Migizi Will Fly
A Grandmother’s Journey to Stop Line Three
By Barbara Rhine
It was my first flight out into the wider world since Covid geared up, so I was a hot mess on May 22, 2021, when I began a five-day trip to Minnesota with an uphill task: Stop “Line Three”—the pipeline Enbridge Inc. has planned to transport Canadian tar sands, the dirtiest of oils, to Lake Superior for export. Thirty-one of us from Northern California’s 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations, working with indigenous leadership on the ground, organized this excursion. From the Lakota reservation in South Dakota five more grandmothers, who divide themselves into OG’s (not gangstas, but Old Grandmothers) and YG’s, joined us. All immunized, we assured each other. Here is the story of my journey.
At 3 AM I am awake and putting things in the car, to make sure I’ll have time for any formalities required for the 6 AM flight. The packing has been ridiculously difficult, especially in my head. Clothes for all weather, waterproof rubbers for wet mud, proof of vaccination both on my phone and on paper, masks and a shield for the airport and plane, leave keys at home in case of arrest, read up on MN laws re protest so any arrest would at least be on purpose. Yadayada, on and on, in an endless anxious mental loop . . .
The security line is long; the airplane packed. Squeezed into a middle seat, I settle down with my coffee and oatmeal, to try for calm. The guy on my right, however, seems to have asked me something, because all of a sudden I am explaining Line Three and listening to his lavish praise for my courage.
Minnesota is still riven by conflict since George Floyd’s murder, he says. 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 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. And Minnesota is certainly divided over Line Three, he assures me. He insists that I take his phone number, so if I get into trouble he can send his lawyer out to help.
Eventually I recline, moving the back of my chair the full inch that Delta allows, close my eyes and ask myself again: Why did I come on this expedition?
My own climate activism began about thirty years ago, when, due the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, I realized the terrifying depth and breadth of what was then usually referred to as the Greenhouse Effect. Obsessed, I lectured everyone I knew, most of whom had no idea of, and little interest in, whatever the heck they thought I was talking about. Now finally that has changed. The word climate is on everyone’s lips and sometimes even in their hearts. Yet CO2 emissions, here in the United States and world-wide, continue to rise.
Climate scientists agree that we humans must wean ourselves from use of fossil fuels, but the oil and gas industry remains unwilling even to try. Their answer to every attempt to limit their scope and profit is oh no, that won’t do any good. If we close down coal in the US, then China will just get it from somewhere else; if we back off fracking, our workers will lose their wonderful jobs and other countries will make the money. And just in case their profits start to fall? They push out more and more single-use plastic made from oil, and so contaminant of the oceans that its weight is predicted to exceed that of all the fish by 2050.
On April 4th this year, Elizabeth Kolbert published a comment in the New Yorker, where, without questioning President Biden’s sincerity, she worried that, even if all of his measures passed, CO2 emissions still would not turn that crucial corner and start down. Because they hadn’t under Obama, despite that President’s good intent. Because it’s so easy for the profiteers to distract us with every other issue on the planet.
As they did for thirty years according to Bill McKibben’s book Falter, when the oil executives accepted the science of climate change enough to alter their business plans accordingly, and yet financed and perpetuated lies and obfuscation about that very same science. Since science does not pause for lack of political will or political compromise, that thirty years of misinformation has caused irreparable damage to the future of your grandchildren and mine. Shouldn’t there be a punishment? Boiling in Oil, perhaps? Ha! Money. At least money. Lots of money.
Maybe you can tell—fear and fury about climate often have their hands around my throat, and this was true yet again, just when 1000 G’s was planning the trip. So I came. To see if the trees and the waters and indigenous culture could help me stay in the struggle rather than succumb to anger and despair. And to do my part to Stop Line Three.
After landing in Minneapolis four of us rent a van and set off on a 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 at least nine scattered through the area, all led by Warrior Women, all faced off against Enbridge.
Ah, Enbridge. A natural gas transmission corporation that took in profits over $50 billion Canadian dollars in 2019. With its flat cleared easements all ready for the pipeline; with its following and surveillance of protesters wherever they go; with its convenient arrangement to cover any overtime accrued by the local sheriffs. A formidable foe.
