Water Language


In this installment of Atalka-Atalka, curator Thomas Boutoux talks with the artists Oscar Tuazon and Shanai Matteson about water, language, relationships, the work of artists and activists in movements to stop oil pipelines, and the importance of honoring Indigenous knowledge and leadership.

Thomas: When did the conversation between you two start? How did you become aware of each other’s practice and engagement with issues regarding water protection and land rights before the opposition to the construction of the Line 3 Pipeline in Minnesota that Canadian company Enbridge has been building?

Shanai: I think we were aware of each other’s work for a few years... We’ve crossed paths here and there. 

Oscar: We are among a lot of people who are trying to engage with these issues with the tools that we have. And as artists, this is what we have. I sometimes laugh about it, when I look at the kind of map making work that I’m trying to do currently. I’m doing a lot of mapping of this area, trying to understand it, but I’m such an amateur and my understanding is maybe unsophisticated, but that doesn’t stop me. I feel drawn to this and welcome to engage in it, with the tools I have.

Shanai: When I first learned about Line 3, I would look at maps. I’d go online and I’d try to find my way across the territory, using Google Earth views. I was living in Minneapolis, and would try to compare those maps to my memory and understanding of this place, having grown up here. I’d use the GIS data that was in the initial Enbridge pipeline proposals to find my way physically to the places the pipeline would be laid. So now I have all these memories of maps… Construction maps, maps that we also used during the movement, to monitor construction and prepare for resistance. Now, in this show, you’re working with maps, and what I’m creating is also a kind of map.

Oscar: You also traced part of the pipeline through a trip Shanai: Yes, I worked with another artist, Sara Pajunen, who is a composer and sound artist. She joined me on this trip. I rode my bike from the end of the pipeline, which is in Superior, Wisconsin, right on the shore of Lake Superior, and I followed it all the way to the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, stopping at all of the water crossings where the pipeline had not crossed the water yet. I was visiting each of the sites when they were preparing to drill. It was during the construction hiatus–they had to take a break from construction because of mud season. I think it’s really telling that the only thing that could really stop them for any significant period of time was mud, which is water and land mixed together. We visited all those sites during mud season, and Sara droned each of those and did sound recording,  putting her audio recording equipment into the river.

Thomas: And how long was the ride along? And so how long is the pipeline then?

Shanai: The ride ended up being about 420 miles by bike, the pipeline in Minnesota is 340 miles. I did it over about eight days, stopping along the way. And  I’m really glad I did that, because it was my first time experiencing the breadth of the environment the pipeline passes through. The experience is very seasonal, very specific to a point in time. So I saw all of the worksites when there were no workers, because they were all on hiatus. A number of the worksites were under water because it was springtime and it was flooded. We sat by the river on the worksite and Sara had the hydrophones in the water so we could listen to the river.

Oscar: That’s really a level of intimacy with that river and the land. One of the things that I have been trying to think about or understand is, like you say, that the landscape is really different seasonally. It’s really a patchwork of water and land always. Lakes and rivers and wetlands are all connected. And I’m tracing these maps wondering, ‘Where do you actually draw the line between water and land?’ It’s very time-specific and an area that might be completely flooded in the spring is then covered in vegetation in the Fall. I have been using these USGS geologic survey maps that are available from the government. I find myself absorbed in this question of the boundary and the border. Sometimes I can’t see: Is that really water or is that land? But that was my experience of being on the land too, you might be walking in an area that’s wooded and has trees, walking along and then in water up to your knees. It’s kind of impossible to tell where the line is.

Shanai: Yes! And it changes so much over time, especially here on the upper Mississippi. The river isn’t channelized like it is in the southern part of the United States. So it naturally moves, and more frequently than people realize. Where we live here, in Anishinaabewaki, we are in riverine forestland. And so part of the year, the area where we had our camp is actually under water. It just depends on the season. Last year we had a historic flood season, and had to pick up everything and move it. Then the river went down and we had a historic drought. Climate change is making these changes more extreme. Part of the conversation around the pipeline is how Enbridge received permits to pump a certain amount of water, to make the land dry enough to construct their line. They ended up getting a special water appropriation permit in the middle of the summer to increase pumping by 5 billion gallons. And they only paid $150 for that increased permit.

