Judge dismisses pipeline protest charges against 3 Native women

Winona LaDuke
Activist Winona LaDuke marches on Great River Road near Palisade, Minn. Later, protesters interrupted work on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project south of Hill City, Minn.
Ben Hovland for MPR News | 2021

Updated: 5:44 p.m.

Opponents of the Line 3 oil pipeline are celebrating an Aitkin County judge’s decision to dismiss charges against three Native women related to a 2021 protest.

Activists Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin helped lead rallies as Enbridge began work on a new oil pipeline across northern Minnesota more than two years ago.

The charges against them stemmed from a rally on Jan. 9, 2021, when a large group gathered at a pipeline construction site near the Mississippi River in Aitkin County. 

The opponents, who called themselves water protectors, carried signs and walked down a county road. Some Native women danced in jingle dresses, a healing tradition.

Some group members later moved to another Aitkin County location, where they walked along U.S. Highway 169 and refused to leave a Line 3 construction site.

LaDuke, Goodwin and Aubid were not arrested on Jan. 9. Authorities charged them weeks later by summons after identifying them in social media posts. They faced gross misdemeanor charges of trespassing and harassment, as well as misdemeanor unlawful assembly and public nuisance.

Law enforcement approach people at a construction site.
Local sheriffs direct protesters to leave the construction site of the Line 3 oil pipeline or face arrest near Aitkin, Minn.
Ben Hovland for MPR News | 2021

A jury trial was scheduled to begin this week. But in a forceful opinion filed Sept. 14, District Court Judge Leslie Metzen dismissed all the charges.

Metzen’s order noted the government’s historical mistreatment of Indigenous people.

“In the last 20 years I have come to a broader understanding of what we, the now dominant culture, did to try to eradicate our indigenous neighbors,” she wrote. “We moved them by force and power and violence off the land where they lived for thousands of years. To make peace, we signed treaties with them that promised many things they never received.”

Metzen wrote that she finds it “within the furtherance of justice” to protect the defendants who were peacefully protesting to protect the land addressed in those treaties.

She wrote that as respected members of Anishinaabe tribes, LaDuke, Aubid and Goodwin were exercising their free speech rights and spiritual beliefs, including “their heartfelt belief that the waters of Minnesota need to be protected from damage that could result from the pipeline.”

“To criminalize their behavior would be the crime,” she added.

Two people lean into each other and hug.
Gio Cerise, left, of the White Earth Nation comforts Dawn Goodwin, right, as they watch workers resume construction on the line 3 pipeline near Aitkin, Minn.
Ben Hovland for MPR News | 2021

During a conference call with reporters Monday, the three women expressed gratitude for the ruling.

“It has been heartbreaking for us to undergo this trauma of all of these years of facing this corporation,” LaDuke said. “We're not criminals. We’re women who want clean water.”

More than 900 people were arrested in connection with protests over the Line 3 pipeline. Many of those charges have been dismissed or settled. Fewer than 20 of those cases are still pending, said Claire Glenn, attorney with the Climate Defense Project, who represented more than 100 cases.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida and County Attorney Jim Ratz did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment about Metzen’s ruling.

A spokesperson from Enbridge sent the following statement to MPR News:

“Illegal and unsafe acts by protesters during Line 3 construction endangered themselves, first responders and our workers. They also caused millions of dollars in damages, including to equipment owned by small businesses and native contractors on the project. We support efforts to hold protesters accountable for their actions.” 

The pipeline began operating in October 2021. Since then, Enbridge has confirmed four places where it breached aquifers during construction, leading to uncontrolled flows of groundwater. Enbridge has paid several million dollars in fines and restoration costs related to the breaches. 

The Minnesota attorney general’s office also charged the Canadian company with a misdemeanor crime in Clearwater County for using state water without a permit. The charge will be dismissed next month if Enbridge remains law abiding.