The Ripple: “No Wiindigo economy”: Student activism and the fight for fossil fuel divestment

William Clark, Assistant Audio Editor

Northwestern students and faculty advocated against oil pipelines in the Upper Midwest, like Line 3 and Line 5. They reflect on their experiences with on- and off-campus activism, as well as the push to divest from fossil fuels at Northwestern.

KADIN MILLS: I felt a deep, nauseating pain when I first saw that pipeline. I really just can’t stress enough how much it hurts. When I found out that Line 3 was operational, I cried.

WILL CLARK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark, and this is The Ripple, a podcast exploring the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community. That was Medill sophomore Kadin Mills, a direct descendant of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Mills has previously written a handful of opinion pieces for The Daily about indigeneity and issues on campus concerning the Indigenous community. He spent his Spring Break and summer at resistance camps throughout Minnesota protesting Line 3, a pipeline built to carry oil through northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin. 

In October, oil started flowing through Line 3. Enbridge, the corporation that owns Line 3, owns similar pipelines that pass through culturally and environmentally sensitive areas in the Upper Midwest. During Line 3 construction this year, Enbridge spilled drilling fluid 28 times at 12 different river crossings, sparking concern among environmentalists and environmental scientists. Experts say continued spills, including oil spills, could devastate wetlands and aquatic ecosystems, both of which Indigenous people rely on for numerous cultural practices. 

PATTY LOEW: Indigenous communities are in what many of us describe as “sacrifice zones”: major geographic areas that are just sacrificed to environmental damage.

WILL CLARK: That’s Patty Loew, a Medill professor and director of Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. She is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Prof. Loew’s tribe is currently engaged in a legal battle over Line 5, another pipeline owned by Enbridge. The pipeline carries Canadian tar sands oil through the Midwest. Tar sands oil is an especially dirty form of fuel that generates 17% more carbon emissions than regular oil does. Line 5 also passes beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. According to researchers from the University of Michigan, the Straits of Mackinac are the “worst possible place” for an oil spill, since currents would quickly move oil into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, potentially contaminating more than 700 miles of shoreline. The pipeline poses unique threats as it passes through Indigenous communities in northern Wisconsin as well.

PATTY LOEW: Line 5, as it bisects Bad River, passes through wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas, and tribal people believe, threatens our wild rice. And this is the core of our identity. We are wild rice people. Our spiritual, cultural, physical and environmental identity and health is attached to the wild rice.

WILL CLARK: There’s a possibility that oil pipelines like Line 3 and Line 5 could damage ecosystems and waterways, including ecosystems and waterways outside of federally recognized reservations. That could threaten the treaty rights several Anishinaabe tribes were promised by the U.S. government.

PATTY LOEW: Bad River, like 11 other Ojibwe bands, signed three 19th century treaties in which we ceded millions of acres to the federal government for what ultimately became Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In signing those treaties, we insisted on the right to hunt, fish and gather rice upon the waters in the land that was ceded. So unlike most other Indian nations in the United States, we have very clear, strong off-reservation treaty rights. 

WILL CLARK: So, if an oil spill damages ecosystems, that may be a violation of those Ojibwe bands’ federally recognized treaty rights. Student protesters I spoke with also said climate change was a major concern. One of Kadin’s signs from a Minnesota protest read “No Wiindigo economy,” a reference to fossil fuel infrastructure and climate change.

KADIN MILLS: Wiindigo is this mythical creature in Ojibwe lore. It’s kind of like a cannibal. A big, emaciated, forest-dwelling cannibal. And it’s kind of come to symbolize colonization and the settler-colonial state. So when we say we don’t want a “Wiindigo economy,” we don’t want an economy based on fossil fuels that’s killing us.

WILL CLARK: Communication and Bienen junior Lucy London also traveled to Minnesota to protest Line 3. She told me she thinks addressing climate change requires rethinking the United States’ economy as well as its history and cultural values.

LUCY LONDON: Reconciling with our colonial history and our colonial present means actively reconnecting with the land and reconnecting with the people who are the original stewards of the land. There wasn’t climate change and deep environmental injustice before there was colonialism.

WILL CLARK: Lucy and Kadin both said participating in those Line 3 protests inspired them and helped them envision what a more just, environmentally responsible world could look like.

LUCY LONDON: The amount of community and, like, the depth of care for one another that was present at these camps was something that I felt like completely transformed me and like the way I thought about moving forward in the world, because it felt so good being there. And I felt so supported, and like we’re all living together, we’re all living in tents and cooking for one another. And, yeah, it’s just such a culture of care and support.

KADIN MILLS: All of us being in this space together, not all necessarily sharing this culture, it was really nice to get to share it together. We had a really great group, because we all really worked together very nicely. We all lived together very nicely. We drove out to the treaty camp, and we would just go out and volunteer and just do whatever they had going on. And then if there was a direct action that happened to take place that day, we would go do it with them. We were in this space with all these like-minded people who care about the same cause, who care about an Ojibwe way of life. You know, it’s just really powerful to be out there with all that, really, just goodness.

