Resisting A Fossilized Future: Indigenous People at the Frontlines
October 14, 2021

“Infrastructure shapes territories and governs the movements and processes within and across them. But infrastructure excludes, contains, and subjugates as much as it includes, moves, or liberates. The effects of infrastructure, therefore, are often multiple, paradoxical, or inconsistent. Infrastructure has been targeted in anti-colonial struggles, but it has also played a key role in struggles for independence.” — Kenny Cupers, e-flux Architecture journal

Line 3 is a pipeline expansion that aims to bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. It was first proposed in 2014 by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company responsible for the largest inland oil spill in the US. Line 3 crosses numerous watersheds, threatening wild rice ecosystems and violating the treaty rights of the Anishinaabe people and nations in its path. Line 3 was completed at the end of September 2021.

Its permitting and construction are first and foremost violations of Indigenous rights; to sovereignty, treaties, and free and prior informed consent (FPIC), as defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) as the “threshold of consent other governments and industries must obtain from impacted communities before making policy decisions that affect them.” (The US was one of four countries which voted against UNDRIP and is the only one of those four which has not yet reversed their decision and chosen to formally endorse the Declaration.) Line 3 is an example of new, highly destructive fossil fuel infrastructure. It will emit the estimated equivalent of 50 new coal power plants, threatening waterways and millenia-old fields of wild rice, and exacerbate the climate crisis. The project is yet another example of settler colonialism in action. Settler colonialism differs from other forms of colonization because its aim is to have settlers replace the original population, rather than to simply extract resources from the land. The United States continued its settler colonial legacy by originally voting against UNDRIP in 2007. In 2010 the Obama Administration officially took the stance that it “understands the call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders, before the actions addressed in those consultations are taken." 

Photo by Sarah LittleRedFeather from Honor the Earth, and protests against the construction of Line 3.

To most people, infrastructure is a buzzword that conjures up visions of highways, roads, bridges, and of course, lots of cars. But there is much more to infrastructure than just roads. Infrastructure is our built environment. It is our houses, neighborhoods, water and energy systems, electric grids, our transportation nodes, and commercial/industrial areas. Infrastructure is our shelter, it provides and transports the water and energy we need, and it protects us from extreme weather. It is the building blocks of our societies, and it determines where and how we live.

In the United States, a nation built through settler colonialism, infrastructure has been employed as a tool for asserting political and economic control. Channeling rivers for agriculture, establishing farms on the frontier, building cross-country railroads, and constructing border walls are all examples of infrastructure that serves the ambition of settlers and major corporations — and more often than not come at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Infrastructure continues to be used as an instrument of colonization to this day. Once infrastructure has been erected, it can be used as a physical, legal, or punitive tool to displace and punish those who resisted its creation. The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, written by the Red Nation, summarizes this struggle succinctly. It is a simple choice: decolonization or extinction. 

In the United States, a nation built through settler colonialism, infrastructure has been employed as a tool for asserting political and economic control.

In light of the recent IPCC report , which declared “code red” for humanity, the choice becomes even more stark. Fossil fuel infrastructure, such as oil fields, fracking operations, refineries, and pipelines, increase a suicidal dependency on fossil fuels. Indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted for fossil fuel infrastructure, with over 35 percent located directly on or near Indigenous land. And Indigenous peoples have been on the frontlines of the battle against fossil fuels for decades, directly confronting generations of extractive industries, including coal and uranium mining. They resist for the benefit of their communities, but also to protect future generations of human and non-human beings.

Leading the Resistance to a Fossil-Fuel Based Future

The struggle against “carbon capitalism” is grounded in an Indigenous Rights framework, which builds upon concepts of Indigenous Sovereignty and the obligations of Indigenous People and Tribal nations to the land itself. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network’s (IEN) recent report, 

“ Indigenous Rights and Responsibilities framework links the struggle to protect the land with the ever-present struggle to resist settler nation-state acts of violence and colonization fueled by an extractive economic system.” 

Resistance against fossil fuel projects that damage treaty land, threaten local ecologies and economies, and pose risks to community well-being are exercises of Indigenous sovereignty. By physically disrupting construction, legally challenging projects, or effecting procedural delays, Indigenous activists and allies have halted or delayed the expansion of fossil fuels and also exposed the financial liabilities of expansion when Tribal Rights are violated.

