On the Path of Fires

In a 'sister' series running alongside our latest issue ABYSS, we look at extraction projects across the world and the communities who stand up to oppose them. The construction of oil pipelines across wild and indigenous land is one of the most contested of these devastations. Here Fielding Schaefer reports on the resistance against Enbridge's Line 3 that pumps crude oil from Alberta's tar sands through the waterlands of Minnesota, in the light of prophecies held by the Anishinabe people.
grew up along the duneswept shorelines of Lake Michigan. Now at Whitman College in Washington state, he studies Environmental Humanities, dodges glyphosate-ridden creeks, and sustains fungal cultures in a mycology lab.

It was 1,100 years ago, far away from North America: seven prophets walked up out of the Atlantic Ocean, greeted the Anishinabe people, and foretold them of their coming times. Each prophet described a place of significance along a migration path that would ultimately lead them to their true home. At every landmark along the way, the Anishinabe were to light a fire that would ignite a lasting change for their culture.

The first prophet told them to cross the ocean to light their FIRST FIRE : ‘You are to look for a turtle-shaped island that is linked to the purification of the earth. You will find such an island at the beginning and at the end of your journey. There will be seven stopping places along the way. You will know the chosen ground has been reached when you come to a land where food grows on water. If you do not move you will be destroyed.’

And thus they followed the seas until reaching the shore of Turtle Island – now commonly known as North America.

And the second prophet: ‘You will know the SECOND FIRE because at this time the nation will be camped by a large body of water. So they walked west from New England until they came upon the eastern-most Great Lake: Ontari’io (Lake Ontario).

And the third said: ‘In the THIRD FIRE , the Anishinabe will find the path to their chosen ground, a land in the west to which they must move their families. This will be the land where food grows on water.’ So they travelled throughout present-day Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and southern Ontario until settling where they found the Manoomin – or ‘wild rice’ – that grows in the fresh waters of the upper Great Lakes ecosystem.

Image courtesy of Glenn Walker and Paula Gieves

 My eyelids unlatch, but my chilled body clings to itself for warmth. Inside my synthetically-insulated, nylon-shelled mummy bag and polyester clothing, I am still cold. Frost blotches linger on my home’s beadboard ceiling— a sign of January in Michigan. I can’t go back to sleep, so I brace myself, then roll over, step, and stretch over to turn the keys in the ignition. Hot air floods the vehicle, and my extremities rediscover the world’s textures again. 

I take the gravel road toward the highway, heading to an Anishinabe property in northern Minnesota, where water protectors – not domestic terrorists, not protestors – engage in nonviolent direct action against the reconstruction of an oil pipeline: Line 3. 

In an hour I’m driving north along the one-million-ton steel-concrete Mackinac Bridge that connects Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. Since glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, the Great Lakes have housed over 20 percent of the planet’s surface-freshwater. On top of the Mackinac Straits, I am as central as I could be among the five lakes, and I share this novel location with a steel tube running parallel to the bridge along the lake-bottom: Enbridge Line 5. The oil pipeline pumps a half-million barrels of crude petroleum from western Canada to eastern Canada, side-touring right through one of the most ecologically significant places on Earth.

The oil pipeline pumps a half-million barrels of crude petroleum from western Canada to eastern Canada, side-touring right through one of the most ecologically significant places on Earth.

On 1th November 2020, Michigan’s governor ordered Enbridge to shut down Line 5 due to the risk of spilling. Enbridge is a Canadian Fortune 500 energy corporation with enough miles of oil pipeline to stretch from New York to LA six times over. Its executives responded publicly, saying that they would not shut it down. Shortly thereafter, Michigan’s environmental regulators issued Enbridge a permit – valid for 99 years – to build a $500 million tunnel under the straits to shield the pipeline from the ship anchors that routinely crash into it. Since six institutions share responsibility for Line 5, one of them cannot simply swoop in and revoke its easement; the regulatory process against Enbridge has reached a stalemate. 

