Guest Column: Grandmothers Go to Minnesota Part II

by Barbara Rhine*

So, at 8 AM the morning after the invitation, we set out on the familiar drive, again through beautiful countryside, to arrive at a place where leaves of fresh green and bright yellow swish and sparkle in the early morning sun.  The camp is called “Migizi,” in Ojibwe.  “The Eagle” in English.

Here is how the Migizi residents had prepared for the visit (taken from a Facebook post written by Taysha, Migizi’s camp leader):  

“. . .  The Grandmothers are coming!! We told one another as we rushed through camp.  All morning my sister Ember had spent chopping mushrooms and onions.  Others prepared potatoes for hash browns.   Our chickens had given us three new eggs for the scramble. . .. The water bubbled at the fire ready to become coffee and Swamp tea. . .  We all ran about gathering gifts for the Grandmothers—sage, tea, sweet grass, coffee—to welcome them home.  By the gate a young man and his father prepared our humble driveway, . . . laying out a rug and raking the dirt . . . We braided our hair, put on our ribbon skirts and shirts, smudged down, and gave thanks for such a beautiful day.  Our drum carriers warmed their drums at the fire, preparing their hides for the songs and ceremony.”  

A young man greets me with a square of cloth that reads “Migizi will Fly,” stamped with a black eagle whose wings hang down to spell “Stop,” on the left side and “Line,” on the right.  The “3,” in red, is on the bird’s body.  He fastens it to the back of my shirt with safety pins, and we grandmothers settle into a circle of comfy camp chairs. 

Taysha is no one’s fool.  She knows the men who work on the pipeline because the Fond du Lac tribal leadership has a deal with Enbridge, which promises jobs in exchange for support of the project.  Taysha remains in fierce opposition to Line 3.  She intends no help for those who take the Enbridge jobs, but she admits that she enjoys the workers’ welcome when she arrives at the pipeline, because the resulting brouhaha will stall everything and then they’ll get overtime.   She understands that this does not mean they are ready to walk off the job.  Still, she hopes that might happen someday.

Children run everywhere while Taysha’s blond toddler stays right at her feet.   His father, the only other blond in sight, is a spare young man who has helped with cooking and cleaning before our eyes and has also told us he’s been arrested for sitting atop a pipeline.    Eventually that dad, whom Taysha has named as her partner, hustles the older girls off to remote learning, and all too soon it’s time to get back to the Big Sandy Lodge for a meeting.

Taysha summed it up on Facebook:

The grandmothers arrived in two vehicles, many of them Lakota from Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, brought by our allies 1000 Grandmothers.  We sat around the fires sharing in food, laughter, love, and medicine, gifting our stories and support for one another . . . we shed tears at the arrival and departure of the. . . Grandmothers who traveled so far . . .  With the strength, prayers, and blessings of the Lakota people, we felt renewed in our oath, to Protect the Sacred and #StopLine3.  

The next day I am set to get on a flight home in the late afternoon, but now it’s late morning, and we find a parking place right next to the Governor’s Mansion, where our final demonstration will soon begin.  

We have blown-up posters to hold up, including two of my own grandkids.  We have photos of kids from around the world, to tie to the fence.  We have multi-colored chains of hand-folded origami cranes and butterflies to drape from the spikes at the top.  We have our 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations banner, and our Stop Line Three banner, and our length of bouncy buoyant silk intended to represent a blue stream of clean water.

We meet in person the magical grandmother Ellen, who was the one to arrange for our thirty-one chairs at the Welcome Camp.  We thank her more than once, and she cries each time.  How pressed they are in Minnesota, she tells us.  How much they need our company, our support.   

Other Minnesota grandmothers arrive, native and not.  Folks from MN 350.org and Minnesota Interfaith Alliance of Light and Power.  One live reporter is present, weighed down with camera equipment.  

We meet Great Grandmother Mary, who had urged us to make the trip, but who couldn’t come out to the Welcome Camp to greet us because of car troubles.  We take in the four generations of her family, all dressed in indigenous red skirts—herself, her daughter, her grand-daughter, and her ten-year old great grand-daughter, who eventually sings for us all, a shy and tender melody about nature.

Our own native spokeswoman, Pat St Onge, calls upon us to care for the Earth—she is our Mother after all!   A woman named Phoenix, who speaks for Migizi, informs us that it is the only true home she has ever known, and assures us with quiet fervor that they will stay the course no matter what Enbridge does.  Lakota Grandmother Madonna Thunder Hawk tells the young people how much she admires them, and how we grandmothers will always have their back, as our elders have had ours, just by being present.  

Joe Meinholz, a white kid from Interfaith Power and Light, talks about his own grandmother being with him when he took a fall on his bike as a kid.  He came up to her, bleeding from his face.  “Where does it hurt?” she asked him.  “Here, right here!”  He points to the left side of his forehead.  The crowd laughs—such an obvious question.  

And then Joe’s voice cracks as he tells us this is why he needs us here—to ask him, where does it hurt, and to care about the answer.  Because Minnesota, he informs us—the place with the largest disparity between black and white in the whole entire country—is hurting.  Because this pipeline that cuts under our waters and through our wild rice territory to bring the dirtiest form of the very oil which, when it combusts, keeps sending the temps sky high, the waters rising, the western states burning and parching, the climate refugees mounting into the millions, the limiting of the future for all our children and grandchildren—means that we all are hurting.  (Forgive me, Joe, for adding to your words.  This has become my own rant, as it does so often at home.) 

So many times, when a Minnesotan has spoken to us, that person has shed tears.  Now, throughout this rally, my own throat expands, my own eyes are wet.  

I make it home safely, and I don’t have Covid.  So, I am fine.  But I am frightened for all these young folks, emerged from an environment already degraded by oil, by gas, by colonial culture.  Thousands more have joined them since our trip. The sheriff’s cops are bullying them, diving with helicopters to kick dust in their faces, arresting hundreds, using tear gas and rubber bullets, keeping them in custody longer each time.  I worry about the physical and legal risks of going toe-to-toe with the ruthless Enbridge giant.  

My fear, though, is not the point.  The protestors’ determined courage—through all their own tears and pain—that is the point.   And as for ourselves, as grandmothers?  Accompaniment is the point.  For as long as we can, however we manage it.   This is who we are. 

And so, since I’ve been home, I’ve signed every electronic petition about Line Three that comes my way and sent numerous letters through the internet to all the major players.   President Biden, of course, but also phone calls to CEOs of Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, the Royal Bank of Canada.  In the middle of the night my husband and I sing to keep company with those painting the street’s pavement by our local Chase Bank—Water is Life!  Defund Line Three!  I have a bunch of artistic posters on the same themes, and I’m perfecting my skill at getting them up on fences and walls, including those banks, out in full view. 

I do this during the day and at night, telling myself I wouldn’t mind being arrested.  I wouldn’t mind jurors who have to listen to my explanation of why I am engaged in this blatant illegal conduct at my advanced age, to see if they can tell me that what I am doing is wrong.

Yep.  I seem to have reached a familiar conclusion once again—struggle in the midst of pessimism and despair?  It makes me tired; it makes me cry.  And, though I will never know how much effect my individual actions contribute, it makes me happier than passivity.  Migizi Will Fly.  

*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