Thomas: And also, I’ve read that every evaluation they get wrong, such as the amount of water that they would have to pump. This is evidence of fear of something else Enbridge might have got wrong, such as risk of an oil spill for instance.

Shanai: Well, it goes back to the maps, because when they were creating a route for their new pipeline, they were looking at a computer screen, looking at maps. They were looking for the most direct route in terms of how much it was going to cost them in time and construction. They were not thinking about where the water is at different seasons, or what the conditions might be of that environment over time. They ended up spilling drilling fluid in over 20 frac-outs, and puncturing several aquifers. That water is under pressure underground, so when you poke a hole in the confining layer of the aquifer, water comes welling up. There are at least three of those aquifer breaches, some still flowing. They can’t close them. They don’t understand because they were never on the ground, never connected to place–except to put in their oil pipeline.

Thomas: Oscar, when was your first time there?

Oscar: It was in 2018, I went in late spring and then again in the late summer.

Shanai: I think at that same time, I was just starting to work with Winona and Honor the Earth. I’d been doing some work around water, using similar artistic frameworks as Water School–creating a space through art, for people to learn and connect, and to have these conversations.

Oscar: Yes, there was a definite sense of urgency at that time. I planted a tree when I first came, as an intention to come back. The second time was with a small group. We spent a few days at the camp, beginning to build a small building intended as a Water School library. It’s at the center of this camp that’s active in the training and supporting a community of activists. Winona herself is an incredible library of knowledge that she conveys in her own writings, and her way of explaining these issues is so straightforward and comprehensible and compelling. And that was what drew me there. Just in reading her work. And so that was the idea: to make a space for that particular kind of knowledge and scholarship. That was the idea. It draws on generations of Anishinaabe knowledge about water. To have a very focused library around the water here, and to continue the work.

Shanai: It was something that she was thinking of when she set up the space where I’m living now, next to the pipeline’s eastern Mississippi River crossing. Her vision for this space was really as a kind of water school and a welcome center for activists and water protectors who want to learn, want to connect with the land, build their relationships. And that’s what we did here over the course of the last year, and what we’re still doing.

Thomas: You mentioned that one of the politics of Enbridge was to create some kind of a divisive environment among the communities.

Shanai: Yes, I mean, it seems to me that’s one of the things about capitalism and these extraction projects, the social environment is often vulnerable, and that exposes the people and the place to exploitation. Enbridge put a lot of money into law enforcement here, in a place where people are poor, and funding for basic services is scarce. They put a lot of money into political organizations that are supportive of their project, and community organizations too, positioning themselves as members of the community here, even though they’re a huge corporation based in Canada. And so by the time the pipeline construction started, there was already a story built up around here about who water protectors are, and it was this idea that we were the ones coming from the outside, people who were not from here. They would publish the residency locations of anyone that they arrested, pulling over cars with out-of-state plates and anti-pipeline stickers. But at the same time, that whole story is also built on a legacy of colonial violence and erasure of Indigenous people who belong here. Who are still here. So it’s important how they play those things against each other. All of it creates an environment where people will support a corporation putting in a dangerous oil pipeline without any benefit to the l­ong-term health of the community.

Thomas: I did not understand that it went as far as making up the narratives and stories.

Shanai: There’s been some good stuff written by Alleen Brown at The Intercept about this idea of here. So, you know, at Standing Rock–they had paid operatives, like TigerSwan, people who were on the ground posing as activists, infiltrating the movement, working for the pipeline company. Enbridge was barred specifically in their permits from doing that. And instead, Enbridge set-up an escrow account to pay for police. So they thought they were getting around this permit stipulation barring counterinsurgency tactics, but they just created a different one that had infiltrated the public agencies and governing bodies, by funding and becoming one in the same with local and State law enforcement. Those law enforcement officers live here, they are our government, and our neighbors. Aitkin County police, they know who I am because I also live here. They don’t need to hire an operative to come in and tell stories, local police - who are now working for Enbridge - just call up my neighbors. The Sheriff called my family, told stories about me - how we was worried what a counterinsurgency looks like about the people around me. And it was deliberately to try to reduce the support for resistance.

