April 15, 2021

The Fight to Stop Oil Pipelines: "For Water. For Treaties. For Climate."

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

This week, we’re talking about oil pipelines. From the fight against Keystone XL to Standing Rock, pipeline protests have been central to the climate movement in the U.S. But they’ve always been about more than just the climate -- they’ve also been a battle for Indigenous rights, demanding that Native American people and Tribes should have a say over what happens in their historic territories. . This week, we look back at how pipeline protests have transformed climate activism in the U.S., and we go to the front lines of the latest protests, where organizers are fighting, in their words, “For water. For treaties. For climate.”

Learn More

Further Reading

Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

How to Save a Planet is reported and produced by Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music from Emma Munger.

Where to Listen


Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change, and how to make those things happen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: For water! For life! For life! We stand!]

Ayana: In early April, demonstrators took to the streets of Washington, DC, carrying this giant, homemade puppet of a black snake. It was hundreds of feet long, and represented an oil pipeline. They streamed this protest live on Facebook.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, protesters: Can't drink oil! Keep it in the soil! You can't drink oil! Keep it in the soil!]

Alex: The protesters were in DC to demand that President Biden shut down a couple of oil pipelines: the Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs from the Dakotas to Illinois, and a pipeline called the Line 3 Project in Minnesota, which is currently under construction. The protest was organized by groups representing Indigenous people and communities along the pipeline routes. And the protesters say that if the Biden administration is serious about tackling climate change, it needs to stop these big fossil fuel projects. But this pipeline protest—and pipeline protests in general—are also about so much more than just stopping individual projects.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Alex: The battle over pipelines has been central to the creation of a much more powerful climate movement in the United States—a broader movement with real political influence.

Ayana: And these protests have aligned the climate movement with the fight for Indigenous rights, that Native American people and tribes should have a say over what happens in their historic territories.

Alex: So this week on the podcast, how pipeline protests helped create today's climate movement.

Ayana: And we'll go to the front lines of one of these pipeline fights—a fight, in the words of organizers, "For water, for treaties, for climate." That's all coming up after the break.

Alex: So we're gonna start the story with a little project known as the Keystone XL pipeline.

Ayana: [laughs] It's not actually little at all.

Alex: Yeah, it was a very big project. It was first proposed back in 2008 by the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada, which is now TC Energy.

Ayana: Like, we're gonna forget if you just change your name.

Alex: They did a rebrand.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: The plan was to build a 1,200-mile pipeline to carry oil from Canada to Nebraska, where it would continue on from there to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. And this oil was being extracted from land near Indigenous communities way up north in Alberta, Canada. Communities like the one where Melina Laboucan-Massimo grew up.

Ayana: Melina is Lubicon Cree. She and other members of First Nations in Canada spoke out against the projects.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo: In Alberta, it's very—it's like little Texas, right? So when you're, like, being vocal, people don't like that. And so we were—people weren't very happy with us, let's just say. It was like, we were, like, anti-patriotic or anti-Albertan or anti-whatever. And we're like, no, we're actually pro water, pro life, pro actual Mother Earth, life and clean water, pro clean water.

Alex: And Melina says that, as this oil development was ramping up in the 2000s in Alberta, not many people outside the region were aware of it.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo: So it was just even raising the alarm bell around this big industrial megaproject that no one knew about. There was no conversation around the fact that we're switching from conventional oil to unconventional, expensive, hard-to-reach, dirty oil.

Alex: That expensive, hard-to-reach dirty oil that Melina's talking about, it's oil from what are called tar sands. And tar-sand oil is some of the most carbon-intensive oil on the planet, because tar-sands fields, they're not like a conventional oil field where you pump the oil out of the ground with these big wells that you've probably seen. Instead, the oil is mixed in with sand and clay.

Ayana: So it's like a big mess of stuff, and extracting it often requires these giant surface mines. And then the oil has to be separated out from the sand and the clay and everything. So it both takes a ton of energy to extract and refine tar sands oil, and tar sands mining overall just has a major impact on the local environment.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo: So because Indigenous peoples are so closely connected to land, we see the impact immediately. The air was starting to become foul, and then also the inability—so when people go into the traditional territory to go hunting, fishing, trapping, which is a said constitutional right for Indigenous peoples, the inability to do that more and more because of encroachment, fragmentation, deforestation of the Boreal forest, which is the Northern lungs of Mother Earth. And then also just like, just being able to, like, get a dipper and, like drink clean water.