IEN’s 2021 report indicates that Indigenous victories against pipeline projects have already stopped 779 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or 12 percent of annual US and Canadian pollution. If current resistance also proves successful, that number would jump to 1.6 billion metric tons, meaning Indigenous leadership will have stopped greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of annual total US and Canadian emissions. And yet, while Indigenous leaders are protecting the water, their land, and our collective climate future against expensive and unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure, Tribal communities are consistently denied sufficient funding for essential infrastructure on reservations like housing, transportation, and sanitation. The IEN report focuses only on larger projects, meaning that these statistics are likely an underestimate. Yet, the report also proves the efficacy of Indigenous-led, on the ground, direct action against the fossil fuel industry — and the power of the people to make change when politicians fail them.

Yet, the report also proves the efficacy of Indigenous-led, on the ground, direct action against the fossil fuel industry — and the power of the people to make change when politicians fail them.

Limitations on tribal sovereignty, such as the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which ruled that Indigenous nations could not prosecute non-Natives for crimes they committed on reservation lands or against tribal citizens off-reservation, simultaneously curb tribal leaders’ authority to take climate action on their own land. Since leaders are not able to prosecute the oil industry or other bad corporate actors, they must rely on the United States legal system, which was constructed to deprive Indigenous people of their rights and land. When the legal system fails to protect Tribal land, leaders are left with no recourse other than direct action. Direct action is the practice of exercising power and community control through protest and collective resistance (for example, blocking construction) rather than merely voicing resentment.

Photo by Sarah LittleRedFeather from Honor the Earth, and protests against the construction of Line 3; Water protectors face off against Minnesota police.

The Indigenous struggle to Stop Line 3 continues in Minnesota, and on social media with the hashtag #StopLine3. And the stakes remain high. Not only do tar sands create 30 percent more emissions than conventional oil, but they also have to be diluted, heated, and pressurized to move through a pipeline. This is why when tar sands pipes rupture, they explode. While Enbridge touts their “high safety standards,” a report from Greenpeace found that between 2001 and 2018, Enbridge averaged 1 spill every 20 days, and 46 of these spills occurred on pipelines less than 10 years old. The current battle to Stop Line 3 is actually a fight against a replacement pipeline for the original Line 3. That line ruptured and spilled 1.7 million gallons of crude oil onto the frozen Prairie River in Minnesota on March 3, 1991 — the largest inland oil spill in the history of the United States.

Line 3 requires horizontal directional drilling (HDD), in which a drilling fluid of mud, water, and xanthan gum additive is blasted under rivers and waterways to make room for the pipeline. The biggest risk of HDD is the accidental release of drilling fluid into waterways, which is called a frack out. As of August 2021, Line 3 construction has caused 28 frack outs at 12 different river crossing locations in Northern Minnesota. Although technically “non-toxic,” frack outs in rivers and wetlands is a direct violation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) 401 Water Quality Certification. 

Despite these environmental hazards, an environmental impact statement has not been conducted. Winona LaDuke, Harvard and MIT graduate, Anishinaabe activist, and Executive Director of Honor the Earth, urged activists that, “Before even one drop of oil is pumped through this line, every Minnesotan should demand of its leaders at the local, state and national level all the way to Biden that a Federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be done on this totally unnecessary and destructive pipeline. Anyone concerned with climate impacts from fossil fuels or protection of Indigenous rights, lands and waters need to join us in this fight.”

Enbridge has completed construction of Line 3, and is planning to fill it with tar sands oil — adding 50 coal plants’ worth of climate damaging carbon to the atmosphere. Earlier this month, Enbridge was ordered to pay 3.3 million for piercing an aquifer in construction, releasing millions of gallons of groundwater into a fragile wetlands ecosystem. Around the same time, Chubb, the world’s largest industrial insurance company, announced that it would no longer insure tar sands infrastructure. Winona LaDuke is continuing her call for all people to demand an EIS be done — for the sake of water justice, Indigenous rights, the millenia-long wild rice economy, and all of our climate futures. 

Fossil Fuels’ Policy Perversion

In the fight to Stop Line 3, 68,000 people submitted testimony — 94 percent of them opposed the pipeline. The Public Utilities Commission, a consumer protection arm of the state government which is mandated to ‘make decisions consistent with the public opinion,’ defied the will of the 94 percent majority and granted the permit anyway. This is an example of “regulatory capture,” or when public institutions abandon the public interest in order to serve private profits. This power dynamic is replicated through law enforcement; earlier this year, Enbridge paid Minnesota state police $2 million to protect their pipeline from protesters using pain compliance (read: torture), rubber bullets, and tear gas (an internationally recognized war crime). These abuses have pushed Indigenous activists to turn to the international community, meeting with the UN special rapporteur on human rights for support.