Oscar: The history of infiltration, it goes back, through COINTELPRO and the beginnings of a wider Indigenous-led ecological activism. Within these activist spaces people are very guarded and very cautious because, for example, it was really an issue at Standing Rock. And there’s always this question: Who can be trusted? And that’s been the point of that kind of infiltration. To create paranoia and distrust within people who could be working together. So it’s very challenging. I admire the care and vigilance within these environments and ways that people have for vouching for one another. But it’s just very challenging working that way.

Shanai: Yeah, there have been a lot of conversations over the last year around security culture. Some of the camps and communities had very strict security protocols, exactly for these reasons. Other spaces were much more open. We were very public-facing because we had to be. That made things difficult in some ways. And now, I’m facing criminal charges for allegedly conspiring, aiding and abetting other activists, based on photographs and videos posted on Facebook.

Thomas: And so you’re in these structures. This library that is the water library that you’re setting up, you also record? There’s also oral history being transcribed? Or is it mostly, existing publications that you gathered or is it also very lively through zine activity and collecting new narratives?

Oscar: It’s an ongoing effort, still in a nascent stage. But through Winona’s work there is a network of connections and part of it is historical. It goes through the early days of the American Indian Movement and the Little Red Schoolhouse, which was started by members of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis. Edward Benton Banai, one of the organizers of that, was working in language revitalization and language education for young students. So there is a body of literature through that and of course Winona is publishing a lot herself. And then through the Lodge, oral history is being kind of broadcast and kind of used to give a real history and a legal basis to these spaces. Can you talk about that a little bit Shanai?

Shanai: Yes, the Ceremonial Lodge and all the documentation online about it, this is now a historical site and a legal issue. Construction started on the pipeline around the 1st of December of 2020. They started to clearcut toward the Mississippi River and then they discovered a Midewin Lodge that had been built by Winona and Tania Aubid, who are both Midewin lodge members. And this happened to be in the pathway of the pipeline, so they had to stop construction. They couldn’t continue cutting down the trees and get all the way to the river because this lodge is protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, as well as the treaties that guarantee the right to hunt, fish, gather and practice cultural lifeways in ceded territory. This became a point of dispute because Aitkin County and the State of Minnesota do not at this time respect those Federal treaty rights and responsibilities, which are the supreme law of the land. And so that’s where the court cases are now. White Earth Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer established what was a Stop Order on construction in that area based on those treaty laws, extending from the Lodge 300 feet in every direction. And this was something that I thought was really powerful, that the inherent rights of Anishinaabe people to pray in that lodge meant that they would need to be able to do that prayer without disturbance, it meant that they shouldn’t be able to see construction workers. They shouldn’t feel the earth shaking because of the drill, which is less than 300 feet beneath the earth. They shouldn’t see drones flying over and surveilling. And so that Stop work order was actually a protection around that lodge. And that very birthright and cultural or spiritual practice became the basis for a treaty stand. Winona and Tania invited guests into their territory, put camp around the lodge, and then when Enbridge came to drill, there was a standoff with police. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources and Aitkin County law enforcement escorted Enbridge into that prayerful space in violation of the treaties and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and really in violation of the human rights of Anishinaabe people. And so all of that is documented on livestream video, and in legal documents and writings by activists. The work that I’m creating for this show touches on some of that, because I am still working to understand what this means for me and for my presence here, and I am working through those questions, again, with the tools I have, which is art. The 1855 Treaty Authority ended up writing a series of memos to law enforcement, reminding them that they were in violation of these laws and the treaties. Law enforcement said, “Oh, this is just a stall tactic. You built this lodge right here because you meant to stop the pipeline.” And Winona explained to them that Anishinaabe culture is not just in the past. It’s not just pot shards in the dirt. This is living people in a living culture. And so her being able to construct a prayer lodge in the way that she was taught, and the way that it’s been done for millennia – that it’s in the path of the pipeline? The pipeline wasn’t there when she built the lodge, and she built the lodge in order to pray, which is why she was called to that area… To pray, to stop the pipeline. It’s her spiritual responsibility to Earth, to Creator, to do those things. To me this was a really, really powerful cultural action. And to me as an artist, it was really something that I saw as inspiration. Why and how do we create in resistance, and what is the potential of those acts of culture and creativity to shape politics, law, and life in our places?