Ayana: So they started raising the alarm: marching, protesting, lobbying lawmakers, anything to bring attention to the impact on their communities.

Alex: And these protests, though they started in Canada, they didn't stay there. Word of the Keystone XL spread to communities along the planned pipeline route in the US as well. Joye Braun remembers when she heard the pipeline would run through the area near her home on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The route would cross just outside the current reservation, but through the tribe's ancestral lands which are still covered by treaties with the US government.

Joye Braun: So this pipeline wanted to go through this very sacred route of ours. And we said, no, that wasn't going to happen. You are coming onto our lands. These are our treaty territories. We never gave free, prior, informed consent. So they don't have the authority to come through here.

Alex: Joye and others were angry that the tribes weren't being listened to. They worried that the proposed pipeline would run through important sites. And also, they worried about pipeline spills. In 2010, a pipeline carrying tar-sands oil in Michigan ruptured, spilling an estimated million gallons of thick oil into the Kalamazoo River. Tar-sands oil is thicker and heavier than other oil, and the disaster took years to clean up, and forced people from their homes. Joye and others worried that a pipeline spill on their land could be disastrous.

Ayana: So she and others started protesting and lobbying on their own, but they realized fighting a giant project backed by both the US and Canadian governments, this is something they could not get done by themselves.

Joye Braun: What happened during the Keystone XL fight is we realized that we needed allies.

Alex: And so they reached out to some unlikely allies: farmers and ranchers along the route who were also worried about pipeline spills in their water supply, and also angry that TransCanada was threatening to seize their land. Joye says that alliance? It took some work.

Joye Braun: And so that process was hard. [laughs] Because you're dealing—you're dealing with Midwest racism, right?

Alex: Uh-huh.

Joye Braun: You're dealing literally with cowboys versus Indians, right?

Alex: Right.

Joye Braun: So and in talking with and visiting and making friends with farmers and ranchers in Montana and South Dakota and Nebraska, we had to really deal with a lot of racism and a lot of prejudices. And prejudices on both sides, because, you know, we're very wary of letting these non-Native people into our space, you know? Are they going to—are they gonna walk around and go, "Woo-woo-woo-woo?" Are they going to do, you know, stupid stuff, you know? And some of them did. But after many years of visiting and having dinners and planting ponca corn and inviting people to powwows and going to state fairs and, you know, really crossing over and visiting like that, we made friends.

Alex: Over time, these unlikely friends did come together to oppose Keystone. In fact, they actually called themselves a Cowboy-Indian Alliance.

Ayana: Way to reclaim that scenario!

Alex: Seriously, right?

Ayana: So there was resistance to the tar sands in Alberta. And there's this Cowboy-Indian Alliance kind of building up inertia on the prairie. But at this point, this was still really a regional fight.

Alex: But then ...

Ayana: But then ...

Alex: In 2011, a new set of allies entered the picture.

Jamie Henn: We basically, in early 2011, were kind of looking around and saying, "Where's a barricade where we can take a stand?"

Ayana: That's Jamie Henn. He co-founded the group 350.org, which was trying to figure out how do we build a national movement around climate change?

Jamie Henn: There really wasn't a climate movement to speak of. You know, there was an environmental movement, but climate change was kind of this new global threat that not a lot of people were working on, and nobody could quite get a handle on how to get after the problem.

Alex: By 2011, there had been a string of high-profile defeats on climate change. There was this big UN conference in Copenhagen that was supposed to bring countries together to tackle climate change, but it fell flat. The Obama administration had proposed a big climate bill, but it died in Congress.

Jamie Henn: I think we were kind of getting to the point where, you know, we just sort of sat back and said, "Like, this isn't working." And we know that one of the strategies of social movements since time immemorial has been civil disobedience, that when you can find places that dramatize an issue and engage in civil disobedience, that that can really attract attention, and really move something forward. And we took direct inspiration from looking at the civil rights movement, and sort of asked that question of, like, "What's our lunch counter on climate? You know, where do you pick that fight?"

Alex: As it happened, just the right fight was already underway along the route of the Keystone XL pipeline. Because not only did the Keystone pipeline encroach on tribal sovereignty and threaten local ecosystems, here was a giant, continent-spanning piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure representing a major investment in the future of oil. It was climate change made concrete.

