Guest Column: Grandmothers Go to Minnesota Part I

by Barbara Rhine*

 My first flight anywhere since Covid landed, in May 2021, was to Minnesota. My uphill task, planned by many grandmothers was to “Stop Line Three,” a huge and dirty Enbridge Inc pipeline to transport Canadian tar sands to Lake Superior for export. 

I flop into my center seat, tell the guy by the window why I’m going, and he has plenty to say.  Minnesota is still riven by conflict since George Floyd’s murder, he begins.  Not black himself, he tells me that he has seen the police in his neighborhood go up the stairs to hassle a dark-skinned resident smoking on the man’s own front porch. 

Next, he informs me that there are lots of white people he knows who admire Kyle Rittenhouse; the white kid in Kenosha WI who went unchallenged by police as he strutted down the street, arms raised, rifle hanging from his chest, after killing two and wounding a third. Minnesota is certainly divided over Line Three, he assures me.  He insists that I take his number, so if I get into trouble, he can send his lawyer out to help. 

So why in the world am I doing this?  

Well, despite well-intentioned efforts, CO2 emissions continue to rise.  Oil and Gas lobbyists maintain their successful fight against turning away from fossil fuels.  Their executives lied for thirty years, when they changed their business plans to accommodate melting ice and rising sea levels, yet financed and perpetuated misinformation about climate change. 

 Since science does not pause for political compromise, that thirty years has caused irreparable damage to the future of your grandchildren and mine.  Shouldn’t there be a punishment?    

It was this kind of fear and fury had its hands around my throat just when 30 other elders from1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations, along with four Lakota grandmothers, were planning this trip. 

 So, I came.  

I came to see if the trees and waters or indigenous culture could help me stay in the struggle rather than succumb to despair.  And to do my part to Stop Line Three.

Four of us rented a van in Minneapolis and set off on the three-plus hour drive northwest.  Flowing streams, placid lakes, the headwaters of the Mississippi in the form of a large, languid creek; water is everywhere in a gracious level landscape of astounding loveliness. Eventually, we arrive at Welcome Camp, one of nine camps scattered through the area. They are all led by Ojibwe Warrior Women, all faced off against Enbridge, who believe Line Three violates the treaty rights of the Anishinaabe. 

Ah, Enbridge. With its cleared easements already flattened for the pipeline; with its reported surveillance of protesters wherever they go; with its convenient arrangement to cover any overtime accrued by the local sheriffs.  A natural gas transmission corporation that took in $50 billion ofprofits in 2019, Enbridge’s safety record includes more than 1,068 pipeline spills, which have leaked at least 7.4 million gallons of oil.   Line 3 abandons an old pipeline to deteriorate in place, sets out on a new route for 300 miles through pristine wild rice habitat and under more than 200 bodies of water, and if completed would double the quantity of dirty tar sands oil being transported through the U.S. and have the climate impact of 50 coal mines.  Ah, Enbridge…

At the Welcome Camp, the first of many in-person meetings begin. They continue at the Blue Moon Lodge for the first night, and at the Big Sandy Lodge where we stay the other nights.   We assign shopping, cooking, cleanup.  We plan the art we need at our demonstrations.  We sing, and even dance a little, putting “one foot in front of the other, to lead with love.”  We fold, string, and hang Origami cranes and butterflies.  We discuss how to respect indigenous culture and leadership.  We argue a bit and compliment each other a lot.  Grandmothers are good at meetings.

Back at the Welcome Camp on our second day, Tim Coming Hay, a sweet, round-faced guy, hands out cards that read “Not A Lawyer,”and instruct on what to say in case of arrest:  “I am going to remain silent, and I wish to speak to a lawyer.”  But Tim says that arrest is unlikely in Aitkin, the nearby county seat where we will picket the courthouse tomorrow—at least for us, at least at mid-day. So far, Enbridge has been nowhere around to confront our group of sweet-faced elder women.

Late that night we gather at a bonfire off the road near an entrance to a path to the river.  The elders and youngers combine voices and songs to wonderful effect.  The whole time, across the street, a man sits in a dark unmarked car with flashing orange light.  Enbridge, watching. . .

The next afternoon, we unload our equipment behind the high school in eighty-plus degree heat—a long blue ribbon of cloth to represent a river, a large banner, smaller picket signs, flyers to hand out.  Students are descending from a nearby school bus, and we are eager to talk with them, but most ignore our attempts to engage.  It occurs to me that we should be shouting “Listen to THE grandmothers,” instead of “Listen to YOUR grandmothers,”  because I’m pretty sure their grandmothers are not saying the same things we are.  

Some of us yearn to be arrested (and in some moods, I’m one of them). Over the next two hours, while we march. sing, chant and yell, not a single cop appears.  In fact, no one at all goes in or out of the courthouse.  Some folks honk in support, and a few kids hear us out, but I worry that this is a colossal waste of time.   Marcy, one of the Lakota grandmothers, tells me that Aitken is like the small towns near where she lives, where everything is noticed.  

Later we sprawl exhausted on the lawn of a small nearby park, and a reporter from the local newspaper comes over.  She is friendly but unwilling to have her picture taken.   We stop at the Dairy Queen on the edge of town after all this, and I get one of those butterscotch cones that must be six inches high.  

After the trip, we discover the local sheriff insisted we had disobeyed orders to leave the premises.  No such thing occurred.  Marcy was right.  Not only were we seen, but we were important enough that a lie had to be constructed.

That night at Big Sandy, I embark on a twilight walking tour of Grandmother suites and enjoy the synchronicity between a little vodka and unstructured human company.  This culminates in an invitation from another Lakota grandmother, Dawn, to go with them to a different camp, the following day.  Yes. I will be ready at 8 AM.

*Barbara Rhine is a climate activist, a writer, and a retired lawyer.  She has published Tell No Lies, about a love triangle between a farmworker organizer, a black fugitive from justice, and a Berkeley feminist, during one of the largest Cesar Chavez marches in history.  She also has a novella, “The Lowest Form of Animal Life,” originally published in The Long Story, the title of which refers to her mother’s term for an FBI snitch.  Finally, she has Sojourn, a chapbook of poetry