Oscar: You said it so well Shanai and the way that it was broadcast in present time through social media was really powerful as an educational pedagogical moment for the whole movement. But also, I think, for the settler communities who live in these areas or who are connected to these areas don’t have a lot of understanding of treaty law or the treaty territories or the real legal underpinnings of the land. And so that was a generous moment of displaying what the Treaty Authority is and also of the spiritual continuance of these practices and the underlying meaning and value of those places. And to be able to see that and follow that through social media was also an idea of publishing, knowledge transmission to new generations.

Shanai: Yes, I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to witness this first hand, and to be part of it. And that prayer Lodge still stands. It’s still there. The stand of trees around it was protected. They never did clearcut all the way to the river on this side and people still visit. Winona and Tania still pray and they still invite others to come and experience that space and understand as much as they can about what it means. And for me, that was profound too, my understanding of what it means to be a treaty partner and host for others – seeing these women stop a construction bulldozer, actually walk the bulldozer out of the woods into the road. Being in camp during that treaty stand. Experiencing it with my body, supporting the defense of that space. So much of this struggle became about the negotiation of space and language around moving water.

Thomas: Now the pipeline construction is finished?

Shanai: It’s done. Yes, the pipeline is done. The pipeline… Oil is flowing through it. They did drill under the lodge in violation of all of those orders. And a group of us were there – we slept there while it was happening. And that was a really traumatic experience for a lot of people, just to be there as that was happening. And many are still fighting in court about ways they took a stand. I have a jury trial in July. Attempts to hold Enbridge responsible for the violations that they made during the construction process have been largely ignored.

Thomas: Can we talk about the work you are preparing for the exhibition?

Shanai: I’m making fabric pieces, five pieces – they are depictions of this space I’ve talked about here, how it was negotiated and how it changed, a celebration of life and resistance. I think of them as story maps, a way of picturing a landscape that makes sense to me, where those different pieces are layered or stitched together. I use relief printing to show plant life, and material that comes from the construction site – this high visibility orange fabric that’s on the construction workers and flags – as well as some patterns and ribbons that recall for me strong Indigenous women who lead this resistance movement.

Thomas: The handmade aspect is really key, You were telling us about how bodies incorporate everything that has happened there. And of course, to print, has also to be a craft kind of publication. I guess this is what makes sense is to have the press right there and not to send files, wherever and get them back in the form of a fully made industrial publication. Can you talk a little bit about that, about this and the importance of making, because it is first and foremost an investment and struggle to keep everything, you know, women and men made.

Shanai: I think for me, being able to create with my hands is really healing, and the slowness of it also gives me space to think. So much happened over the last year and a half that made it impossible for me to take that time to create. Being able to spend really deliberate time reflecting on my experience in the ways that I know how, and the ways that feel good to me, that’s what making work is. And that’s what making a life is too. I want to be able to offer that experience to others, specifically other activists and artists who’ve spent time here or in these movements. It is just incredible to me that hundreds and really thousands of people came here last year to stand with the water protectors. I want to be able to invite people to come back and to spend some time with the water, to see the land in different seasons, and to be able to make something from that. We have some studio spaces, and we have lodging, two bunkhouses where people can stay. I think that all extends from Winona’s vision, or where Winona’s vision meets the vision of myself and others who came here to take part in the struggle. We recently purchased a Risograph printer and we have it here now. And so, thinking about water school and the future of libraries, we will be able to publish things here. I would like artists and activists to be able to come and spend some time here and then be able to make their own publications. Right here.