Ayana: And because the project would cross the US-Canada border, it had to apply for a permit from the Obama administration. And so all those advocates along the pipeline corridor that we mentioned earlier—the First Nations peoples in Canada, the tribes and ranchers and farmers in the US—they were calling on Obama to reject the project.

Alex: To Jamie Henn and the folks at 350.org, this all meant that this was exactly the fight they'd been looking to join.

Jamie Henn: You know, here's a major fossil fuel project that requires a presidential permit to cross the border between the US and Canada. So we really latched onto that to say, this is a project that Barack Obama can approve or deny with the stroke of a pen. And so what could be a more perfect symbol about his commitment to climate action?

Ayana: Jamie and the team at 350.org reached out to the groups who were protesting along the pipeline route.

Jamie Henn: And they were like, "Hell yeah, let's do it!" You know, "Let's go and try and pull something off."

Ayana: And that is what they did. In August of 2011, 350.org, along with representatives from groups along the pipeline route—from Melina in Alberta to farmers in Nebraska—staged a sit-in outside the White House.

[NEWS CLIP: More than 162 people have been arrested since Saturday.]

Ayana: They kept it up for two weeks. Every day, people kept coming and kept getting arrested.

Alex: And by the time they were done, more than 1,200 people had been arrested. And the protests got the attention of the Obama administration. In January of 2012, just months after that first sit-in, President Obama did what the protesters were asking and rejected Keystone's permit. And then the fight was over.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Uh, no. Of course it wasn't.

Ayana: Oh, if only.

Alex: TransCanada appealed that decision. And then there was a back and forth that continued for years. When Donald Trump was elected president, one of his first actions was to reauthorize the pipeline.

Ayana: And then on Joe Biden's first day as president, he revoked that permit, hopefully for the last time.

Alex: But Jamie says this victory, it went beyond just shutting down the pipeline. Keystone was a big turning point for the climate movement in general.

Jamie Henn: Movements are funny. Like it's—they're always simmering below the surface. And so, you know, I think there was a movement out there, but Keystone really brought it together. I think Keystone made it a fighting movement in the streets. I think it was the first step of that.

Ayana: If Keystone was the first step in bringing all of these groups together and catalyzing a national climate movement, the step that came next took it to a whole new level.

Alex: In the spring of 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers was preparing to approve a permit for a project called the Dakota Access Pipeline—DAPL for short. A project that would run more than a thousand miles from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri River, just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Ayana: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, argued that the pipeline would cross lands containing sacred and historical sites, and would threaten the Missouri River, the reservation's water supply. So who did they reach out to? Well, the people who had just killed the Keystone XL pipeline. People like Joye Braun.

Joye Braun: We had gotten a call from grassroots people in Standing Rock saying that this pipeline was coming through. These were moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas and aunties, and just, you know, saying help. Council isn't doing anything. How do we get them involved? What do we do? Well, they asked me, and so then I turned to my youth and I said, "Hey, do you guys want to go fight another pipeline?" And my youth here said, "Yeah, let's go!" So I'm like, "All right!" So they borrowed a van and I got in my car and we drove up there. We sold cinnamon rolls for gas money. We got up there.

Alex: Joye's youth were a group of young people from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation that Joye had been mentoring, and who'd participated in some of the Keystone protests with her. She says she remembers arriving at the community center there, where a bunch of the Standing Rock kids were playing basketball in the gym.

Joye Braun: And the kids ran through the community and said, "The pipeline fighters are here! The pipeline fighters are here!" [laughs]

Ayana: Joye and others decided to set up a prayer camp along the pipeline's route—a tactic they'd used in the fight against Keystone to raise awareness.

Joye Braun: It was all decided. Everything was going to go down April 1st. I had already taken my teepee poles up the week before. I loaded everything up that I could in the back of my Blazer, and then my original plan was I was going to stay at the casino April 1st. [laughs]

Alex: [laughs]

Joye Braun: But then nobody had volunteered to camp that first night. And I was like, well, okay, my teepee poles are here. Let's put up my teepee. [laughs] And then my cousin Wiocha said, "Uh, you can't be here alone as a woman by yourself." He's like, "I gotta stay here and protect you." [laughs] And that was that first night. And those first few months, we'd go anywhere from three or four campers to maybe 15, 20. And that's usually what happens. Usually camps are very small. Because you're raising awareness. Hopefully you're doing direct action training. Hopefully you're doing some cultural stuff like singing and prayers and ceremonies and different things.