Enbridge has a terrible safety record that includes over 1068 pipeline spills, which have leaked a total of at least 7.4 million gallons of oil. The new Line 3 abandons an old pipeline to deteriorate in place, sets out for 300 miles through pristine wild rice habitat and under more than 200 bodies of water on a new route, and if completed would double the quantity of dirty tar sands oil being transported through the U.S. If finished, Line 3 will have the climate impact of 50 coalmines. Ah, Enbridge…
A line of colorful signs marks what is otherwise an ordinary entrance off a two-lane road through an open gate, into the Welcome Camp. Impressions, in order of occurrence:
- Canopies of birch, oak, evergreens and aspen, quivering in the sun, shaking in the wind, insistent with the beauty of the natural world.
- Makeshift structures scattered about, along with tents, for shelter.
- Mosquitos that bite through any fabric on all parts of the human body.
- Comfortable camp chairs in circles, around outdoor fire pits.
- Delicious food cooked by a large and busy guy named Turtle, served buffet style.
- Tiny ticks, harbingers of Lyme’s Disease, one crawling up my arm, another along the lip of the van’s trunk, dangerous enough to require the grandmothers to inspect various crevices of each other’s bodies nightly to make sure they haven’t burrowed under any skin.
The first of many in-person meetings begins, and they continue at the Blue Moon lodge where we stay the initial night, and at the Big Sandy Creek lodge where we stay the other nights. Frequent meetings. Long meetings. We have already had several over Zoom before we embarked; we will have more on Zoom after we get back. Grandmothers are good at meetings.
At one we sing and even dance a little, putting “one foot in front of the other, to lead with love.” At another we fold, string and hang chains of Origami cranes and butterflies. We plan meals and assign tasks of shopping, cooking, cleanup. We figure out who is going to create the art we need at our planned demonstrations, and how we will transport what’s needed for that art. We discuss how to respect indigenous culture and leadership. We argue a bit, and compliment each other a lot, for all their hard work.
Back at the Welcome Camp on our second day, at one of these meetings, a sweet, round-faced guy named Tim Coming Hay, hands out cards that read “Not A Lawyer,” give his email address as email@example.com, and instruct on what to say in case of arrest: “I am going to remain silent, and I wish to speak to a lawyer.” So Tim obviously means business. But he also says that arrest in Aitkin, the nearby county seat where we are planning to picket in front of the courthouse tomorrow, is unlikely, at least for us, at least at mid-day. And so far, except for its big fat cleared adjacent easement, Enbridge has been nowhere around to confront our group of sweet-faced elder women.
Late that night, though, some of us drive back to 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, someone sits in a dark unmarked car with a flashing orange light. Enbridge, watching. . .
The next afternoon, behind the local high school we unload our equipment 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,” ‘cause 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, but over the next two hours, while we march and sing and chant and yell, not a single cop appears. In fact no one at all goes in or out of the courthouse. I worry that this is a colossal waste of time. Marcy, one of the Lakota YG’s, tells me, though, that Aitken is like the small towns near where she lives, and that everything is noticed.
Some folks in passing cars honk in support, and a few of the kids hear us out. Later, as we sprawl exhausted on the lawn of a small nearby public park, a reporter from the local paper comes over to speak with us. She is friendly, but unwilling to have her picture taken at all, let alone posted. 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, which makes me way too happy.
Later we are told 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.
Back at the Welcome Camp a few grandmothers strip to dip in the Mississippi’s headwaters down that path from the road. Normally that would be my m.o., at least when I was just a few years younger, but I right now I so tired that all I can do is lie on a bench and swat mosquitos. A hopeless task.
Next comes another long meeting at the Welcome Camp, with inconclusive results for the next morning’s plans, but then again also with another delicious buffet supper. Back at Big Sandy, I embark through a twilight without mosquitos (do they use DDT, or what?), on a walking tour of our far-apart Grandmother suites, and enjoy the synchronicity between a little vodka and some unstructured human company. All this culminates in an invitation from Dawn, another Lakota YG, to go with them and the OGs and the rest of our Coordinating Committee to a different camp, the following day.
