, she is clear that minobimaatisiiwin or the good life, is what we are after, or to flourish.

For so many, visiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a dream . What was it like during your time there?

To be honest, it has been a month of wonder. I sat on the banks of the Hula Hula River, and watched hundreds of caribou migrate, searched the horizon for Dahl Sheep and wolves, and saw the most intricate of landscapes, with eyes and soul. That was the beauty, but in the awe, I also went to the village to be with some of the most courageous Indigenous peoples I know. That's Arctic Village, a Gwich’in community in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s the home of the largest migratory herd of Porcupine Caribou in North America. It is also the home of the Gwich’in people who have lived with the caribou since the beginning of time. They call their homelands, The Place Where Life Begins, because along the coastal plain, the caribou birth their young. The Gwitch’in people have forever lived intertwined with the caribou, believing they share the same heart. When a Gwitch’in person passes onto the next life, they become caribou themselves. The greatest of privileges, however, came when I was able to spend hours with a good friend and leader, Sarah James. Sarah, along with her brother Gideon and others, have put in thousands of miles, hours and work in protecting their people, land and caribou.

This was obviously a very moving experience for you.

You know, the Gwichi’n have valiantly stood for forty years against the oil industry and the exploitation of the refuge, and still their herd remains. How could you not be moved? I watched hundreds of caribou run through the Hula Hula River valley, completely appreciating the beauty and fierce commitment it has taken to protect this place. I am grateful for the time on the land, and grateful to the federal officials, Inupiat and Gwichi’in people who joined us, as well as leadership of the Wilderness Society. As I was leaving my friends and this majestic place, I was reminded why I do the work I do: I live my life knowing that life is worth protecting. I also know that we are the ones to stand for the caribou, the water and the land. In the upcoming year, we hope to add new staff to support these communities and build stronger alliances with our allies.

As you head back to your homelands, what plans are in store for you and the work you do?

We renew our commitment as an organization to national and international collaborative work. As many know, our battles against Enbridge continue. Worldwide, however, people and corporations alike see the growing movement to stop fossil fuels. Water Protectors, myself and communities across the globe see the transition ahead and our communities are moving towards this green path.

You mentioned Water Protectors. What reports do you have from the frontlines?

This month was also a time of legal trials. Honor the Earth has been working with our allies at the Civil Liberties Defense Center to defend Water Protectors. With a large group of courageous defendants and lawyers, we are beating back the overcharging and repression of Minnesota, shining a spotlight on how $8.5M in Canadian corporate money can compromise legal, regulatory and policing systems. Thankfully, charges are getting dismissed. Shanai Matteson for example, who was slammed with particularly egregious and outlandish charges, were dismissed as well. It still blows my mind that while we are fighting tooth and nail to dismiss trumped up charges, Enbridge walks free. While Water Protectors face criminal charges, Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline continues to break, breaching more groundwater than even they anticipated.

Line 3 isn’t the only headache you’re dealing with when it comes to Enbridge. What else is happening with direct ties back to Enbridge?

I’m glad you asked that because most people don’t understand the tentacles of Enbridge run all across our homelands; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. Most people also don’t realize that Enbridge isn’t just in the business of oil pipelines, but more on that in a minute. Most recently, we co-sponsored a Communities United by Water Gathering in Ashland, Wisconsin, where we see a very strong opposition to Enbridge’s push on Line 5. This project would move dirty oil through a pipeline without a legal easement and a new proposals would expand this pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. You need to look no further than Minnesota to know that this is a bad idea, being pushed through by a company that has a record of destruction, poisoning communities and locking up anyone who says otherwise. In fact, I’d go as far to say that Enbridge only sees our ancestral homelands as no more than their playground. Here’s an example.

In a very recent small victory, the Biden EPA has agreed with Honor the Earth, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin to require an environmental review for the proposed Nemadji gas fired power plant intended for Superior. The EPA has challenged an environmental review of a controversial gas-fired power plant planned for Superior, Wis., saying it did not adequately evaluate carbon dioxide emissions. NTEC would pump out 2.24 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, but it would lead to a net decrease of 964,000 tons in overall greenhouse gas emissions on the Great Lakes electric grid from 2025 to 2040, the review said. Now here is where Enbridge comes in.

Someone might ask the question of why we need this plant. Let me point out that the single largest energy consumer in Minnesota is Enbridge. This Nemadji facility is adjacent to the dangerous (need I remind you of the 2016 explosion) Cenovus oil refinery, which is processing Enbridge oil. This facility is for Enbridge. This entire plan to rip up, dig out and leave-us-for-worse plan is all in the name of Enbridge. That’s a Canadian corporation, selling dirty oil. And, the oil is going back to Canada for more processing. All the risk is here, all the money is there.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s time to move on; time to move beyond fossil fuels and time to make a better future. That is our work, and it’s reflected in our legal and regulatory opposition, our education work and our work in hemp and the green economy, as well as LandBack, which is essential to control our future.

Aside from the ongoing fights, what ‘wins’ are you celebrating? What is giving you hope?

This summer was the launch of our 3-part Shell River Reunion series. July was marked by our Water Protector family coming to visit, enjoying the music by our revered Corey Medina and the Brothers, tours of our solar thermal manufacturing facility, hemp processing and our new store. Indeed, while we shared the strategies of protecting our sacred Shell River, we were also able to show the solutions to the problems our river faces: agricultural contamination and of course, oil pipelines. The Shell River Seven faced a judge in court and we came together, once again for our story, people and the river.

We also have seen a small celebration concerning the proposed Huber Industrial project that is a big threat to our Northern forests. The U.S. Army Corps has held up the project for now by asking some good questions about why they need to drain those wetlands that border the Leech Lake Nation. We still need the Army Corps to reject this project, or at least require a full Environmental Impact Statement.

In carrying the celebration and community felt from the Shell River Reunions, the end of July found me envisioning and embracing a better future. Mooningwanikaaning Minis, or Madeline Island, is the homeland of the Anishinaabe . This island was our primary capital of trade until the mid l800s, until we were forced off island, starved to death at Sandy Lake and entered a bitter era for our people. We intend to bring this history to a close. We intend to return to the island, carry on our prayers, and restore our economy, as well as spiritual well being.

Healing and Homecoming

In the past one hundred and fifty years, we have mourned our island, many of our Anishinaabe have never been able to return to this homeland. Over the past years, we have been supporting cultural restoration work on the island, and the Jiiman, the great canoe-making is part of our healing. With the sponsorship of our sister organization, Akiing, Communities United by Water, and the Wisconsin Arts Council and many supporters, we launched the first dug-out canoe from the island in well over 150 years. Born from a tree from the Red Lake reservation (taken from blow down) carried to a skilled set of artisans and prayer makers, the oshki mitig jiiman launched from the island. This work is a companion to cultural teachings on the island and the work for LandBack, on this island and elsewhere. From the Artic Refuge to Madeline Island, we work to fulfill our destiny and our responsibilities. In our own way, we make our healing and help to birth the new world which is coming. We see the green path, and we intend to take it.