Oscar: Yes, and looking beyond the horizon of the pipeline, what’s beyond is actually a really vibrant sense of community and connection to this place, that is just incredibly beautiful. It’s an amazing space of Nature and land and water and the connections go beyond the pipeline, those connections are cultural. In a broad sense, that specific community there is a beacon, a powerful example of what rural culture is capable of. You know, I think that a lot of times advanced culture is cast as a strictly urban phenomenon that happens in big cities and my experience there in rural Minnesota is that a lot of really engaged activism and adventurous art-making is happening and continues there. The idea of continuity, and continuance, is important within the context of socially engaged art practice. For me, it is liberating to know that what I am doing is just one small part of a larger movement. I do the best I can with the tools I have available, but I try not to be burdened with an unrealistic idea that I can produce immediate results or solve something on my own. Some of my works for the show are windows, functional prototype windows for Winona’s Water School. I try to stay pragmatic, and I embrace a utilitarian idea of sculpture. I try to think how I can be useful.

Thomas: The alliances, between non-Natives like you two are, and Native people, this is maybe something that must be key to this continuation. We understand how Winona has been fundamental to your understanding and your work. I imagine she will also be very present in the exhibition.

Shanai: I think those need a lot more conversation because it seems like there is an evolving way that non-Indigenous people, and specifically settler-descendants, are finding their way to this land-based activism as a means of repairing the land. We have some farm projects to create more of a regenerative culture less dependent on extraction, to live in more of a right relationship with this place. But also really need to be honest about what brings us here. My relationship to this land is very different than Tania Aubid’s is, in important ways. We both grew up in so-called Aitkin County, but she’s here as a survivor of genocide. And I’m here as a descendant of people who aided in that genocide, violently displacing her people from specific parts of this land, because of course this is still Indigenous land, and she and others are still ere. But settler-colonial culture dominates the legal system, which is still denying people their rights to practice their religious freedoms and lifeways here, to access their lands. All of that has to be in conversation about what we’re doing when we create culture and activist spaces and movements together. I think that’s really where I am hoping to focus my own activism work and my art in the next year, and probably for the rest of my life. Because this isn’t an easy thing. It isn’t quick. And I’m committed to staying here. I mean, it may not always be right here, I am here at the invitation of Indigenous women like Winona, but I want to stay in this area and continue that cultural work – passing it on to my children too.

Oscar: The lessons of Indigenous ecology are really essential right now to maintaining health of our environment, whether that’s in Minnesota, or in San Sebastian. The deep generational knowledge of how water moves underground is something that science is catching up to now. And in terms of forest ecosystems, how healthy forests function. Western science has far to go to just understand some of the basic precepts that Indigenous people have been talking about for a long, long time. So in contrast to thinking about global systems and global economies, we are at a point where it becomes necessary to reinvest in local knowledge. That, to me, is the core understanding: Water connects us all, and we belong to the water where we live. It could be an essential part of our education and our sense of belonging in the world to get to know the water we drink. Shanai, your public artwork Water Bar demonstrates this in a really profound way. You only serve water. And so people are encouraged to experience a place through tasting it. It is simultaneously essential and so ethereal. That place-based knowledge is there. We have to be conscious of how that knowledge gets distributed. Because there’s also a kind of extractivism, and extractive practices include knowledge extraction. If ecosystems are going to be actually restored, it can’t be at the expense of local knowledge.

