Above photo: The water protector educational event in Palisade, MN featured a puppet show. Mary Annette Pember.
Community crackdown on water protectors in Minnesota raises constitutional questions about free speech, assembly.
Palisade, Minnesota – Even in the bitter cold, the pretty little park along the Mississippi River is inviting, a typical gathering spot for community events with its broad trees and public pavilion.
But Berglund Park stood empty recently as families and community members huddled around warming fires in an open field nearby, listening to music and eating Indian tacos as they learned about the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline cutting through their community.
A group of pipeline opponents known as water protectors from the nearby Honor the Earth camp organized the small winter carnival to provide information about the impact of dependence on fossil fuels and a future built on renewable energy.
Their routine request to use the pavilion on Feb. 4, however, was rejected by public officials who said they had “concerns” – sparking a backlash that quickly turned the small-town festival into a public fight over freedom of speech and assembly.
It is also emblematic of the powerful economic clout the Canadian company holds over the region and the divisions it creates in local communities, said Shanai Matteson, a non-Native woman raised in Palisade who has joined local Indigenous groups in opposing the pipeline.
“It seems like there isn’t much common ground anymore,” she told Indian Country Today. “The pipeline is ripping through the community. A lot of people feel that Line 3 is inevitable and that we’re just causing problems by protesting.”
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation in Washington, D.C., sent a letter to city and county officials challenging the decision on behalf of water protectors, including Matteson and Winona LaDuke, White Earth Band of Ojibwe, a well-known environmental justice activist and executive director of Honor the Earth.
“Your offices have attempted to deprive LaDuke, Matteson and others of their lawful rights to assemble on public land,” the letter said. “Basic First Amendment rights are being deprived at the whim and direction of entities and officials, armed with the power of the state, serving essentially as private security of a private corporation whose profit interests lie in suppressing and demonizing opposition to their activities – including suppressing educational events that can impact the public’s understanding of their dangerous pipeline.”
An economic boost
Water protectors believe they were barred from Berglund Park because leaders wanted to curb criticism of Line 3 and Enbridge, a company that has brought jobs, donations and an economic boost to Aitkin County.
The windfall has created sharp divisions in the community, splitting neighbors, families and friends. Matteson believes many people in the region, including some of her own family members, signed over their lands to Enbridge without fully understanding that they had a choice in the matter.
“I think they figured that since their neighbors signed with Enbridge, they had little choice,” she said. “Refusing to sign would essentially be telling your neighbors that they’re wrong.”
For many, Line 3 means jobs. The poverty rate in Aitkin County is about 25 percent higher than the overall rate in Minnesota, and more than 12 percent of the county’s population lives below the federal poverty line of $29,275 in income per year.
People don’t want to stand in the way, Matteson said.
“This is a place that was settled by people who were laboring in extractive industries like mining and timber,” she said. “That’s a part of our story and often people want to erase that or don’t want to talk about it.
“But this is an abundant ecosystem and I think we can live in balance with it.”
Hitting close to home
The $2.6 billion Line 3 project is part of Enbridge’s Mainline pipeline system, the largest oil pipeline in North America that stretches from Canada into Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.
The existing Line 3 corridor was first installed in the 1950s, with a segment running a few miles north of Palisade and through a section of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Most of the Minnesota segment of the pipeline is routed through 1855 and 1863 treaty lands. The city of Palisade and Aitkin County are located within Ojibwe treaty territories belonging to the Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, White Earth and Red Lake bands. According to the 1855 and 1863 treaties, Ojibwe have hunting, gathering and fishing rights on the lands.
The latest Line 3 project – the largest in Enbridge’s history – is designed to replace 383 miles of existing 32-inch pipeline with 337 miles of 34-inch pipe to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.
For Palisade, 78 miles west of Superior, that means the pipeline will retain its original route north of the city. Construction work is already underway to lay the new pipeline.
Honor the Earth set up camp a few miles from Palisade as a staging area and gathering place for water protectors, built on land acquired by the organization. Honor the Earth supports environmentally friendly, sustainable living.