So we set out at 8 AM on the familiar long drive, again through fabulously 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.
Substantial tents promise orderly interiors and true protection from the ever-changing elements. (The first night had plunged into the forties, lashed with hard rain; the second day was cold; the third had been in the eighties; now the fourth day presents with a benign and gentle morning breeze.)
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 for the vehicles that would carry our Grandmothers safely here, . . . 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 lucky grandmothers settle into another circle of comfy camp chairs.
Taysha, surrounded by her three daughters and one toddler son who plays at her feet, receives her Lakota grandmothers with a formal welcome, followed by a painful account of a particular historical conflict between the Fond du Lac, her own tribe, and the Dakota, closely related by language to the Lakota. Her face bathed in tears, she concludes, after a description so chilling she must have meant for it to be private between herself and the OG’s and YG’s, that a serious debt is owed from the Fond du Lac to the Dakota. And so she intends to repay it by gifting the land where we are—a small private parcel, infinitesimal compared to what each tribe had before the white settlers arrived—to the Dakota nation when a warrior visits next week.
Some of the camp residents have joined us to eat, including Phoenix, a native woman whose beautiful clothes highlight the solemnity of her downturned mouth. Another young man asks if I want honey or maple syrup on my pancake. Delicious food is served.
With more tears and lots of laughter, Taysha moves on, to describe her own childhood—scarred by adults with addictions and men who “took what they wanted” sexually. Once, she tells us, she was invited to an “officer’s training.” By whom or for what was not clear to me, but when she got there they told her it involved alcohol, enough to get her fully drunk. She doesn’t drink, she assures us, but that day she made an exception. They asked how much she weighed, and at that time the answer was 210 lbs. (Now Taysha is nowhere near that big.) They calculated this meant she had to have eleven drinks, after which, she tells us gleefully, she sexually harassed every man in the room, the details of which she was too drunk to remember, except for one guy shouting out to her that she had messed with his dick.
I find this tale puzzling, disturbing. But whatever has or hasn’t happened to Taysha, she’s no one’s fool now. 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 at all for those who take the Enbridge jobs, but she does admit that she enjoys the way the workers welcome her arrival at the pipeline, because the resulting brouhaha will stall the work 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 some day.
Done eating, Taysha contemplates her plate and informs us it’s compostable, which she had thought meant that she could throw it away. No—she had been corrected! Compost! You let it become part of the earth; you use it for the future crops. She is amused by her own ignorance; proud of her Camp’s determination to run off renewable energy alone.
I get up to wander around. I pee on the ground behind the bushes, as instructed by a sign on the wall of the toilet structure. Put back together just in time, I murmur hello to a young person passing by who would have been called a transvestite in my time, with her strawberry-printed dress, her elaborate makeup and long lashes.
When I get back to the circle, the 2-Spirit young man with painted nails and colorful clothes, with four names including two that sound Jewish, has taken center stage. He tells us that he reveres ritual—in each word, each hand gesture, even the shake of his head. His life story is another one of sorrow. His parents raised him in Southern California, where they had left their indigenous culture behind, and substituted alcohol and drugs. He found his people’s Rez as a teenager, but was rejected there due to his 2 Spirit nature. So he will do his ritual observance here in Migizi, his true home, he assures us, tears interspersed with tender smiles. Then he sings and plays his guitar sweetly, and with skill.
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 Big Sandy for the noon meeting.
The Lakota Grandmothers, dignified throughout, say their formal goodbyes, and we invite the Migizi community to join us at Big Sandy later later that evening, for our ritual to mark the year’s anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
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. W e 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 to voice their support for us, our camp and our cause. We made relations, and are moving forward with the hope to strengthen them. With the strength, prayers, and blessings of the Lakota people, we felt renewed in our oath, to Protect the Sacred and #StopLine3.
Back at Big Sandy, talking and laughing as I help cook our last group dinner, I wonder whether any of the Migizi folks will show, and also marvel at the fact that the next day I’m scheduled for a 4PM flight back from Minneapolis to SFO. The arduous trip is almost over.