*

The bridge disappears behind me. A sign: ‘Enbridge Energy, Highway Cleanup: Next 12 miles.’ It was 11 years ago when Enbridge Line 6B in southern Michigan randomly fractured, spewing over a million gallons of heavy, sludge-like oil into the Kalamazoo River. Since tar sands oil is denser than traditional, liquid crude oil, it sank to the bottom of the waterways it contaminated, rendering it extremely difficult to plunge out with hoses. It cost taxpayers $1.2 billion to clean up what could be cleaned. But now, for public relations reasons, Enbridge is here, picking up a few roadside cigarette butts.

Through Wisconsin, to Minnesota. I pass a billboard showing an Indigenous woman wearing a construction hat at a pipeline site. The billboard trumpets, ‘We’re committed to increasing Indigenous employment opportunities. At Enbridge, we’re holding ourselves accountable.’ I have to pull over for 28 more gallons of gasoline. The sun sets and the evergreen horizon fires up pink from air pollution. I drive off into the early winter dark. 

*

The FOURTH FIRE was originally given to the people by two prophets. They told of the coming of the Light Skinned race. 

One of the prophets said, ‘You will know the future of our people by the face the Light Skinned race wears. If they come wearing the face of brotherhood then there will come a time of wonderful change for generations to come. They will bring new knowledge and articles that can be joined with the knowledge of this country, in this way, two nations will join to make a mighty nation.’

The other prophet said, ‘Beware if the Light Skinned race comes wearing the face of death. You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. If they come carrying a weapon… beware. If they come in suffering… They could fool you. Their hearts may be filled with greed for the riches of this land. If they are indeed your brothers, let them prove it. Do not accept them in total trust. You shall know that the face they wear is one of death if the rivers run with poison and the fish become unfit to eat. You shall know them by these many things.’

*

Minnesota has its own share of Enbridge oil pipelines: six, in fact. Right now, Line 3 cuts south from Ontario, crossing more than 200 bodies of water and 800 wetlands, including the Mississippi River headwaters – Turtle Island’s largest drainage basin – and the treaty lands of five tribal nations. The pipeline has degraded with age since the ’60s, a fact that Enbridge twisted to justify building a new one despite sixty-eight thousand public comments, ninety-four percent of which opposed the reconstruction.

The old and new Line 3 routes through tribal lands (Map: stopline3.org)

On top of its critical location, the pipeline’s particularly toxic contents would render a spill even more disastrous. Like Kalamazoo’s Line 6B, Line 3 transports oil from a one-million-acre boreal forest in the Alberta tar sands region – the second largest oil site on the planet, housing over $1.4 trillion worth of carbon reserves. The region’s molasses-like goo is too heavy and sand-laden to simply be pumped from the ground and sent through standard pipes. It requires significantly more on-site processing, and extreme pressure in heavier-duty pipelines, using thirty percent more energy and rendering a spill more likely and more damaging. Water protectors have a saying: ‘Tar sands. bloody hands!’

The state highway turns to a country road, then a dirt road, then a slushy two-track, a driveway, and at last an unlocked gate. I park deep in the northern woods where Indigenous leaders and trusted non-native activists camp in tents and old trailers. Phone Location Services: off. Polymer clothing: on. I burrow into my van’s mattress, my breath vaporising above me. Raindrops begin hulking down: a January anomaly. The droplets ring cacophonies against the van’s aluminium frame until they form a single beating thrash, and I cannot shake the feeling that there is some trajectory of this world that is deeply, horribly, backwards.

*

And the Fifth Prophet came and said, ‘In the time of the FIFTH FIRE there will come a time of great struggle that will grip the lives of all Native people. At the warning of this Fire there will come among the people one who holds a promise of great joy and salvation. If the people accept this promise of a new way and abandon the old teachings, then the struggle of the Fifth Fire will be with the people for many generations. The promise that comes will prove to be a false promise. All those who accept this promise will cause the near destruction of the people.’