Matteson moved into the camp’s Welcome House after returning to Palisade from Minneapolis when her income as an artist dried up during the COVID-19 pandemic. She believes it is important to get the message out about a “just transition” that envisions phasing out unsustainable, polluting industries and creating economies based on regenerative jobs.
The “Just Transition” plan was originally generated by members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic workers union in the U.S. during the 1990s following the release of scientific evidence that fossil fuels played a role in global warming.
“In our Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) prophecies, this time is known as a time of the seventh fire,” LaDuke states on the organization’s website. “In this time, we are told we will face a choice between two paths — one well-worn and scorched and a second not well-worn and green. It will be our choice upon which path to embark.
“In the ‘just transition,’ we are choosing the green path and lighting the eighth fire by heralding in a restorative and regenerative, kind, just economy.”
Threats of legal action
Since concerns over Covid-19 forced the cancellation of Palisade’s annual mid-winter festival, Matteson said she and fellow water protectors decided a downsized version at Berglund Park would be an opportunity to share their message.
“For as long as I can remember, Palisade always had a mid-winter festival in February,” Matteson said. “There’s a parade and a dance at the community center. It’s really a fun time.”
Usually, reserving Berglund Park is an informal neighborly act, a matter of simply writing one’s name on the park calendar, Matteson said.
As she worked to organize the event in January, however, she notified officials with Palisade and Aitkin County of the group’s intention to hold “a socially-distanced outdoor winter gathering to celebrate the Mississippi River and share educational information about sustainable economic opportunities and culture.”
Both city and county officials denied permission for the group to use the public park and pavilion.
“It is clear that the city of Palisade, the sheriff’s office and the land department have valid concerns,” Aitkin County Land Commissioner Rich Courtemanche wrote to Matteson in an email, a copy of which was among several exchanges provided to Indian Country Today.
“In light of these concerns, at this time I would have no choice but to deny your request. I would ask that another venue for your assembly be made.”
Courtemanche told Matteson she could appeal the decision during the next county commission meeting — a week after the planned event.
More than 20 people were arrested in December opposing the pipeline north of Palisade after the Aitken County sheriff’s office claimed they went into a construction area posted with “no trespassing” signs.
Matteson said most water protectors engage in lawful, peaceful protest, prayer and educational outreach. She has never been arrested or cited for her activities.
“We want people to understand we’re not just protesters, we’re actually water protectors,” she said.
She was surprised, then, that Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida was copied on emails, and she wondered about the nature of concerns referenced by the commissioner and sheriff.
She reached out to Guida via email expressing her frustrations about the lack of transparency regarding the decision to bar water protectors from the park, and reassured him that the gathering would be peaceful. She invited him to join them.
Guida wrote back, “I am not involved with anything related to the park, and despite what you have inferred, had nothing to do with your group not receiving a permit. With my position I am called upon regularly for legal questions and to verify public data.
“In response to your involvement in rallies. On more than one occasion you were inside the ROW (right of way), inside a legally posted area.
“This has been documented, recorded, and very well might result in criminal charges. Because you didn’t get arrested or a citation does not mean the act is not illegal. And not being dealt with immediately does not mean it will not happen,” according to the email.
The Center for Protest Law and Litigation sent a letter to Courtemanche, Guida, Palisade Mayor Pam Nordstrom and Palisade City Clerk Maureen Mishler about the denial and suggested the inclusion of Guida “conveyed a threat” to those who wanted to assemble peaceably.
The letter also notes that Guida is on the executive committee of the Northern Lights Task force funded by Enbridge through a public safety escrow account. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required the company to fund the trust in order to reimburse law enforcement for any additional public safety costs related to protests and other activities.
Guida did not respond to requests for comment from Indian Country Today. Courtemanche responded in an email, saying, “I am unable to comment at this time due to pending legal action directed against Aitkin County.”
‘Where the money comes from’
Line 3 crosses over a dozen counties, including Aitkin, and Enbridge heralds on the company website its success in supporting and invigorating local economies along the pipeline route.