An illustration by Dio Cramer for the Stop Line 3 movement.

One of the most telling signs of coordination between oil companies and United States policy was the designation of oil pipelines as “critical infrastructure” in at least 31 states as of 2018. These laws became popular after the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and elevate trespassing from a misdemeanor to a felony on “pipelines, natural gas plants, and other facilities, as well as property on a proposed pipeline route, even if the pipeline isn’t there yet,” according to Grist. This new designation increases penalties for protesters and even for organizations that “aid” protesters, making environmental groups liable for actions their members take. Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative non-profit front group backed by the Koch brothers and the oil industry, have released model legislation to protect oil infrastructure within this framework. 

Analyzed through a climate justice lens, the fight to Stop Line 3 is a direct confrontation with the root cause of climate change: capitalism. Capitalism relies on infinite growth (a result of unregulated competition and consolidation) on a planet of finite resources. In order to maintain growth, it must constantly expand, seeking new frontiers which are always land-based because all wealth comes from the land. Corporate control of the government is crucial, as the state uses its “monopoly on violence” to forcibly take land from the people. By militarizing police forces to protect the interests of capital, and promoting the upward redistribution of wealth from the land and the people to the country’s ruling class, Indigenous peoples are further robbed of their natural wealth. Violence, racism, and economic exploitation are tools used to justify land theft from Indigenous people. The state permits vigilante violence against Indigenous people, while denying tribal authorities authority to prosecute non-Natives for crimes that occur on tribal territory. 

Analyzed through a climate justice lens, the fight to Stop Line 3 is a direct confrontation with the root cause of climate change: capitalism.

Pipelines like Line 3 are constructed by transitory workers, most of whom are men, and who are housed at “man-camps” on the borders of Indigenous territory. Man-camps lead to a rise in missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2-spirit people (MMIWG2S), human trafficking, and prevalence of drugs in and near Indigenous communities. Indigenous women are already 10 times more likely to experience violence than the national average. Violence against women and separating children from their families is a common strategy of genocide, and although the oil industry may not be explicitly pro-genocide, tribal sovereignty and Indigenous resistance is a direct threat to their extractive practices, as shown in IEN’s report. 

Most recently, the law firm which represents Enbridge Energy, Gibson Dunn, has taken on a pro-bono case in Texas to try to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law which keeps Native children with Native families in adoption cases. The Lakota People’s Law Project outlines how the ICWA came into being to protect Native children from kidnappings and boarding schools, meant to disrupt their culture and traumatize their communities. The Plaintiffs in this case seek to designate tribal affiliations as racial rather than political. This racialization directly undermines the fact that tribes are sovereign foreign nations — a narrative which settler-colonialism has continually sought to disrupt. 


An illustration by Dio Cramer, showing various on-ramps to join the resistance to Stop Line 3, including protesting, photographing, direct action, mutual aid, artists, NGOs, and more.

The fight to stop Line 3 is one of many battles that Indigenous communities, water protectors, and land defenders have fought on behalf of their connection to, respect and responsibility for their non-human relatives, and for the future of the Earth. At the same time, the incredible impact of Indigenous resistance is a massive threat not only to oil industries, but also to crooked politicians who benefit from climate destruction and ongoing violence against Indigenous people. In a letter to President Biden, activists against Line 3 wrote:

“As significant as the climate policy implications, Line 3 violates the rights and lifeways of the Anishinaabe people by endangering the headwaters of the Mississippi River, including critical areas for hunting, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and cultural resources — rights that the US is bound by treaty and integrity to uphold. At this time of reckoning with our history, we need to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation toward our national ideals.”

Climate justice activists have a great deal to learn from Indigenous leaders. This is a question of our climate future, but also a question of national integrity and our collective responsibility to our children and the Earth, on which we rely for every aspect of our lives. To join the struggle, visit Stop Line 3’s website, watch their film, donate, and take action. This is a long battle, but it is one that the future depends on. 

Follow Us

Join Our Network

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Copyright © 2021  Global Center for Climate Justice  | Website Designed by Joshua Sisman, Sarah Jacobs, and Nikki McCullough