Shanai: A capitalist or colonialist mindset can permeate people, their understandings, even the culture of activism can become extractive or appropriative. And that’s something that is talked about a lot, but not enough. I think I try to be very conscious of that, and that means always reflecting on what frameworks I’m working through or seeing through. It’s really about challenging myself and others around me to not continue in those ways that are extractive or exploitative, or that erase the contributions and leadership of Indigenous people. I also have to have respect for the fact that everything is not for me. There’s a lot of knowledge and practice that’s kept within Native communities, and that should be honored and respected, those ways of doing things, protocols. And there’s a history of violence and theft that underscores why that is so important. But there’s always work to do. The word belonging is strange, to be longing… All of us have a really deep connection to land and water if we can access that longing and work with it. We don’t need to appropriate another culture in order to honor it, and find our own connection. Language is a really important part of that. Just like you said, Oscar, Indigenous ecologies are really vital for the future health of this planet, the people and the land. And a lot of those lessons are embedded in language, so supporting Indigenous language revitalization in the ways that I can is one part of this. Even the ways that we do that in our day to day lives. I’ve been meaning to take Anishinaabe language classes and I finally will this year, joining a language table that everyone is invited to join. I want to figure out how we can incorporate Anishinaabe language into more of the work we’re doing here in the land.

Oscar: That’s amazing. I would even go as far as to say that it’s necessary to do this work in the original language. I’m a lifelong Lushootseed language learner. The levels of knowledge are so embedded within the language itself and it’s something you can’t just translate word for word. There are worldviews embedded within language. The way that any language makes connections within itself is intuitive and can describe a landscape or a cosmology or a world. We can enter into that way of thinking and speaking and listening to the natural world, because it’s also literary, and there is sound and music and language that can describe a place. Thomas: We have spoken about the current stakes of the struggle now that the pipeline is fully functional. But there’s even more mining going on there, Nickel mining for Tesla for instance.

Shanai: Well yes, they have not gotten their permit yet, but that’s another struggle we are facing now, a new sulfide ore mine – nickel, purportedly for Tesla batteries. They’re going to be trying to get their permits next year. They’re doing exploratory drilling right now. They have drills going, 24/7, and they’re working on their proposals and maps. It’s in the Mississippi River watershed right next to a number of the best ricing lakes in this region. Sandy Lake, Rice Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the East Lake community where Tania is from are all right next to this proposed mine. I’m working with Honor the Earth as a cultural organizer, and the work I’m doing is really about creating the networks and trying to do some cultural work now, so that when we’re at the point where they’re receiving their permits, we have information to support legal cases and hopefully a cohesive movement on the ground that can support Indigenous-led resistance. Thomas: Here in Europe, because Europe is so dependent on Russian gas and oil, this is a big issue right now. What are the repercussions of the war in Ukraine in the U.S., which is less dependent on gas and oil coming from Russia. Shanai: Well, the Biden Administration has signaled through executive orders that they will authorize what is called the Defense Production Act. It basically allows for money from the Federal government to go toward what they call green energy, which includes new domestic mining and other critical minerals development. And so they’ve listed this mine here in the 1855 treaty territory as one of the projects they might support. I think there is going to be lots of shifts happening politically. And it feels very much like the Line 3 struggle all over again, except this time the Biden Administration and the Democrats and some of the people who would have been allies in the environmental movement see this mine as a green mine, which is a lot of greenwashing. It’s a big shift that’s happening. And, you know, there are three proposed sulfide mines here in Minnesota. We have not had this type of mining in Minnesota before, which causes acid mine drainage because the minerals being extracted are contained in a sulfur-bearing rock. When you expose that to water and oxygen, it creates acid. All of these mines are proposed for wetlands. You have a lot of water here and it’s a recipe for environmental disaster. There has been some strong opposition to mines like this near the protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a popular recreation site, but this mine in Aitkin County, in a place that has fewer people protecting it. I’ve heard people say this gets back to the idea of swamps and mud and muddy places. To a lot of people, it’s just a big swamp and there’s not much knowledge about what’s actually here and who’s actually here. So the cultural work we’re doing is really vital, to raise the visibility of the Indigenous communities here, of water and treaty rights, and of what a healthy resistance looks and feels like.

This previously unpublished poem was -written following the ‘Mayday for Mother Earth -Paddle’ at Welcome Water Protectors Camp in May of 2021. It was read aloud at an event in -Minneapolis where author Shanai Matteson -encouraged attendees to sign on to a letter asking Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to drop the charges against all Water Protectors.


