Leeches love Northern Minnesota. The “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (technically, the state sports more than 11,000, plus bogs, creeks, marshes and the headwaters of the Mississippi River) in early summer is a freshwater paradise for the shiny, black species of the unnerving worm. And that’s exactly the kind local fisherman buy to bait walleye. People who trap and sell the shallow-water suckers are called “leechers.” It’s a way to make something of a living while staying in close relationship to this water-world. Towards the end of the summer, the bigger economic opportunity is wild rice, which is still traditionally harvested from canoes by “ricers.”
When Dawn Goodwin, an Anishinaabe woman who comes from many generations of ricers (and whose current partner is a leecher), was a young girl, her parents let her play in a canoe safely stationed in a puddle in the yard. She remembers watching her father and uncles spread wild rice out on a tarp and turn the kernels as they dried in the sun. She grew up intimate with the pine forests and waterways around Bagley, Minnesota, an area which was already intersected by a crude oil pipeline called “Line 3” that had been built a few years before she was born. Goodwin is 50 now, and that pipeline, currently owned and operated by the Canadian energy company Enbridge, is in disrepair.
Enbridge has spent years gathering the necessary permits to build a new Line 3 (they call it a “replacement project”) with a larger diameter that will transport a different type of oil—tar sands crude—from Edmonton, Aberta, through North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, terminating at the Western edge of Lake Superior where the thick, petroleum-laced sludge will be shipped for further refining. Despite lawsuits and pushback from Native people in Northern Minnesota and a variety of environmental groups, Enbridge secured permission to begin construction on Line 3 across 337 miles of Minnesota last December. The region is now crisscrossed with new access roads, excavated piles of dirt, and segments of pipe sitting on top of the land, waiting to be buried. Enbridge has mapped the new Line 3 to cross more than 200 bodies of water as it winds through Minnesota.
Goodwin wants the entire project stopped before a single wild rice habitat is crossed.
“Our elders tell us that every water is wild rice water,” Goodwin said on Saturday, as she filled up her water bottle from an artesian spring next to Lower Rice Lake. “Tar sands sticks to everything and is impossible to clean up. If there is a rupture or a spill, the rice isn’t going to live.”
Last week, more than 300 environmental groups from around the world sent a letter to President Biden saying they consider the new Line 3 project a danger to all forms of life, citing the planet-cooking fossil fuel emissions that would result from the pipeline’s increased capacity. At Goodwin and other Native leaders’ request, more than a thousand people have traveled to Northern Minnesota to participate in a direct action protest at Line 3 construction sites today. They’ve been joined by celebrities as well, including Jane Fonda. The event is named the Treaty People Gathering, a reference to the land treaties of the mid-1800s that ensured the Anishinaabe people would retain their rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice in the region.
“I’m not asking people to get arrested,” Goodwin said, “Just to come and stand with us.”