Indigo Girls and Line 3 activists host Protect the Water concert

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The Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, left-to-right) performed at the Protect the Water concert on June 28 in Aitkin County. (Photo by Jim Walsh/MinnPost.)

By Jim Walsh / MINNPost

Amy Ray spoke for many of the 100 or so Indigo Girls fans and human rights activists gathered on the shore of the Haha Wakpa (Mississippi) river in northern Minnesota on June 28th when she said, “This is the coolest thing we’ve ever done.”

Flanked by her fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, Ray was speaking from a microphone set up on a pontoon in the middle of the river – a “free speech” zone created by Water Protectors, who have set up camp and a small tent village, Water Protector Welcome Center, on the edge of Great River Road, which runs along the river just north of Palisade, Minnesota, in Aitkin County. The Protect the Water event was organized by Honor the Earth, the organization founded by environmental activist Winona LaDuke and the Indigo Girls 27 years ago.

“Winona said, ‘We’re gonna put you on a boat on the river. They can’t arrest you out there,’” said Ray at the outset of the Indigo Girls’ hourlong set, which included a rousing finale of their classic ode-to-hope “Closer to Fine,” for which fellow songwriters/musicians and Protect the Water performers David Huckfelt, Annie Humphrey and Keith Secola were paddled out for in a canoe, to soft applause from the crowd on the shore and the dancers/celebrants on the bobbing “Stop Line 3” docks anchored in the river.

On a sunny day where the backdrop of the super-DIY amphitheater was the riverbank and signs reading “Stop Line 3” and “Stop Flirting With Disaster,” and with the entire setting providing an organic scene that poetically lived up to the Dakota’s “The land where the water is so clear it meets the skies” designation, the LaDuke- and Water Protectors-led event was yet another creative way of opposing Enbridge, as they have been for the past seven years.

Recent wins against the likes of the Keystone pipeline have buoyed activists’ spirits in the face of Enbridge and its partners’ continued drilling and boring on ceded land per the 1855 treaty. But as the Star Tribune said in its concert announcement: “On June 14 the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the State of Minnesota’s approval of Calgary-based Enbridge’s Line 3 project.”

As has been the case for the last several years, both sides of the river and the Great River Road were dotted with pro-water and anti-Line 3 and -Enbridge signs. That evening with the sun high in the sky, the river waters underneath them and surrounded by concert-goers in canoes and kayaks and another 100 or so on the shore of the make-shift amphitheater, the Indigo Girls performed songs about family, love, heartbreak and protecting Mother Earth, including “Go,” which was inspired by Minnesota activist and writer Meridel Le Sueur’s “I Was Marching.”

They talked about motherhood and grief and love, and debuted a new Indigos song written for the Protect the Water occasion, a gospel singalong that came with a chorus of “Can’t cross the river today,” a coda of “Water is life and it’s well worth the fight,” and a hot-take verse that puts fire to the feet of the Public Utilities Commission, the President of the United States and the Governor of Minnesota:

“You can’t break those treaties today oh no
You can’t break those treaties today
We’re standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us and
You can’t break those treaties today
Where’s Biden when we need him
He promised, we believed him
Didn’t he learn anything from Standing Rock?
Hey there PUC regulate the corporate greed
Governor, won’t you do your job?”

Amiable, funny and relentless, LaDuke is fond of saying “we need to start doing smart things, not dumb things,” and points to renewable energy, hemp farming and an emphasis on taking care of the natural world over the fossil fuel system that continues to wreak havoc on the environment. LaDuke encouraged all gathered to be careful in the “Deep North” of Aitkin County and its outskirts, where many Enbridge protesters have been arrested of late, and warned all concerned to be on the lookout for police looking to make arrests.

To that end, the day’s musical highlights included Annie Humphrey’s powerful folk songs and screamed chants that echoed down the river canyon, David Huckfelt’s mesmerizing beat-ballads, and two renditions of Keith Secola’s classic “Indian Cars,” which beautifully and humorously-harrowingly details the travails of driving while Native in a police state, which this day was repurposed for Palisades and Line 3 country, inspiring chants of “We’re still here, stop line 3!” and “Frack you and all your friends, too!”

Early in the afternoon, the pre-concert mix playing over the p.a. and wafting out over the river was equally edifying and mood-setting, highlighted by plays of “No More Pipeline Blues” and the Indigenous Futurisms Mixtape.

The day’s program started with a prayer, a song of appreciation for LaDuke from activist/artist/writer Sharon Day, and then came the singularly beautiful concert on the river, which was highlighted by Secola’s loon-like Native American flute solos, a closing drum song, and several topical, thoughtful, heartfelt songs. When it was done, the Indigo Girls paddled off into the sunset and moonrise over the river, then they and most everybody climbed up the riverbank and adjourned for a feast across the Great River Road back at the Water Protector Welcome Center, with food courtesy of the Sioux Chef.

All in all, it was a memorable and meaningful day of music and activism – all of which was had, yes, for free (donations were and are accepted).