We are doing what we can 

Shanai Matteson



My six-year-old daughter is restless

Holds a handful of tobacco given to her

by a grandmother

To the wind and trees that surround her,

as if she is their translator

My daughter says,

This praying would be easier

if we’d brought a fire to talk to.


That night I dream we’re nesting

in the elbow of a Birch that still grows

Above the Mississippi River crossing

just clear of the clearcut

Our eyes flit between the movements

of water and earth-moving machines

Men in fluorescent vests

have occupied the worksite

They collect branches into large piles,

and light the slash each night at sunset

Until there are no limbs left to burn 


they go



are loyal to their forests

Others flee when fires come,

but they dive beneath the surface

Collecting rivers in their tiny beaks

to bring back to the trees with a message 

We are doing what we can


We are doing what we can,

suspended for a time between worlds

Our tender skin emerging

from winter into a warming climate


Will you remember

where you are?


I will remember 

feeling small and helpless

The sound of machines

cutting through the darkness


But if a Hummingbird

can halt a pipeline

Then we also

have a purpose


Stay restless

Refuse to go

Build small fires,

and learn what it means

to tend


Tell the wind and the trees

We are

people healing land

We are

land healing people

This essay was originally published by MN -Artists on 10/26/21 as part of a series on sleep edited by artist Katya Oicherman. MN Artists is an online platform of the Walker Art Center that supports Minnesota’s local -artist -community by nurturing arts writing and -relationship building. River Bed was written just after the Line 3 oil pipeline was completed in the fall of 2022.


River Bed

Shanai Matteson



“I didn’t come here to fall in love…”

That’s what they said as they were preparing to go.

“…I came here to stop a pipeline.”


Sitting on a dock suspended over dry land, a dock we built together in springtime, we admit to each other that we cannot stop a pipeline, but we are, after everything, falling in love. 


We call it a riverbed, that space between the edges of water. 

All the land a river flows over. 

A constantly changing topography hidden by movements.


The river had just overflowed its banks when they -arrived, widening the riverbed. A -small group of us walked to meet the water, then spent hours hopping from one downed tree to another, rescuing boats that had come -unhitched and other debris snagged against branches.


That night and for days after we pitched tents on -narrow slivers of high ground across the river bottoms, temporary islands we gave -temporary names:

Mud Sucking Blues Island.

Island of Lost Keys.

Only Sometimes Island.

We slept together on that ancient riverbed.

We slept inside that flood. 


“You didn’t come here to fall in love, but that’s exactly why I’m here.”

I tried to explain the look in my eyes, which I’d just been told was like that spring flood, muddy and fast. 

“I came here to fall in love with this place…to learn its language.”


In the water, watching the pipeline workers watching us trespass. Trespassing boundaries we refuse to acknowledge, since all borders imply the violence of their enforcement. 

Feeling their eyes on our bare skin and the -riverbed soft beneath our feet, we ask,

“Do you even know where you are?”


“Do you know what you came here for?”


What brought you here?



A gut feeling.

A post on Facebook.

Urgency to protect what’s left.

What did you find? 

A river rising and falling.

A movement winding and widening.

Living beings some know as relatives.

What found you?

River blanketed with ice.

Ice out, river open.

Mud season, everything is river.

Dry spell, river disappearing


In just a few months the water had receded 

more than 10 feet, exposing the bottom of the river—narrowing the bed.

Mussels gasped in the heat of the sun.

Clay dried and cracked.

Arrowroot withered.

It was a drought they called historic, because saying something is historic sounds better than saying that it’s doomed.


Through it all, the pipeline company kept -pumping water from the river and moving it in large tanker trucks. Using the river to drill through the river. 

We were there to try to stop them, but we -weren’t able to stop them.

The sound of trucks all day and night became part of our dreamscape.


At night, by the river, we gathered around the fire and told our stories. 

We looked into each other’s eyes and -wondered how we ever found each other in that darkness, and how much time we had left together, here?

During the day we gathered around the water, and watched as it changed. 

The river was a bed to cool our bodies, to rest, to let loose our tears, to be held buoyant amid violence and chaos, to make commitments and to bare our souls. 


