Solidarity with Indigenous Women Water-Protectors: 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations

Prose and Stories

This article describes Penny Rosenwasser‘s experience of traveling to Minnesota in May, 2021, with the group “1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations” to be in solidarity with indigenous women water-protectors to stop the Line 3 pipeline.

Listen to your Grandma, Stop Line 3!”

Sweat streams down my face in the early spring heat, as I call out chants, trotting back and forth along our protest line of 30 women, mostly in our 70’s. We’re on a tree-lined street in Aitkin, MN, population 2300, a three-and-a-half hour drive north of Minneapolis. Leading the songs and chants, I hold my own sign high: “Listen to your Grandma, Water is Life.” My favorite? “The ancestors are calling/ now is the time / protect the sacred /stop the pipeline!”

As we sing, some wave a long bright blue swath of fabric, to simulate the water and the nearby headlands of the Mississippi River.

Why are we in Aitkin? A Minnesota activist leader suggested we hold a protest here, since others hadn’t demonstrated in this town. We’re part of “1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations,” a San Francisco Bay Area-based group of over 1000 members. We’ve been invited by Anishinaabe grandmothers to come in solidarity with them –

 indigenous women water protectors — to stop the construction of Line 3, a pipeline being built here by Canadian energy corporation Enbridge.

Line 3 would carry toxic tar sands oil over 1000 miles from Canada to Lake Superior, crossing 200 bodies of water. Its carbon impact would equal 50 new coal power plants — threatening the water supply of 18 million people and the sacred wild rice fields, a precious staple of the Anishinaabe  People. 

“You know how people say that a mother has the strength to lift a car up to save her baby?” asks grandmother Nancy Feinstein. “That’s how we feel about the climate crisis. We will stop the fossil fuel industry because it is stealing our grandchildren’s futures.”

Most of us are white, many are Jewish; five are Lakota Grandmothers from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, led by Madonna Thunderhawk. Active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and co-founder of Women of All Red Nations, Madonna has been part of indigenous struggles since the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, and against the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline. Her sister and daughter are also part of our group.

In Aitkin we also love singing the classic that Melanie DeMore wrote the day after 45 was elected, “You gotta put one foot in front of the other, and lead with love.” Using call and response, we belt out the last verse together: “I know you’re scared /and I’m scared too / but here I am / right next to you!”

We timed our action to happen just as school was letting out. Standing across the street from the school, we hand out leaflets to the young folks – calling on Sheriff Guida to stop protecting Enbridge, and instead to protect the local communities and the pristine waters. Many students cheer us on, some cars honk as they drive by, and the local paper covers us. Paraphrasing what grandmother Starhawk posts that night on Facebook about our protest: “Not a dramatic day, but if I’ve learned anything in these forty years of activism, it’s often that the small actions, repeated over and over, are the ones that shift someone’s position —  that over time add up to a bigger change.”

Many of us have grandchildren (not me). All of us consider grandmothers as indigenous communities do: that we feel responsible to care for future generations. 

The Line 3 pipeline violates treaty rights, running through land that the Anishinaabe people have tended for thousands of years. Enbridge has a horrific safety record and is responsible for the largest inland oil spill on record, in 2010, near Kalamazoo, MI. Enbridge is abandoning its existing very cracked pipeline to build this bigger one to carry tar sands oil, some of the dirtiest oil on the planet. This would imperil beautiful waters, including the Mississippi; and the extraction of tar sands oil leaves behind cancer clusters in downstream communities. Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chippewa author Louise Erdrich called the pipeline “a breathtaking betrayal of Minnesota’s indigenous communities – and the environment.”

One late night we sit singing with other activists around a bonfire, down the road from a water-protector camp, when a truck pulls up, lights flashing. It parks just across the road, lights still flashing – a clear attempt at intimidation. We learn that Enbridge pays local sheriffs to keep them in the corporate pocket.

Afterwards back at our lodgings, ten of us circle up together on the deck overlooking the lake, arms clasped around each other, singing Linda Hirschhorn’s moving song: “Circle round for freedom, circle for each soul, for the children of our children, keep the circle whole”….

The Lakota grandmothers speak with us about how important it is for us to be here as allies: “You are our sister organization, you have the same hearts we have,” adding “In our society, when you become an elder woman, you have added power.” Madonna Thunderhawk encourages us to work at home on influencing policy and laws. She emphasizes, “Your home is where you do the work.”

Part of offering solidarity to the water protectors’ camp is leaving something useful and concrete behind, so one morning grandmother Starhawk leads us in planting an herb and vegetable garden there. Preparing the soil, then delicately cupping each plant, we nestle each one in place, under her direction. We’re amazed at what we’re able to create in just one day.

That evening is the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing, so we hold a ceremony in his memory. Joining us are Two-Spirit indigenous activists from another camp, Camp Migizi, including under-30 leader Tayasha Martineau and her four young children. Since George Floyd died calling for his mother, we invoke the power of grandmothers and mothers, followed by calling as many names as we can remember of victims of state violence. We sing for renewal and for hope, for carrying on the work of protecting water, land and life – and then feast together on watermelon and ice cream!

We complete our trip with a lively protest in St. Paul, in front of Governor Tim Walz’s mansion, to support local activist groups who’ve been fighting this battle for so long. Calling on the governor to stop the pipeline and protect the land and people of Minnesota, we also mount a letter-writing campaign to President Joe Biden, to shut down Line 3, just as he stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline. To date, over 900 activists have been arrested opposing Line 3.

At our St. Paul action, grandmother Misao directs our “optics,” instructing some of us to hold giant photos of grandchildren or children under threat, while others string delicate paper cranes on the governor’s gates. With clean water central to our message, we again unfurl our blue cloth, replicating the flowing rivers. There are more songs and short speeches, mostly from indigenous women and/or Two-Spirit leaders: water is sacred, the elders say. Water is life. 

Gazing at the life-sized photos of the children, I feel the tears – my deep desire to protect them from environmental disaster, so that they can swim in clean lakes and fish in clear waters. We rewrite words to an older chant : “Grandmas gonna rise like the water/ the fish can’t live in oil / I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter/ protect the water and soil!”

Especially after the isolation of Covid, this feminist activist journey is invigorating and joyful – to be in the company of this powerful ‘can-do’ grandmother troupe – brimming with wisdom, deep commitment, humor, creativity, feistiness, and depth of spirit. We feel a renewed sense of sisterhood, like in the early days of the women’s movement, but enriched with decades of activist experience. Grandmother Power! 

One of our group’s leaders, grandmother Patricia St. Onge, of indigenous heritage herself, (Haudenosaunee and adopted Cheyenne River Lakota), writes: “Let’s try to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. Our ancestors are rooting for us, and the future generations are counting on us.”

Penny Rosenwasser, Ph.D., is a lifelong heartfelt white-Ashkenazi-Jewish queer/lesbian rabble-rouser for justice —and author of three books, including the award-winning Hope into Practice, Jewish women choosing justice despite our fears. Former Jewish Caucus Chair of the National Women’s Studies Association, she co-teaches an Antisemitism/Anti-arabism class with a Palestinian colleague at City College of San Francisco and was a founding board member of Jewish Voice for Peace. She’s also a public speaker and workshop leader. When not blockading streets or leading songs with 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations, she helps lead a racial justice initiative at her 1000-member Oakland CA synagogue.

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