Joye Braun: We were doing all that. Then we got word that they were gonna start construction. So my daughter filmed a YouTube video of me putting out a call out, asking for campers to come. And my wildest guess would maybe be 50, a hundred people would show up. I mean, to me, that would have been a big count. I never imagined that at one point we would be the ninth largest city in all of North Dakota.

Alex: Oh my God! [laughs]

Joye Braun: [laughs] Yeah.

Alex: Wow!

Alex: The hundreds and later thousands of people that eventually came to that camp, they did not call themselves "protesters." They called themselves "water protectors." And they had a phrase which would become famous: Mní wičhóni. In Lakota: Water is Life.

Alex: Over the next few months, word about what was happening at Standing Rock spread. And one thing that really helped raise awareness was when that group of young people that Joye refers to as "her youth," they decided to make a statement. They decided to run to the headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska—500 miles away—to ask them to deny the pipeline permit.

Ayana: And then they did a bigger run. All the way from Standing Rock to Washington, DC.

Joye Braun: The youngest runner at the time was six years old.

Alex: Oh my God!

Joye Braun: Her name was Love Hopkins. She was five or six. She was really young.

Alex: And she ran 2,000 miles?

Joye Braun: Yeah.

Alex: Oh my God!

Joye Braun: Yeah. Well they do it in a relay, you know? One runs and the next and another. But yeah, she's six years old.

Ayana: Videos of the runners got shared all over social media.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, runners: We run! For our people! For one nation! We run! For water! For Life! We run!]

Ayana: Celebrities shared it. The actress Shailene Woodley even joined the run. And these runners struck a chord, including with some of the tribal leaders who hadn't been on board with all of this.

Alex: Journalist Jenni Monet remembers when she realized what a big deal this was. She was on the phone with the head of a Native governance organization, and she realized this guy wasn't paying attention to anything she was saying on the phone.

Jenni Monet: He started looking at a video. It was clear in the background, you could hear the video. And he said, "Oh my God! The chairman of the Standing Rock tribe just got arrested!" [laughs] And I said, "What?" And that's when I knew that something was going on, something unprecedented and in a way that we just hadn't seen before. It's not common that tribal leaders are willingly putting themselves on the front lines of something, particularly when it pertains to energy projects.

Ayana: Jenni says those runners, the kids who ran all the way to DC, they had lit a fire. Those runners had been a turning point.

Jenni Monet: And I think that, to a lot of leaders, tribal leaders of the Great Plains, that really spoke to them. It sparked them into a way of action that we had not seen before, where you saw an elders' councils form from that. And from that elders' council, a lot of spiritual leaders joining in the movement too, which we had not seen before.

Jenni Monet: And so what you saw really was the Greater Sioux Nation coming together as one. And from that—I call it spirit and energy that built from that. It just magnetized people from all over Indian Country to come. I mean, you had people taking road trips from every corner of Indian Country—including as far as Alaska—to be there.

Ayana: Jenni decided she needed to be there, too.

Jenni Monet: I was teaching journalism in Tucson, Arizona, and a student who had just graduated casually mentioned the protest at Standing Rock. And I said, "Oh yeah, I've been monitoring that too." Well, she text messages me out of the blue and said, "I just rented a van. We roll out tonight. Please come with us." And that she would take me up there. [laughs] And it just felt like such the Native thing to do, because that's what our people do. We take road trips. We don't hop on planes. We hop in cars. We load it up with goodies, and we head on up. And that's exactly what we did. And we drove throughout the night, and got to Standing Rock just hours after this critical moment in the movement, the day on September 3rd, 2016, when private security guards sicced dogs on a group of water protectors.

Jenni Monet: And that situation, it was—first of all, it was intimately documented by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and her team.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Amy Goodman: One man in hardhat threw one of the protesters down. Some of the security have dogs.]

Jenni Monet: They did an incredible job, not only capturing the horror of the moment, and something that we just haven't seen since, you know, the days of the civil rights era, you know, in the 1950s and '60s where dogs were being sicced on women and children. And that particular moment was sent around the world.

Alex: A huge part of the issue at Standing Rock was treaty rights. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the Dakota Access Pipeline runs through land covered by treaties with the US government, which gives the tribe the right to be consulted. And so this project came to represent—for so many people—one more broken treaty, one more instance of being pushed off the land.

