Minnesota Day 1: Training
Cel service is very spotty on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, so I was a little worried when when we got lost getting to the training. The location had been kept secret until the night before, and we lost the paper map we’d received, so we ended up wandering on gravel back roads for a while before Lindi and Mary managed to miraculously find their way through the wild rice fields to the temporary training site.
As we checked in, the welcome crew asked us not to take any photos inside the training grounds to protect the identities of people involved in the protests — so you’ll have to imagine it: beautiful rolling fields, probably several acres at least, with approximately 2,000 people milling around. There was a large wooden stage with a solid barn-like roof over the top, facing two large white tents filled with enough plastic folding seats to hold over a thousand people. A variety of Indigenous folks took turns on the stage, sharing stories and songs and wisdom. Around the edges of the fields were tents for food, art making, registration, logistics… there was a media van, a small wooden bathroom, port-a-potties, washing stations, and garbage and compost bins stations. It was homemade but well laid out and amazingly well organized — especially given how quickly it had all been put together.
For the first few hours, we all listened to different indigenous leaders — including Frank Bibeau, an Anishinaabe lawyer from Honor the Earth — give us a lot of information about the nature of treaties. One thing we learned was that Native tribes were negotiating treaties among themselves long before the Dutch, English, or French showed up; and there was such a thing as Indian law — not just Traditional Environmental Knowledge. (I am wishing now that I had taken better notes while Frank was talking.) Many of the Indigenous leaders spoke about Menoomen — wild rice — and the essential role it plays in Anishinaabe culture. It’s so essential, in fact, that it’s explicitly mentioned in the Treaty of 1855 that “ceded” much of Anishinaabe/Ojibwe land to the European settlers. (“Ceded” is in quotes because the use of the land was ceded — but the Ojibwe’s understanding of land is very different from the enclosures and property-rights perspective of European settlers.)
One message was clear: We are all treaty people. “Your ancestors entered into treaties with our ancestors,” they told us. Unlike contracts — which are agreements between people —treaties are agreements between nations. Article 6 of the US Constitution in fact is very clear that treaties and the Constitution are the supreme law of the land. And treaties don’t just confer rights, but also responsibilities.
Lots to think about.
After a yummy and incredibly well organized lunch, and a delightful walk with fellow California climate activist RL Miller along the path through the forested campgrounds surrounding the main training camp, we returned to the giant white tents for our action training.
First question: how much risk are you willing and able to take, in commuting nonviolent direct action?
They asked us to begin thinking about our risk tolerance, acknowledging that some people find themselves unable to risk arrest, but also encouraging us to commit as much as possible to stopping the pipeline and honoring the treaties. They asked us to self-sort into categories: (arrest me!), (if I have to get arrested, so be it), and (I really don’t want to get arrested). At this point we still had no idea what the planned actions were, or what law enforcement might do. It was a bit confusing, but we had all been instructed to stay flexible — advice which definitely came in handy at this point.
The organizers seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to have about double the number of people they’d planned for — and they adapted quickly. Again, I was super impressed.
I had originally planned to simply act as jail support for Lindi and Mary, but the longer I listened to the Indigenous folks, the more interested I got in being arrestable. Another UU minister friend of Lindi’s from Seattle, Nancy, joined our little affinity group, and we spent some time filling out our jail support forms and sorting out a plan. We spoke with one of the jail support organizers, and in the end we decided that I would stick with the original plan, and try to find another non-arrestable buddy, and the three UU ministers would risk arrest.
The trainings included a session called “Know your rights” about the possible citation and arrest processes; and a session with Lou from the Peace Poets and an Indigenous song leader to learn some songs we could sing together, to either ramp up energy or de-escalate the action — including the Ojibwe Nibi song. One of the elders told us she had a vision of a thousand people singing the Nibi song — that the force of a thousand voices singing the prayer might be enough to stop the pipeline they had been fighting for so long.
Lastly, we did a role play of the action itself. They gave us information on how to handle tear gas (don’t rub — flush with water), and practice buffering/protecting the Indigenous elders who would be praying. They also continually reminded us that exercising our treaty rights — accompanying indigenous people on their ancestral treaty land — was not a crime. At that point we finally learned that our action would be at a bridge over a river being threatened by the pipeline.
They fed us all dinner, and then we picked up signs and headed back to the car.
At the car, we met an Indigenous couple wearing press badges, who had parked right behind us. As I opened the back door to the car, I noticed the portable solar panel I had brought along (a last minute purchase at REI the day before we left). I had thought it might come in handy, but we hadn’t needed it — and none of the organizers had so far been able to tell me who might best make use of it. So I turned to these two folks and asked, were they with the local press and might they be able to use it for the cause?
Turns out, the man was Joey Peltier (yes, related to Leonard Peltier), running for Congress to represent MN District 7. I asked if I could take his photo and he said, “let’s take a photo together!”
He was so sweet, and grateful for the solar panel, and he promised it would be used to continue the fight to defend treaty rights. It felt like a perfect way to end the day.