Winona LaDuke Braces for What Could be Minnesota’s Final Oil Pipeline Battle

The activist and her neighbors on the White Earth Indian Reservation are up against a Canadian energy company

A portrait of Winona LaDuke.

photo by tj turner

[Editor’s note: Since we published this feature describing environmentalist Winona LaDuke’s opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline that cuts through northern Minnesota, a state judge in late April ruled that Enbridge Energy could replace the aging Line 3 but not expand its route. The Public Utilities Commission voted 5-0 in late June to grant Enbridge a “certificate of need” to replace the line. The commission is expected to vote on whether Enbridge can expand it, too.]

Winona LaDuke is in a hurry. The activist, writer, and former vice-presidential candidate stands in a grocery store’s produce aisle in Detroit Lakes, her hands briefly resting on her shopping cart as she silently runs through the list of things she needs. Even that is time lost. A busy spring of organizing lies ahead.

LaDuke’s environmental justice organization, Honor the Earth, is locked in an intense battle with Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, over a proposed oil pipeline project slated to run through northern Minnesota, part of what The New York Times calls a “historic moment” in Native American political activism across the country. As Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said this January, “Over the past year and a half, something has happened…As a band, we are awake.”

“I think we’ve had enough,” says LaDuke. “We’re done with stuff being taken from us.” 

Between speaking engagements, newspaper op-eds, books (most recently The Winona LaDuke Chronicles: Stories from the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice), documentaries (she stars in 2017’s First Daughter and the Black Snake), and  more, she’s not always home on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. But she still has a large household to run.

On this outing, she has stopped at the ear doctor and at Menards for plastic to cover her yurt’s skylight, and she picked up 500 pounds of horse feed for her new farm, where she plans to grow hemp and heritage vegetables. “This is like power shopping!” she says. Outside it’s snowing hard, and cars are in ditches, but LaDuke isn’t fazed.

Rather, she is tall and poised, warm and blunt. She exudes charisma and earthy charm, occasionally joking with strangers. She wears a stylish pink hat and vest, with a brown shirt and slacks.

She stops in the deli section to read a text: Her kids are requesting pomegranate. She grabs two. LaDuke seems both exasperated and amused that she has also been tasked with finding “manly body wash.”

“When I was growing up, there was just soap,” she says.

Driving back to White Earth Indian Reservation in her Ram 2500 pickup, she ponders plans for her new farm. “I’ve spent most of my life fighting stupid ideas,” she says, referring to proposed oil pipelines that environmentalists fear will leak into lakes and waterways. She’s a key figure in Minnesota’s anti-pipeline movement, including 2016’s defeat of the Sandpiper line—that would have cut through the Ojibwe tribe’s wild-rice lakes—and now the proposed multi-billion-dollar Line 3 project in the same region.

Winona LaDuke overlooks protestors gathered at Sacred Stone Camp to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in 2016.
Winona LaDuke overlooks protestors gathered at Sacred Stone Camp to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in 2016

photo by Keri Pickett

“I’m super excited about this farming phase of my life. Right now, I don’t do what I want to do, because I focus on oil companies. But soon I will be liberated from this battle. I believe we’ll win in the spring. If the government issues the permit [for Line 3 work], then I will be on the ground with my people. And if they don’t…” She pauses. “Either way,” she says, “I’m going to plant my field.”

Early Years    

LaDuke was born in Los Angeles in 1959 to parents who were committed to social-justice movements, Bronx-bred artist Betty Bernstein and actor and pan-Indian newspaper publisher Vincent “Sun Bear” LaDuke, of Ojibwe descent. When she was 4, her parents parted ways, and she moved with her mother to Ashland, Oregon.

After skipping a grade in elementary school and excelling at debate in high school, 17-year-old LaDuke enrolled at Harvard in 1976. It was there that she met Jimmie Durham, a speaker from the American Indian Movement. The way he framed indigenous people’s struggles—corporations and governments having taken things from Native people since colonialism—stirred something in her. At Durham’s invitation, LaDuke helped research energy policy her freshman year. At 18, she testified in Switzerland at the United Nations’ first conference on the rights of indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

“I was not supposed to be there,” LaDuke says. Durham had left early, so she stepped in. “In the end, I reported to the commission on natural resources, because I was the one with the skill set to collect the documents. So, I testified.”

LaDuke aligned with more and more tribes, helping them push back against energy companies in New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota, and California. She moved to northern Minnesota in 1981 after a run-in with activist Vernon Bellecourt—an Ojibwe relative from White Earth Reservation—who suggested she work for her own people, too.

In Minnesota, LaDuke wore many hats—school principal, oral historian, wildlife harvester advocate—but kept leading tough national environmental fights. In 1989, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, focused on reclaiming illegally seized tribal land. In 1993, she founded Honor the Earth with the folk-rock duo the Indigo Girls. They had met at a concert protesting a hydroelectric project in Canada. “I got embroiled in this battle,” she says. “We ended up fighting it, and defeating it.”

By the mid-’90s, she and Honor the Earth had worked with indigenous communities to achieve victories over proposed sites for uranium and coal mines on their lands, along with a nuclear waste dump on a reservation in Utah.

LaDuke’s national reputation grew to the extent that, in 1996, she joined presidential candidate Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate, on the Green Party ticket. Their anti-corporate, pro-environment, pro-universal health care, and pro-hemp platform initially received more than 650,000 votes, and nearly 3 million when they ran again in 2000. The latter campaign in particular introduced LaDuke to many non-Natives, although some blamed Nader-LaDuke for sinking Al Gore.