Jenni Monet: It just became a unified front for so many people who absolutely said, "Yes, we're never listened to. We are the caretakers of this land, and, you know, enough." And for me, it was not lost on me at all that this was happening on some of the most bloodstained Indigenous lands in so-called America. The Great Plains, the home of the Great Sioux Nation, the Oceti Sakowin who haven't always been, you know, historically banded together. I mean, that also was something that was very early on emerging in the narrative at Standing Rock, that past differences, past grievances were set aside to build a unified front, an Indigenous front.

Jenni Monet: And I think that that's what became very clear for Indigenous peoples in the United States, and eventually around the world. There were delegations that were arriving from Ecuador. The Sami people of Norway were on their way. There was a group of people coming from Australia. And by the time that I returned at the end of September-early October, the camp had already swelled, almost doubled at that time. And the number of flags that you would see flying down that center road, more than 400 flags flying from tribal nations and Indigenous lands around the world down flag row. And you would just hear them flapping in the wind and get goosebumps.

Alex: And, Jenni says, people just felt called to be there.

Jenni Monet: I think what a lot of people felt like when they were drawn to Standing Rock early on, is that we were pulled there. I mean, there was this, for Native people, Indigenous people, we all felt something bigger than ourselves had brought us there to those lands at that time. I still get chills about it to this day. And I know that that's not the journalist in me speaking, that is just as an Indigenous person speaking, that this—this moment was so profound on so many levels.

Jenni Monet: I mean, people quit their jobs to be at Standing Rock. And you hear that a lot. Like, there were people there who got sober. There were people there to atone for maybe, you know, some of their past, to seek some kind of humility and seek forgiveness of themselves. There was a healing. There was definitely a collective healing happening at Standing Rock that goes generations deep.

Jenni Monet: Standing Rock was so much more than a pipeline. It was a stand against historical injustices, broken treaties and generations of a need to heal from a lot of inequality that still persists today. It was an experience I don't know that I will ever have ever again in my career or in my life as a journalist or as an Indigenous person. Even when there are all these other pipeline battles and environmental fights ahead of us, for a lot of reasons, Standing Rock was just special.

Alex: The protesters at Standing Rock won a major victory in December of 2016, when the Army Corps of Engineers paused construction of the pipeline for more review. But—like Keystone—it's been a years-long battle since then. The pipeline was approved under Donald Trump, and is actually running today, even though a court ruled in 2020 that the pipeline should not have been allowed to run under Standing Rock's water source. What happens next is up to the Biden administration. And in fact, the protest we heard at the very beginning of this episode? That's what it was about. They were urging the Biden administration to shut down the pipeline.

Alex: But regardless of what happens, the protests at Standing Rock remain a milestone, both for the Indigenous rights movement and for the climate movement.

Ayana: Standing Rock drew in people from all walks of life. Some who had never thought about climate change before, some who had never really thought about Indigenous rights before, and suddenly people were connecting the dots. It all felt real and concrete, and the stakes became abundantly clear.

Alex: One person like this was now Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she says that Standing Rock was what made climate change an issue for her in the first place.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I first started thinking about running for congress actually at Standing Rock in North Dakota and South Dakota. And it was really from that crucible of activism, where I saw people putting their lives on the line and Native peoples putting everything they had on the line not just for themselves, not just so that this country can honor the treaties that we have made, but for the entire water supply for the Midwest United States. That they were putting everything on the line for others.]

Ayana: And Standing Rock has become this template for new fights over pipelines across the US, one of which is heating up right now: the Line 3 Project in Minnesota. After the break, we'll go to this latest front in the pipeline fight.

Alex: Welcome back. Today, we're talking about oil pipelines, and the way the fight against pipelines has shaped the climate movement in the United States.

Ayana: And so we called up someone who's at the very center of a pipeline protest that's heating up right now.

Tara Houska: Bouzhou giniwa. My name is Tara Houska. I'm Bear Clan from Couchiching First Nation. Zhaabowekwe is my Indian name.

Alex: We reached Tara Houska at the resistance camp where she lives. It's just a couple hundred yards from the path of another proposed pipeline, in Minnesota, called the Line 3 pipeline. And she was actually kind of hard to get a hold of—this protest camp is completely off the grid, and she was using a solar panel to charge her phone.

Ayana: So you're all charged up with your electronics?

Tara Houska: Nope! But you guys got one bar each on two battery packs.

Alex: All right! [laughs]

Ayana: Okay, we'll take what we can get here.

Ayana: Tara has been living in this camp for about three years now, in an effort to call attention to the Line 3 Project.