*

At 7:00 am before dawn, the camp stirs. A fire is lit and people lumber towards its warmth to plan today’s action. Inside the stove-lit building, I find my best friend Z flipping pancakes. I hop in with him, start serving, and meet Bass, a twenty-year-old undergrad who, after getting arrested two months earlier for locking her arms to an excavator, had just gotten her legal restraint from being on Enbridge property lifted. The frigid pancake chompers huddle around the fire, and Z introduces me to the thirty-some other campers as Ned  – as in Ned Ludd, the mythical frontman of England’s factory worker rebellion against industrialisation. Everyone else goes by an alias too: Aspen, Peacock, Pastor, Dumbledore… We have communicated only via a secure messaging app for the weeks leading up to our stay. We stuff phones in a car in case anyone is tapped and write the phone number of today’s basecamp jail supporter on our wrists in case we need help – in jail or otherwise. 

*

The sixth prophet came and told the people, ‘In the time of the SIXTH FIRE  it will be evident that the promise of the Fifth Fire came in a false way. Those deceived by this promise will take their children away from the teachings of the elders, grandsons and grand-daughters will turn against the elders. In this way, the elders will lose their reason for living… they will lose their purpose in life. At this time a new sickness will come among the people. The balance of many people will be disturbed. The cup of life will almost be spilled. The cup of life will almost become the cup of grief.’

*

At 10:00 am we whip seven cars onto a dirt road, spread ourselves around a Line 3 worksite, and block the machinery from moving. ‘Take the day off work everyone. This one’s on us,’ banters Aspen. Enbridge cannot legally work while unauthorised people are on site. Luckily for us, we become liabilities; luckily for them, we’re still trespassers. The workers know the water-protector drill by now, so they mosey to their trucks to call their bosses.

Two water protectors lockdown in the January action. (Photo: Giniw Collective)

 Meanwhile, Peacock, Dumbledore, and their helpers drag a hundred-pound, briefcase-shaped steel block from their trunk into the centre of a fifty-foot piece of the new Line 3 not yet set in the ground. The two crawl inside the pipe, stick an arm in the custom-welded block, and lock themselves down. Click, and Operation Tubesock is in effect. 

The rest of us corral between excavators as we watch the first police cars pull in next to ours. We stomp, drum, dance, and chant our lungs out. We let the cops know: ‘Pipelines are drippy, protect the Mississippi.’ We let Enbridge workers know: ‘Water is life, protect the wild rice.’ There are plants and animals and people here who need clean ecosystems. Many of us revere this place, and the Anishinabe need it every bit as much for their guts as they do their souls. 

Pastor then clears their throat and asks us to repeat after them in Anishinabe. We scream our hearts out. More police cars enclose the site. Eight cops kettle around us, eyeing us down. They repeat it all again, this time in English: ‘Protect the sacred. Defend our water. Fight for our rights. For our sons and daughters. For the air we breathe. And the water we drink. ‘Cause the whole damn planet. Is on the brink.’

As we rally together on unceded lands, protecting both the necessities of Aki (Earth) and the right to live locally and traditionally, it strikes me that the Anishinabe nations are not asking for a polity of any greater size than that of their own homelands. For them, there is no need to protect civilisation from climate change or to convert America’s fossil fuel economy into the even-more-industrial-scale project of solar and wind farming. They rally, instead, to protect water and wild rice.

Most politically-aligned climate change campaigns, youth climate efforts, and anti-fossil-fuel rhetoric generally lean the other way. We non-Indigenous Americans don’t want oil because it doesn’t look good on our climate change predictions spreadsheets. We need a Green New Deal to preserve our consumer lifestyle and its continuous ravaging of all things natural.

Most Light-Skinned-race climate change efforts can be seen as the false promise of the Fifth Fire. Look here instead, I think to myself: to the White Earth, Red Lake, Leech Lake, Bois Forte, and Fond du Lac water protectors as they uphold a certain kind of faith — one that believes in the plants, animals, and cultural relationships they’ve established here since lighting the third fire in the land where food grows on water.