We eat, clear up and sit down to do the Floyd ceremony. The door opens and Migizi comes in. Taysha and her daughters and her partner and their son. The musician with his intensity for ritual. Others whose faces are familiar from the morning. There must be 15-20 of them, counting the kids. People scramble to make room, and everyone looks to Starhawk to begin the commemoration.
Remember Starhawk—the Second Wave feminist neo-pagan witch from back in the day? If you look her up you will find that she is still active, writing and conducting ritual in earth-based spirituality. One of our grandmothers, here throughout, she has been a quiet presence. Now she talks about her own roots in Minneapolis, then leads the packed room in eclectic prayer. Taysha speaks directly of her knowledge that her son, due to that blond hair, will never face the dangers from the police that Floyd and so many others have known.
Next Starhawk gets us to begin with the names, all people unfairly killed by the state. Floyd of course. And Hampton and Grant and Bland and Rice and Taylor and Wright and Castile and Grey and Garner. “Emmett Till,” murmurs someone, who then adds a couple more, not familiar to me, to the endless list. Phoenix throws in a refrain of indigenous names I have also never heard of. Others call out for the six million victims of the Holocaust, the innumerable ones who did not survive the Middle Passage, the countless more who were killed body and soul by slavery. My contributions are Fred Hampton (see the movie, Judas and the Black Messiah), Li’l Bobby Hutton (Black Panther killed in Oakland by the police back in the day) and Ethel Rosenberg (blazoned into my heart during my red diaper baby childhood—maybe Julius was guilty of spying; Ethel most certainly was not).
Eventually, though immunized, I find myself obsessing about Covid in this closed space, crowded with the children and lots of adults, young and old who don’t know each other’s immunization status. I leave immediately when the ceremony is over, while others who are braver offer watermelon and ice cream, and stay to hang out.
Next comes packing, bed and such a deep sleep that when the 6 AM alarm goes off I return from a faraway land, rested. And cogent. And able to navigate the driver through the chilly morning scenery back toward Minneapolis. And willing to take over the wheel as Second Designated Driver, when the first one needs her nap. 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 silk, a bouncy buoyant pure blue stream now shortened and easier to handle.
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! Phoenix 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. Madonna Thunder Hawk, Lakota Grandmother OG, 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 that is exactly 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 the burning of which 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—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.
The Coordinating Committee members lead the group in Holly Near’s 1000 Grandmothers, the song that inspired our name. We include my favorite verse:
An old woman holds a powerful force
When she no longer needs to please
She can cut your shallow life to bits
And bring you to your knees
We best get down on our knees
I always mimic slicing downward angles with a knife in both hands when I come to that highlighted phrase, so on a grandmother’s short and tender video of this event (https://vimeo.com/558779216) that is exactly what I’m doing under my cowboy hat, no song sheet in hand even though everyone else has managed to find one. A hot mess while the trip comes to its conclusion, just as I was going in.
Exhausted again, and weighted with worry for these beautiful courageous Minnesotans as they sally forth to risk life and limb in this epic struggle, I drive the van to the airport and turn it over, then trudge with two other grandmothers through the huge airport to join the long security line to get onto my flight home.
Three of us make it to the departure gate with a few minutes to spare. We cruise for food and drink, ending up with burritos which we save for the flight, and identical tall IPA beers, which we drink immediately. Suddenly we expand into fun and jokes, affection and declarations of fealty.
I gaze at the faces of these two slight grandmas whom I had barely known at home, but who are lifelong companions to my spirit from now on. Each with her distinctive weathered fashion statement is lovely, absolutely lovely—what else can I say? We’ve done it all and emerged intact, into conviviality before we have to fold ourselves into our separate cramped spaces, masked and strapped, for the flight home.
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 all, 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 the 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 CEO’s of Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, the Royal Bank of Canada. In the middle of the night my husband and I are among the singers who keep company with those painting in the middle of 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 the walls of buildings, including those banks, out in full view. This I do during the day, 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.