Alex: The Canadian pipeline company Enbridge plans for the pipeline to carry tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin in the United States.

Ayana: And along the way, the pipeline would pass under hundreds of streams, waterways and wetlands, and cross land important to the Indigenous people in Minnesota.

Alex: Tara and others say that this pipeline poses an unacceptable threat to the local environment, and also will contribute to climate change. And so they've been staging actions to stop the construction. Protesters have chained themselves to buildings, to construction equipment. Some folks have even chained themselves to each other inside a section of pipe. In the last few months, over a hundred people have been arrested.

Ayana: How many people are there with you now in your camp?

Tara Houska: I don't actually say, because this is a secure space. Like, that's actually a number that the police really want to know.

Ayana: Uh-huh.

Tara Houska: So it's not something that we talk about very often. I will say that sometimes this camp has been a couple hundred at a time, where we're hosting lots of people and training lots of people. We've trained probably well over—I don't even know, 700 people maybe over the last two years?

Ayana: Wow!

Alex: Tara's route to this point? She says it started at Standing Rock.

Tara Houska: When that call from Standing Rock went out, and got a rental car and drove everything I had out there and stayed for six months. I thought I was going for a weekend.

Ayana: [laughs]

Tara Houska: And it was my return really to the land, and also to my eyes being open to a different form of advocacy.

Ayana: Tara was no stranger to activism. She had been a tribal rights attorney in Washington, DC. She'd led a campaign against sports teams using Native American mascots, and she'd been a part of Keystone XL pipeline protests in DC. But, she says, Standing Rock was different.

Tara Houska: We were essentially afforded the chance to come together as Indigenous nations again, and to share our foods, our stories, our teachings, and put our watches down and remember our way of life, instead of this incredibly structured and distant way of life, where we are very transactional towards each other, is what I see. And it was different there. We were talking with each other, and being in community in a very, very different way. In an old way.

Tara Houska: That was really powerful, because I'd only done urban organizing up to that point. So I'd done, like, the marches and the petition deliveries, and the demos in front of people's agencies and offices and all of that stuff. But I'd never done any land defense at that point. And so I saw what it really takes, and what people were willing to risk. And the amount of response it got. I mean, Standing Rock and that movement reached the world.

Alex: Land defense is the name for the kind of direct action that the water protectors at Standing Rock used. And so when Tara learned that this new pipeline was moving forward—this time in her home state—she decided to bring that kind protest to Minnesota.

Ayana: For Tara, this was personal. She is Anishinaabe, and she grew up in northern Minnesota.

Tara Houska: I grew up on the edge of a very large lakeshed, a glacial lake shed that is, you know, to me, one of the most beautiful places in the world, just like so many others with their homelands. We've been there for thousands of years. It's freshwater lakes and big pines. And kind of those places that you see on movies when they talk about the cabin up north, with the loons calling and it really is that place though. It's like, those loon sounds, they're something that I grew up hearing, and the Northern lights and all of that. I mean, those are the places and spaces that I call home.

Alex: But there's one thing in particular that brought Tara back to Minnesota to fight this pipeline—wild rice, which is native to the region.

Tara Houska: The one thing that's constant is wild rice, which is the heartbeat of our people. It's part of our creation story. It's why we came here. The creator told us to go where the food grows on water.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Tara Houska: It's a grass, actually, that grows in the actual lakes and in the rivers. So you're kind of in this floating bed of all this tall, beautiful grass, and passing through with a canoe really delicately and carefully, and knocking it gently into the boat. I mean, it's so central to our identity. I mean, one of the richest wild rice beds in the world is here in Minnesota. It's all along the Great Lakes, but one of them is here where you literally cannot see the water, there's so much rice in that lake.

Ayana: So Tara is worried both about the local direct impacts on wild rice from the construction or possible spills, and she's also worried about the impacts of climate change more broadly from this fossil fuel infrastructure.

Alex: Now Enbridge says it has fulfilled all the legal and regulatory requirements to build this line, and demonstrated what it calls an "ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty." And it says it has safely operated pipelines across the region in wild rice habitat for decades. And it points out that the Line 3 Project is actually a replacement for an existing line that dates back to the 1960s, though Line 3 would travel through several hundred miles of new territory. They say the Line 3 project is necessary though, to address exactly the thing that Tara is worried about: spills on the current, aging line. And, Enbridge says, stopping the pipeline won't stop the development of tar-sands oil. The oil will just travel in less safe ways, like by rail.

