On dragonflies, injustice, an oil pipeline, and President Biden

What sticks with me the most from the Treaty People Gathering at the Headwaters of the Mississippi River are the dragonflies.

Not long after my son died, an Anishinaabeg friend gifted me a pair of dragonfly earrings. He told me that in the Anishinaabe belief system, we mortal humans are like nymphs floating on the surface of a river, our time here on this plane of existence temporary while we grow to the point of moving on to the next world, that dying is like emerging from the flat surface of the water, where our vision and understanding of reality is cloudy and limited, into a three-dimensional adulthood where the full wonder of life is revealed, like adult dragonflies flying freely through the air. He told me that in their belief system, dragonflies were put on earth by Creator to remind us of this, and that when dragonflies come visit us, they are manifestations of our loved ones who have passed on, reminding us that the universe is larger than what we know it to be.

On June 7, as we marched several hundred strong down the road towards the Headwaters of the Mississippi, led by the Aanishinaabeg people who are the front line of the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline battle, clouds of dragonflies buzzed above our heads. Water Protectors had gathered from all over to send a clear message to President Joe Biden: this pipeline is unneeded, it is unwanted, it threatens sacred waters and life in all its form, and it is his responsibility to stop it. 

Marching to the beat of the Anishinaabeg drummers who led the procession, we were instructed by a Native matriarch to “walk with our grandmothers.” I confess I found that challenging; I barely knew my maternal grandmother, and as for my paternal grandmother, well—let’s just say that she was just downright mean. The cruel old German woman that I knew in my childhood was not a person I wanted to walk next to. To be fair, though—she came by her harsh disposition honestly: when she was 11 years old, she was forced to leave school to work in a garment factory. This was before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and thus before OSHA and child labor laws. I invited that 11 year old girl to walk alongside me; I held her hand and told her that I was sorry for what had happened to her, that it wasn’t okay, and that she deserved better.

Because colonialism begets racism which is used to justify enslavement and genocide, which in turn begets industrialization and capitalism, which begets the monster that sends tween girls to their deaths in garment factory fires, until the people stand up and say no, which is the same monster that tries to build the world’s largest tar sands pipeline through the sacred waters of the Anishinaabe, until the people stand up and say no. I am speaking of the monster of unfettered greed and power concentrated in the hands of a small number of white men. We Water Protectors marched to the Headwaters of the Mississippi, telling that small number of white men that the people say “NO” to this pipeline, with our grandmothers at our sides and a cloud of dragonflies buzzing over our heads.

Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls wrote “the Mississippi’s mighty / but it starts in Minnesota / at a place that you could walk across / with five steps down.” It was to this place that the drummers led us and at this place that Grandmother Mary Lyons led a water prayer ceremony. Songs were sung and prayers offered in a language older than history , and a cup of water was blessed and shared around.  Grandmother Mary also blessed a pot of manoomin, the native wild rice endemic to the region, which has fed and nourished the Anishinaabe for millenia. This too was passed around for sharing. And then people spoke, local Anishinaabeg people like Winona LaDuke and others who live the frontline, and also white celebrities who had travelled from opposite corners of the country—Bill McKibben from Vermont and Jane Fonda from Los Angeles. Speakers talked of sacred water, of the manoomin that grows above the water and the fish that swim below, of the people and treaty rights, of oil spills and climate change, of lawsuits and environmental impact statements, and the need for President Joe Biden to stop this monster in its tracks once and for all. And all the while, clouds of dragonflies buzzed above our heads.

The second step in 12-step recovery programs is to surrender one’s self to a higher power. As we collectively move to recover from our addiction to fossil fuels, we are going to have to surrender to a power that is higher than us. For theists, that can take the form of God, and for the Anishinaabe and other indigenous people, it can take the form of Creator; every one of us, however, can turn ourselves over to the power of community, which is larger than the sum of its individuals. If we are to survive as a species, we need to turn ourselves over to something larger than ourselves, and if we lose sight of that, the dragonflies will visit to remind us.

Later that day, after we’d bathed in the sacred waters and were making our way back down south, we learned about the results of the action at the pump station, an Enbridge facility where hundreds of Water Protectors had locked themselves to equipment and machinery, a non-violent direct action that stopped the monster dead in its tracks for at least a little while, showing President Joe Biden that it could be done, and it should be done, and it is on him to make it permanent. A person who worked for the Department of Homeland Security had chosen to fly a helicopter low above the Water Protectors, kicking up clouds of dust and sand, a technique known as “sand-blasting”, inflicting pain upon the people below in an effort to disperse them. As a resident of Oregon, I am fully cognizant of the tactics employed by DHS—I saw them unleashed on my friends in Portland last summer. These are people who inflict pain on others with the push of a button.

I know President Joe Biden to be a good, decent human being. He is, after all, a fellow bereaved parent who has found healing by surrendering his life in service to something larger than himself. However, DHS is a federal agency under his purview, and thus the sandblasting happened on his watch, and he is responsible for it, and must make amends. 

Still, my thoughts turn to that helicopter pilot. 

Was their grandmother flying with them in the cockpit of that machine?

Was their grandmother at their side when they pushed the button to inflict pain on other humans?

Do they understand about the dragonflies?


Trish Weber is a white settler woman of Northern European descent who lives in Oregon on occupied Kalapuya territory. She serves as a Board Director for both Earthworks and Honor the Earth.