Winona LaDuke stands with DFL Representative Karen Clark at the Minnesota State Capitol in 2005, lobbying against the University of Minnesota’s effort to genetically patent wild rice, a grass considered sacred to northern Minnesota tribes.
LaDuke stands with DFL Representative Karen Clark at the Minnesota State Capitol in 2005, lobbying against the University of Minnesota’s effort to genetically patent wild rice, a grass considered sacred to northern Minnesota tribes

photo by Keri Pickett

“I’m not responsible for the Democratic party,” she says. “The Democrats should win their own elections.” (LaDuke has supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 2000.)

Afterward, she brought her focus back down to the local level. On the White Earth Reservation, she helped pressure the state government to scale back on the genetic engineering of wild rice in Minnesota. Then, in 2013, Enbridge announced plans for the Sandpiper oil line. LaDuke shelved land recovery, turned her attention to oil pipelines, and although Sandpiper was defeated, she hasn’t looked back since.

The Last Battle

There are about a dozen people awaiting LaDuke’s return once she finishes today’s errands. She lives with one of her three biological children, one of three adopted children, various grandchildren, and activists known as “water protectors” (anti-pipeline demonstrators), who have migrated to LaDuke’s home on Round Lake to assist in her next, and possibly last, pipeline battle with Enbridge.

“We’ve won most of the battles,” LaDuke says. “The problem is you might win now, but then they come back. So what I figured out was that although we were defeating projects, we were not changing the level of consumption.”

In 2013, LaDuke saw up close how the energy company negatively affected Native people in Canada. After speaking at the University of Alberta, she attended a hearing for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. There, tribal people wept, voicing their anger amid concerns about contaminated water following a spill.

A Dakota Access Pipeline protestor’s sign quotes Winona LaDuke.
A Dakota Access Pipeline protestor’s sign quotes LaDuke

photo by Paul Graham Morris

“Enbridge had sent them out with chainsaw [protective] pants to clean up the oil spill,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s really, really messed up.’ So when I heard they had this project in Minnesota, I said, ‘That’s not going to work. We can’t be like those people.’”

Initially, “this project” was the Sandpiper pipeline, set to stretch across Minnesota to deliver Bakken crude to Superior, Wisconsin. “When it became clear the pipeline was coming,” she says, “I knew I couldn’t run away. I knew I had to put my energy into the pipeline battle.”

Honor the Earth formed a coalition with like-minded environmental advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Headwaters, and MN350, all of which were concerned about heavy, difficult-to-clean Bakken crude leaking into Minnesota waters.

Amid protests by environmental groups, Sandpiper ultimately was caught in legal delays and abandoned in 2016. However, Enbridge had another project set to affect the region: the massive Line 3. Line 3 currently runs 1,097 miles of pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin—including a stretch in Minnesota. It was built in the 1960s and is aging poorly. The company’s proposal includes replacing 282 miles of existing pipeline with more, larger pipe, among other upgrades. Proponents cite job creation and efficiency, but Honor the Earth questions the project’s environmental impact on local tribes.

Winona LaDuke and other Native Americans lead nearly half a million people down the Avenue of the Americas in New York City as part of the People’s Climate March in 2014, a large-scale activist event advocating for global action against climate change.
LaDuke and other Native Americans lead nearly half a million people down the Avenue of the Americas in New York City as part of the People’s Climate March in 2014, a large-scale activist event advocating for global action against climate change.

photo by Keri Pickett

“This is a huge fight, and the way it goes is going to help determine what other projects are even introduced,” says Andy Pearson of MN350, a Minneapolis-based climate action non-profit. “This is the last pipeline project that’s proposed for Minnesota at the moment. If this doesn’t get approved, the odds of companies like Enbridge trying to get another pipeline through go down.”

As of press time, a judge will issue a recommendation for approval or denial this month, and the Public Utilities Commission will rule on the Line 3 replacement permit within the following two months.

“This is the last pipeline,” LaDuke says, determined. “This is the last battle, and that battle is in Minnesota. Honor the Earth will be setting up camp in the spring, and those will be very close to or on the line. We expect thousands of people to join us. There’s a very volatile situation in the north country, and the question is, ‘Do they want to shoot me for a Canadian pipeline company?’ Because I am not moving.”

 After The Battle

The snow is still coming down hard when she arrives at her farm, and stops to unload the horse feed. Then she drives into the modest villages of Ponsford and Pine Point, which have recently experienced a major opioid crisis. (In December, seven people overdosed on the reservation in a 48-hour period, and two of them died.)

While LaDuke was in Boston giving a talk in 2008, her Ponsford house was destroyed in a fire. Her family got out, but two cats died. She lost books, research, photos, music, and memorabilia from a lifetime of organizing. “I still have a lot of PTSD associated with it,” she says. “I had to rebuild my whole house, mostly off Craigslist.”

Winona LaDuke playing with her dogs.

photo by tj turner

Ponsford is home to LaDuke’s new business incubator, Akiing, and her new space for building solar thermal panels. She dreams of a stronger, more sustainable world.

“This is the lot I’m thinking of buying,” she says, pointing to a plot of earth. “It’s got some great houses on it. I was kind of inspired by a movie called Welcome to Leith, about a town in North Dakota that the Nazis bought. So I was like, ‘Why don’t we just buy a town?’ I mean, half of it’s for sale. What if we just did cool stuff here?”

Like what? “I’d like to see manufacturing. Light manufacturing. Organic food. I think the hemp economy will make up some of it. I’d like to have our ceremonial drums back. I want them home.”

She points to another lot. “All this is for sale here,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve got a lot of ideas. Every year I spend my money on building this up here. I’d like to see us be well. That’s my retirement plan: That our nation is strong, and I can still fish and eat off my land.”