Ayana: But Tara says that argument is missing the entire point.

Tara Houska: The idea is always like, you know, we're replacing old ones that are leaking. How about instead of replacing them and expanding them—which is what you're actually doing—you decommission the old one and pull it out of the ground and clean up the earth that you've contaminated?

Ayana: I like that option better.

Tara Houska: And there's always, like, this premise of, well, it's gonna get shipped anyway. No, it's not. Like, that's the whole point. No, it's not. Your industry is on its way out. And that's the point. And we all know that. You can't sit there and say, "Oh, well, it's gonna go by rail or it's gonna go by ship anyway. No, it's not. The tar sands are on their way out. And that's the reality.

Alex: In many ways, what Keystone XL was for the Obama administration, activists like Tara want to make Line 3 for the Biden administration.

Ayana: They're saying if we are serious about cutting emissions enough to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, at some point we need to start saying no to building more fossil fuel infrastructure.

Alex: After all, it's estimated that Canada's tar sands contain twice the amount of CO2 as we've generated from burning oil in all of human history. That's according to a famous calculation by NASA scientist James Hansen. So that's part of the reason Tara founded her resistance camp, which is called the Giniw Collective, to demand that the Biden administration prove it's serious about climate change by stepping in to halt the Line 3 pipeline.

Ayana: But the Giniw Collective and their pipeline camp is not only about direct action. Tara says it's also about fostering a different kind of connection with the land.

Alex: They live off the grid, they grow a lot of their own food. And so it's this conscious decision to come to the land and practice and teach traditional ways of life.

Tara Houska: I wanted to create a space for young people, and I specifically wanted to create a space that was about being in community with the land and not just direct action. But that balance between the two, holding the land in your heart and understanding what you're actually fighting for is deeply important. Not the land as like this existential kind of idea or a place that you visit, but a place that's all around you all the time in every footstep that you take, that you are thinking about the earth and its life, both around and within you. And to instill those kinds of values, I feel like is how you are able to create leaders and create warriors that are so needed.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Tara Houska: The big discussions tend to cycle around renewables, and around transitioning away from fossil fuels into a different form of energy. I think that that's an easier conversation to have in a world that's largely driven by extractive economy. It's more palatable and easier to swallow than it is to discuss our consumerism, our consumption, and our relationship with our mother. That is a much more difficult conversation to have. I'm not saying that I expect most of the population to return to a state of living off the land, because that's simply unfathomable for so many people that have been so comfortable for so long.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Tara Houska: But I would say that what I've observed is that when people actually experience how hard it is to do this work and to keep ourselves alive when you're hunting for your food, when you're growing your food, when you are hauling water, when you're doing all the things that you need to actually live in community with the Earth, direct community, spending an entire day in the woods cutting and hauling wood, and then splitting wood and then stacking wood so you can stay warm and not freeze to death when it's 30 below zero. I think it maybe leads to some self-reflection on just how much you have, on how many comforts you actually need, you know, and to a different understanding of the living Earth around us.

Ayana: So in this moment, with things heating up with the Line 3 pipeline, as we're speaking today, what would you ask folks to do?

Tara Houska: So there's something that I've been saying pretty frequently and regularly, which is to find your bravery. You know, it is frightening for many people to engage with law enforcement. It's frightening for many people to do things that are uncomfortable. And we don't—we're maybe at the point of just still finding our voices. But the reality of the situation is that the Earth is on fire, and we have to find our voices a lot sooner. And we need to find our bravery a hell of a lot sooner than we have to date. You've got Native people holding all this biodiversity, and yet most land defenders are those same Native people.

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Tara Houska: And we are just simply not heard. And there's not enough of us. You know, colonization and genocide have almost wiped all of us off the face of the Earth, but we're still here. And so the greatest thing that I think people can do is to actually come and stand with us. Like, that's using privilege, using access, using your own agency and power, and finding your own power and being empowered.

Tara Houska: I mean, I've seen so many people be empowered through watching not only their actions of that day, like, I stopped them destroying this wetland today, but also I directly contributed to them getting that meeting at the White House that needs to happen for this to actually be stopped. I can look at my grandchildren and tell them I did everything I could, or I tried to do as much as I could.

Ayana: So are you inviting people to come to Minnesota and stand with you in land defense? Are you wanting more people to go up there?

