The pipeline protest before Standing Rock

Last year’s water protectors garnered worldwide attention, but several pipeline fights – such as the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline victory – got little public notice.

Image credit: Fran Murphy

We live in an era of Trump, whose denial of climate science brings to mind a quote attributed to Louis XV: “After me, the Deluge.” The disdain of the Ancien Régime for change brought about the French Revolution and the end of their world. Trump’s recent removal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement and his orders pushing forward both Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines makes one wonder if our present regime is capable of change or if, like the 18th century French ruling class, they cannot let go of their privilege – in this case the outdated get-rich-quick schemes that drove colonization in this hemisphere.

The film First Daughter and the Black Snake shows this attitude on the baffled, even scornful, faces of Enbridge corporate representatives and Minnesota state officials during Iñupiaq performance artist Allison Akootchook Warden’s testimony at a pipeline scoping hearing. She dons a child’s knit polar bear cap and white fur mittens to rap in a polar bear voice, “There used to be so much ice. It was just really, really, really nice … Ohhhh, where did all the ice go? Where did it go? Do you know?”

In her first full-length documentary, filmmaker Keri Pickett spotlights the fight that her longtime friend Winona LaDuke – the internationally known Anishinaabe activist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate – leads against the proposed Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline that threatens the lakes of wild rice that provide material and spiritual sustenance for her people on the White Earth Reservation. Before the encampment of 10,000 to 15,000 “water protectors” at Standing Rock garnered worldwide attention, several pipeline fights like this one, led by tribal leaders, got little public notice or coverage in the media.

After the polar bear testimony, Jamie MacAlister, a furious Minnesota state official, chastises LaDuke for insisting Warden be given time to testify. Standing over LaDuke, MacAlister – a White woman – lectures the Native American leader: “This is not a performance art venue. I realize you perceive this all to be a giant performance art, I realize that. And if that’s what it is, maybe the question is why are we even here doing any of this?”

Considering that the real decision-making on the pipeline was taking place elsewhere, the bureaucrat’s words held some truth. Is it all performance? When MacAlister reveals that her department has no clue about how to recognize the tribe’s sovereignty and right to government-to-government consultation on the pipeline, this becomes resoundingly clear.

In fact, as treaties are only entered into by sovereign nations – not states – the federal government should be facilitating the consultation between the Minnesota Ojibway tribes and the United States. The Sandpiper pipeline’s proposed pathway crosses the wild rice gathering sites on land that was ceded by the Ojibway (known in their own language as Anishinaabe), but to which the tribe asserts it retains traditional gathering and hunting rights. In the two treaties from 1837 and 1842, these usufructuary rights were explicitly mentioned. In the 1855 treaty, they are not. Despite this, the Minnesota v. Mille Lacs (1999) U.S. Supreme Court decision found in favor of the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa (another name used for the Ojibway) and their rights to hunt and fish. In the film, Ojibway tribal members try to challenge state jurisdiction and invoke those treaty rights.

The film shows the fight against the pipeline through the activism of LaDuke, the “First Daughter” of the title. In the film, the name is said to be Ojibway. However, it is borrowed from the Dakota/Lakota language, in which every child has a standard name based on birth order. Some focus is on LaDuke’s life story, including an interview with her mother, Betty LaDuke, a White Jewish woman who describes how she first met Winona’s half-Anishinaabe father, Vincent LaDuke, in New York City. Winona was born in Los Angeles, where her father worked as an extra playing Indian roles in Hollywood films.

When the couple divorced, Betty LaDuke moved with young Winona to Oregon, where she became an accomplished artist and college professor. Oddly enough, the film fails to mention Vincent LaDuke’s controversial activities after the divorce: Using his Anishinaabe name, Sun Bear, he started his own tribe, the Bear Tribe. His 1980 book, The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology, was a take on Native American culture that made him a leader in the then-flourishing New Age movement, a role that the American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council denounced.

In the film, LaDuke recounts how her proud father once visited her at Harvard and told her, “You’re a smart young woman, but I don’t want to hear your philosophy unless you can grow corn.” The words made a deep impact on her, and some of the most gorgeous scenes in the film are of LaDuke and her family and staff planting and harvesting heritage corn varieties and collecting rice in canoes gliding silently through stunning blue lakes.

Lovely scenes of LaDuke with her children and grandchildren in a beautiful two-story lakeside home in an idyllic setting contrast with the grittier depictions of poverty and gang life on the White Earth reservation seen in 2015’s The Seventh Fire, co-produced by Terrence Malick, Natalie Portman, and Chris Eyre. Poverty and the despair it brings to the communities LaDuke serves is never shown in First Daughter and the Black Snake. Neither is LaDuke’s third-place finish for tribal chair, a race that was ongoing during filming. These are missed opportunities for insights into tribal and reservation life and how a small community feels about its most famous resident.

In The Seventh Fire, Kevin Fineday, a teenager from the reservation town of Pine Point, says, “No one’s gonna come around here thinking they can change this neighborhood. It’s always going to be the same. That’s the way it is around here. I was raised doing all of this stuff – drugs, violence – and it’s become a natural part of my life. Most likely it’s going to be worse.” At a White House screening of the film, both Fineday and Rob Brown, a now-reformed drug dealer and gang leader featured in the film, told the audience they had to leave the reservation to change their lives for the better.

This is the same community where First Daughter shows LaDuke installing seven solar panels, and where she established a healthy Native food program at the local school. How could two such different depictions of early 21st-century Ojibway life be made? While Pickett’s film underscores many scenes with world music (most by Nahko and Medicine for the People) and the plaintive sounds of the Native American flute, in The Seventh Fire, the young people of Pine Point are listening to rap, not about polar bears, but of OG breaking down their reality: “This is the real, the real cocaine crack sh-t, that killer smack sh-t.”

In the end, Enbridge canceled the Sandpiper pipeline. The film notes this happened a day after the fourth annual “Ride Against the Current of Oil,” organized by LaDuke to fulfill a vision she had of horses crushing the “Black Snake” (the pipeline) with their medicine power. In a strange and tragic development, Michael Dahl, who is prominently seen on the rides in an otter fur hat and identified as an Anishinaabe traditional wild-rice harvester, was charged recently with felony neglect of horses from the ride that were found starved to death in January. In a recent interview, LaDuke announced plans to continue the rides in the fight against the proposed rerouting of Line 3, which follows the same pathway as Sandpiper.

In The Seventh Fire, Brown says, “Tradition is drinking or gambling – that’s a tradition. A long time ago, culture was a tradition.” In contrast, LaDuke is coming from a more hopeful place, as described in her view of traditional self-sufficiency: “Creator gives us this good life where you can get sugar from a tree and you can get food from the water.”

LaDuke, raised by two college professors in a White college town, comes from a place very different from Fineday and Brown: a place of safety and security where anything is possible. When will the children in Pine Point have that sense of safety and security? Is this achievable in any Ojibway leader’s lifetime? The film gives the appearance that the Sandpiper fight didn’t garner widespread community support like Standing Rock, but this is never explored.

Public information hearings for Enbridge 3 began in June, with evidentiary hearings scheduled for autumn. Obviously, the fight to save the wild rice gathering beds from pipelines and climate change cannot wait for the Ojibway children to be healed from the trauma of poverty and colonization. What could have been explored in the film was how Ojibway people, coming from many different experiences, are reconstituting themselves like the Dakota/Lakota people of Standing Rock, and how their differing experiences affect the gifts they bring back to the circle, to the people. What first daughter LaDuke brings to it requires a full tribal and familial context to fully appreciate.


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