Just out of view around a bend in the river: 

Trees were cut down, trenches dug, pipe -buried. 

Out of view, but we could hear and feel it.


For a year police gathered. 

People stood in defiance.

Some were kettled and arrested immediately,

others followed and harassed for months.


Before any of this happened, I’d had a dream about that landscape.


I dreamt of my grandmothers: 

One of them in the garden on her family’s homestead, which was just down the road from where the pipeline crossed the Mississippi; The other on the shore of Lake Superior, which is where this pipeline ends. 

Both seemed to be saying to me, “Touch this earth, feel this water.”

They seemed to be asking, “Where are you?”

The dream was about making a place together, but I didn’t know it then.

The dream was about falling in love with a -place, and with people, knowing this meant -being moved to join in a fight to protect them.


In the dream, there were people with me. I’d been looking for them in darkness.

It wasn’t just about stopping a pipeline. 

It was also about unsettling ourselves.


“To stop a pipeline, you have to find out where it begins.”

All year we searched inward, for any sign of that same greed, selfishness, or desire to -consume and control. 

We slept by the river on those nights when they were drilling.

I remember because it wasn’t really sleep, but a kind of waking dream. 

I could feel the vibration of the drill in the ground beneath me, and in my body.

Some woke up angry and confused, 

others went numb from the pain. 


I was stuck somewhere in between. 


One of those nights, police officers came in without turning on their flashlights.

It was so dark we could barely see them, but we could hear them walking around our --camp—could see through the narrow openings in our tents the glint of their cell phone screens as they moved between the trees.

In that moment every muscle in my body seized up, as if my body was trying to close itself or fold me

into a smaller being—one that could burrow into the muddy bottom.


I imagined them grabbing someone and pulling her away, or “accidentally” discharging a weapon into a tent where women slept.

That didn’t happen, but police took pictures and then left without saying a word.

A few nights later, when one of the people who was watching over our camp came around to check on us as we slept, I got startled and sat straight up in bed.

I was not awake, but not exactly asleep.

I was gasping for air, unable to breathe.

He stood outside my tent, shining in with a -flashlight. 


I’d been dreaming an underwater dream. It wasn’t unpleasant. The water was warm and soft. I clung to a friend’s body as they stood in the current, but woke to a panicked voice 


“It’s me! It’s just me! I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to scare you.”


Fear flows through us, and between, moving over our skin like that river over riverbed. -These moments dredge up memories from our deeps. 

Memories of water and violence. 

Memories of land and the violence of -extraction.

Like studying core samples, we examine the layers. We try our best to hold onto each other in a pulling current.


It’s a shame we’ve confined sex to the -bedroom, and made it seem like a singular act, for our pleasure alone.

That summer, we had sex in the riverbed, with our toes and heals digging into the mud.

We did it standing up in the water, and lying in the sun on the water’s temporary edge.

We made love facing the police, and outside the jail. 

(Inside too.)

Sleeping on the courthouse lawn. Waiting for those we love to be released.

And we made love in the kitchen, nourishing each other. Reproducing a resistance. Hollering out to the woods and everyone in them that there was something to share.


We shared what we made.


After the pipeline went through, people -started leaving.

It was hard to be in a place that had been -violated like that, or to be with people who had given so much of themselves, and were flooded

with grief.

People we’d slept with.

People we loved.


Some stayed a little while longer. 

We walked the paths we’d been making all -summer with our movements, now covered in fallen leaves—and found evidence of our love and our heartbreak everywhere. 

They said the oil had been turned on,

but we didn’t really believe it. 


A helicopter flew over, monitoring the land from the air—confident they’d won.

We gave them the middle finger,

then made love on the bare ground.


“What do you think they will remember?”

They ask, stacking wood for the winter, though they don’t intend to stay.


Stacking wood for the winter, though they don’t know how to leave.

“The workers. Your children… All the ones who are still here.”


I hope whoever and wherever they are, they will remember at least this:

We made love.

We never fell.

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