Tara Houska: We've had many, many people come through, and of course the invitation is always open. It's getting warmer for those that couldn't maybe handle the 40 below weather.

Ayana: [laughs] Yep.

Tara Houska: Please reach out to us on our Facebook for that and get in touch. There's a lot of different camps here in Northern Minnesota. They all have different focuses and different ways of approaching things. But if you're interested in this particular method—and it's not just for young people, either. We've had grandmothers come up here and stand with us, and had some really amazing folks that were up from the Northeast that are of faith. The Quakers that threw down with us. I mean, we've had some really incredible voices and people come and stand with us.

Ayana: I love that phrase, "Throwing down with the Quakers."

Alex: [laughs]

Tara Houska: Yeah, it was pretty powerful. I mean, they were—they blockaded a fuel station, an Enbridge fuel station with a piano, and played beautiful songs in the morning.

Ayana: Oh, wow!

Tara Houska: It was incredible. And, you know, one of those moments that you'll never forget as long as you live, you know?

Ayana: Yeah. So BYO piano.

Tara Houska: Yeah. [laughs]

Ayana: So there's just one last question for you, we ask everyone who comes on the show, which is: given everything you know about the climate crisis and the state of the world, Tara, how screwed are we?

Tara Houska: That's the question, huh? [laughs]

Ayana: That's the question.

Alex: [laughs]

Tara Houska: I'll say this, which is oftentimes not maybe the answer folks hope to hear from my perspective, but it's the truth. As an Anishinaabe person, I am aware and understand that human beings have been out of balance with the Earth before and we've been wiped out before. That this has happened before, and that we've reached the point now of believing that we are in dominion of the Earth, that we can take as much as we want and not have a consequence. Or maybe we have reached a point of understanding there are consequences, but we're still not changing what we're doing because that's just the way things are. Or so we tell ourselves. So with that understanding, I'm not convinced that human beings are gonna figure it out in time.

Ayana: Yeah.

Tara Houska: But to me, it's about knowing that we can still create the most equitable and just and loving society we possibly can, even if we are past the point of no return. That we can do that as people, and we should do that. There's no reason that we wouldn't do that, other than our own fear. And there's no reason that we should feel hopeless, and that it's a beautiful thing to sacrifice for somebody who's not born yet. It's a powerful, life-changing act. So yeah, I mean, maybe we're screwed, maybe we're not, but we can at least do the best we can.

Ayana: So what does it mean to do the best that we can?

Alex: This is a question we ask basically every week at the end of each podcast, where we try to offer answers to you, our listeners. How can you get involved and be part of the solution?

Ayana: And of course, today we've been talking about a specific kind of protest, and a specific philosophy of how to protest, and that is land defense. So if you're interested in land defense and in Tara and her work, you can check out the Giniw Collective, G-I-N-I-W, on social media to find out more.

Alex: But land defense might not be the center of everyone's Venn diagram.

Ayana: We talked about this Venn diagram concept in the "Is Your Carbon Footprint Bullshit?" episode, so check that out, because when you're figuring out what you can do, how you can contribute to climate solutions, one answer is think about the overlap between what are you good at, what is the work that needs doing and what brings you joy, and try to find some way to contribute that's at the center of the three circles in that personal Venn diagram.

Alex: And the folks organizing around Line 3 have actually put together a bunch of suggestions for how to get involved. They have this document with lots of fodder for your Venn diagram. So, like, I am looking for things I can do from home. It gives you four or five bullets under that. Or I want to participate in urban actions, and learn more from the Twin Cities. There's a bunch of bullet points there. Or I want to redistribute my money or share my talents and/or provide material support. There's tons and tons of bullets under that one as well.

Ayana: Yeah, and one of the items in that document is a link to a petition asking the Biden administration to step in and do what they can to stop this project.

Alex: So again, we'll link to this document in our show notes and also in our newsletter. Our newsletter, which you can subscribe to at howtosaveaplanet.show/newsletter.

Ayana: So lots of ways to get involved. Choose your own adventure.

Alex: All right, Doctor. Let's do the credits.

Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.

Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This episode was produced by Rachel Waldholz. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis and Anna Ladd. Our intern is Ayo Oti.

Alex: Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Emma Munger and Peter Leonard.

Ayana: Our fact-checker this week is James Gaines. Special thanks to Mark Trahant, Connie Walker, Rachel Strom and Felix Poon.

Alex: And thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!

Ayana: We'll see you next week!

More Episodes