WILL CLARK: However, Kadin and Lucy both said that they had painful experiences with police during some of the protests.

LUCY LONDON: I was part of an action where we actually went to Red Lake, and that was one of the first instances of, like, really severe police violence. They were shooting rubber bullets and pepper-spray pellets and tear gas canisters at us. So I got hit in the head with a rubber bullet. And yeah, I’m thankfully fine, but it was very jarring. We were not really prepared for the amount of chemical weapons they were going to use.

WILL CLARK: Enbridge, the corporation that owns Line 3, paid millions of dollars to local police departments to arrest and surveil Line 3 protesters. According to The Guardian, the corporation met daily with police to discuss intelligence gathering and patrols. In addition to heavy policing, Kadin said protesters struggled to obtain supplies they needed, like masks, toiletries, boots, rain jackets and non-perishable food items. 

KADIN MILLS: When the five of us were up there back in March, one of the biggest thing that some of the leaders of these resistance camps were saying was, “Oh, we need supplies, we need supplies.”

WILL CLARK: In response to this, Kadin and other students involved with NU’s Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance, or NAISA, started holding supply drives on campus supporting Line 3 protesters.

KADIN MILLS: They gave us this list of things that they could use in these camps, and so we took that back to Northwestern. It was really interesting, because we were talking about Line 3. A lot of people didn’t know what Line 3 was. So it was really difficult to kind of try to spread awareness about that.

WILL CLARK: Kadin said NAISA members hosted teach-ins and tried to gather resources for people to learn more about Line 3 and Indigenous issues. But overall, he said it was frustrating that so many Northwestern students were unaware of the protests.

KADIN MILLS: When people don’t know about it, it can be a kick in the teeth sometimes. Because like, you know, there’s this whole experience, and you just completely don’t even know that it exists. And then because you don’t know it exists, you don’t really care to do anything about it. And these issues are deeply affecting Indigenous communities.

WILL CLARK: In the past several months, activists on and off campus have expressed disappointment regarding continued pipeline development throughout the Upper Midwest. At the beginning of October, oil started flowing through Line 3, and in November, the Biden administration refused to support shutting down Line 5. Kadin and Lucy said they’re taking some time to reflect and recalibrate after these setbacks. 

LUCY LONDON: It is a huge disappointment, and I am feeling a lot of grief about it. But that doesn’t mean the movement is over. I’m realizing that we, as students, specifically at this prestigious university, have so much power and so much potential energy if we organize ourselves.

WILL CLARK: Kadin and Lucy both said students can contribute to climate and environmental justice activism on campus by pressuring corporations and institutions like Northwestern to stop investing in fossil fuels and environmentally harmful projects. 

LUCY LONDON: In order to transition from an extractive economy into a regenerative economy, we first need to divest from the bad, which is, in this case fossil fuels, and then reinvest into communities and community-oriented solutions, reparations, renewable energy.

WILL CLARK: Northwestern’s endowment is now more than $14 billion. Over the past several years, student activists have pressured NU to stop investing in fossil fuel projects and infrastructure. Colleges like Yale, Rutgers, American, Brown and Columbia have all divested from fossil fuels in recent years. But in February 2020, Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, the body that manages the endowment, rejected a fossil fuel divestment proposal drafted by students. Kadin said Indigenous divestment advocates generally believe organizations who continue to invest in fossil fuel projects are actively harming Native communities.

KADIN MILLS: The kind of approach that Native people are taking is, you know, “You’re funding cultural genocide. You’re breaking our treaty rights, you are spilling drilling fluid into our bodies of water, killing wild rice beds and continuing the climate crisis, which disproportionately affects Indigenous people as well as other marginalized people.”

WILL CLARK: Student activism surrounding fossil fuel divestment on Northwestern’s campus has been complicated, since Northwestern’s investment portfolio isn’t public. In a May interview with The Daily, Amy Falls, Northwestern’s vice president and chief investment officer, said the University should “provide adequate transparency for those groups to understand where the institution stands.” In a November interview, Falls told The Daily student activism has led to more conversations about divestment among investors. She said she would like to engage faculty and students in a campuswide conversation about the issue. Prof. Loew, however, said she thinks it will take more student activism and representation to get to a place where fossil fuel divestment is possible.

PATTY LOEW: I see the momentum building for divestment. And I see other universities that have divested from pipelines. Is Northwestern at that point yet? I don’t think so. And so strategies for getting Northwestern to a point where it’s willing to look at divestment, I think you have to look at the Board of Trustees and maybe look at strategies to change the culture of the board and make good arguments for getting representation by students, at least one student. 

When it comes to climate change, and it comes to these existential threats to your generation, I don’t see enough representation of young people in these systems. And you know, we need to change, and if we wait until we don’t have any other choice, I’m afraid it’s going to be too late.

WILL CLARK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by myself, Will Clark. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @willsclark01

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