Enbridge is a regular contributor to local charities and causes such as Aitkin County C.A.R.E. Inc,. an organization that connects caregivers with seniors, Aitkin County Habitat for Humanity; and local law enforcement. In February 2020, Guida successfully made a presentation to Aitkin County commissioners recommending they accept a $5,000 donation from Enbridge to the sheriff’s office.
Beltrami County, in far northern Minnesota, is seeking $189,000 in reimbursement from the Enbridge trust fund for police equipment, training and travel they say is related to responding to protests, according to Healing Minnesota Stories, a news blog by Scott Russell of Minneapolis.
“Everyone knows where the money comes from, and it buys Enbridge some good will with law enforcement,” Russell wrote.
Indeed, many local communities are eager for Enbridge money to help their flagging economies. In 2019, the Aitkin Independent Age newspaper reported that Aitkin County commission chair Anne Marcotte hand-delivered a letter to then-Gov. Mark Dayton with 2,500 signatures from local unions, elected officials, organizations and businesses supporting the Line 3 project.
According to the article, Aitkin County anticipated about $2 million in tax revenue relating to the project. Marcotte is quoted as saying that Enbridge contributed more than $200,000 to organizations in Aitkin County in the last few years.
Lynn Misner, a reporter and columnist for the Aitkin Independent Age who has covered the pipeline for several years, said political pressure is strong to support the project.
“Enbridge has given a lot of money to the community,” she said. “Every athletic event you go to has a big Enbridge banner on both sides.”
Misner said her editor asked her recently to take a back seat on covering water protector events due to negative backlash from the public and concern for Misner’s safety.
Aitkin Independent Age Editor Jennifer Eisenbart declined to comment about the move when contacted by Indian Country Today.
According to Misner, however, Palisade city council members have written letters to the paper criticizing her coverage and the sheriff has called objecting to stories about the water protectors.
Misner notes that Enbridge typically buys a half-page ad in the paper every week celebrating the number of jobs created and environmentally friendly policies.
“It’s gotten kind of personal,” Misner said. “Sometimes I get followed when I drive. My partner is worried someone will force me off the road, so he doesn’t like me to drive by myself anymore.”
She said her reporting has been balanced. “Although I do have an opinion on Line 3, I try to cover it fairly,” Misner said.
Misner publicly opposed Enbridge’s plans to put its Sandpiper pipeline through her farm in 2013. The Sandpiper pipeline was created to carry tar sands oil from the Bakken region to the company’s hub in Clearbrook, Minnesota. From there it could have carried 375,000 barrels of oil per day to Superior, Wisconsin.
The controversial project was widely opposed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and the plan was abandoned in 2016.
Misner believes that promises of jobs – even temporary ones – are behind the local pressure.
“Jobs are pretty scarce around here unless you work in the healthcare industry,” she said.
“I think the promise of permanent jobs from the pipeline is a pipe dream. Unfortunately, it’s hard to counter those short-term benefits to the community with a long-term survival story.”
Songs and prayers at the river
Despite the opposition from local officials, the winter festival went on. More than 75 people turned out to enjoy the puppets, music, cookies and hot coffee on the frigid winter day.
Although the weather was bright and clear, the minus-11 temperatures helped keep speeches from organizers brief.
As the day ended, the group marched to the Mississippi River to offer prayers and songs to protect the water.
A giant bear puppet, manned by two people, lumbered along with the crowd as they made their way to Berglund Park. Wading through hip-deep snow, a few attendees wandered out onto the ice.
For a moment, they fell silent at the sight of the river, shielding their eyes as the sun reflected off the brilliant expanse of snow. Then they began to sing an old hymn.
LaDuke prayed in the Ojibwe language, offering thanks for the river’s gifts and asking the spirits for its protection.
She remained for a few moments gazing out at the frozen water. A non-Native man asked her the name of the river in the Ojibwe language.
“It’s the Mississippi,” she said. “Or Giichi-ziibi, the great river.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.