* 

The Line 3 site, January 2021 (Photo: Giniw Collective)

After three hours occupying the site, twelve male police officers leverage us back toward our cars. Peacock and Dumbledore stay locked down in the pipeline; hours later, they’ll willingly unlock themselves and get taken to the county jail. While Bass and I trot side-by-side back to our car, one cop behind us grabs Bass’ shoulder and pulls her into his backseat. Bastard. 

We slam our sedan’s doors. ‘Fuck the State,’ we agree, and then no one speaks.

Later that night, snowflakes fluttering down, I am driving back to camp behind Aspen in my van. At a fork in the icy dirt road, I watch him slide out into the ditch between the forks. A truck soon stops, and a burly local White man helps shovel our car out. He’ll preach to us politics: ‘In all I’ve read, this nation was founded on three principles: freedom, family, and faith.’ Our body heat will dwindle.

‘Does it matter who or what you have faith in?’ Aspen asks.

In the moon-illuminated whiteout, we focus on shovelling, but in our heads, we’re floating ten feet above ourselves, wondering about possible answers. The man stands tall, plants his shovel, and speaks, ‘Well…’ He pauses. ‘We all have a creator. You all… Don’t you wish to be in touch with your creator?’

*

I am a child of the industrial economy – of plastics, gasoline, food from overseas, e-commerce, nitrogen fertilisers, Line 3, and Line 5.

I am a child of the industrial economy – of plastics, gasoline, food from overseas, e-commerce, nitrogen fertilisers, Line 3, and Line 5. I live a comfortable life because of what immensely destructive industries make accessible. 

 Mine was a difficult birth. Had my home-alone mom not been able to ask her neighbour on her electrically-powered telephone to drive us fifty miles to the nearest high-technology hospital, I may never have entered the world at all.

My maternal grandparents and great-grandparents all worked at the Ford Motor Company factories in Detroit, Michigan, the company which first used the assembly line to mass-produce automobiles. My ancestors built livelihoods and families with Ford paychecks. To the Anishinabe, my progenitors bore the face of death. My heritage, petroleum, and large-scale industries: all inextricably me.

Yes, my creator is not only fossil fuels but the entire industrial system. And no, I do not wish to be in touch with my creator. I reject my faith in the commercial machine that began creating me two centuries before my birth. And I refuse to let the industrial world continue creating me: feeding, quenching, selling me energy, housing, and clothing me in excess. The more it produces me, the more it slaughters the world and whatever place-based cultures remain. Like the Christian God my Italian and German ancestors used to hold so dear, my creator is also my destroyer. And now, it’s the Earth’s destroyer too. 

We push out Aspen’s car, and I drive my van away from the Indigenous action camp. At the fork where the man posed the question, I pause. The road foretold by prophecies long ago heads west. I take it, and declare ardent war against my own maker.

*

The seventh prophet came and said:

In the time of the SEVENTH FIRE New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the elders will be silent out of fear. Some of the elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the elders. The task of the New People will not be easy.

‘It is at this time that the Light Skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the EIGHTH AND FINAL FIRE, an eternal Fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the Light Skinned race makes the wrong choice of roads, the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people and the ultimate destruction of the planet.’

 

Clearbrook, Minnesota (Photo: Giniw Collective)

UPDATE After the writing of this piece, actions continued through the fall, with police arresting over 1000 water protectors, which included the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets. In September 2021, Enbridge announced the pipeline “substantially completed,” and oil began flowing through it on 1st October.

Indigenous, environmental and community leaders have continued to speak out against the pipeline and the lack of political action against it. Currently, water protectors within the court system are strategising resistance while campaigning for the charges against those arrested to be dropped,

A video reporting the action by Giniw Collective can  be found here 

Dark Kitchen post about wild rice, activism and restoration in Minnesota here

 

Note: All prophet passages are taken directly from June Kaminski’s account and appear here with only small grammatical alterations.

 

Sheaf; Summer 2021 and Harvest 2022

Both collections of regenerative stories and art about grain and pulses and the people who grow them

 

 

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