On the shore of Lake Superior, as wildfire spread just to the north and drought enveloped the state of Minnesota, a coalition of artists, poets and Indigenous leaders joined together to celebrate water as a fundamental resource, and to protest Enbridge’s Line 3.
The Water Is Life Festival took place on Wednesday, August 18 in Duluth after only three weeks of planning and preparation. Organized to encourage resistance to the new tar sands oil pipeline currently snaking its way through the waterways and Anishinaabe lands of northern Minnesota, recent occurrences lent a sense of urgency to the event.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revealed days before the Water Is Life Festival that Enbridge had spilled drilling fluid at least 28 times between June 8 and August 5. Those spills totalled over 10,000 gallons and sullied the Mississippi, Willow and Snake rivers, among many others.
Concerns over related human-trafficking have also swelled, especially after arrests on June 25 and 26 implicated two Enbridge employees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s devastating August report and a milestone 800th arrest of Line 3 protestors were also fresh in participant’s minds at the Water Is Life Festival. Included in those arrests was the event’s host and Honor the Earth founder, Winona LaDuke. She recently spent 3 days in prison for participating in a protest near Park Rapids on the Shell river.
LaDuke’s Honor the Earth had critical assistance in planning the Water Is Life Festival from David Huckfelt, a Minneapolis-based musician and activist who spent much of the summer using every opportunity to raise awareness for the cause.
In the lead-up to the Water Is Life Festival, Huckfelt reflected on the festival’s goals: “The show is intentionally geared to any and every human being who wants to protect our water for generations to come. The urgency forced by Enbridge’s brutish haste to ram this pipeline across Native lands, wild rice beds, under and across rivers, meant that we needed to pick a date to do this right now.
“We’re hoping with three weeks’ notice and such a pressing, vital cause, folks from all over the country will be able to find their way to Lake Superior for this benefit. Most of our artists are not touring heavily right now, if at all. Without a doubt, this line-up of supporters and bands is unprecedented as a coalition.”
Huckfelt’s hopes came to fruition. The Water Is Life Festival grounds filled with a receptive, impassioned audience, and every performer used their platform to reflect on why they were there.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon explained his motivations early in his set: “For me, this whole thing started out as an expression of being alive. You know the one thing we need to be alive? Water. And that’s why we’re here.”
It was Bon Iver’s first show since March of 2020, and without a tour on the horizon, the group’s set at the Water Is Life Festival was one of the event’s biggest draws.
Bon Iver’s appearance was bolstered by a host of impressive collaborators. Navajo rocker Corey Medina, Ojibwe songwriters Annie Humphrey and Keith Secola, folk-singer Larry Long, Lissie, Huckfelt and Minneapolis indie-rockers Hippo Campus contributed sets to a rapt audience. At the Water Is Life Festival, there was also strong local support from Duluth musicians Alan Sparhawk (Low), Charlie Parr and Superior Siren.
In a particularly pleasant surprise, Nashville-based Adia Victoria was a late addition to the Water Is Life Festival bill. Fresh off her acclaimed appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, where she performed with Chaka Khan and Lucy Dacus, among others, Victoria captivated the crowd with her new single “Magnolia Blues.”
Speeches from protestors, politicians and tribal leaders punctuated each performance, recentering the festival’s momentum. At the end of the night, the Water Is Life Festival attendees were reminded that their work was far from over. Future marches needed support, and a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol quickly approached.
Vernon emphasized the need for future action as he finished his set: “This is part of the process, lifting people up and coming together. But something needs to happen tomorrow too, and I hope we all remember that.”
Shortly after the Water Is Life Festival, Huckfelt expressed his thanks to all who participated, “Lake Superior couldn’t hold all the gratitude I feel for everyone who came together to answer the emergency call to protect our water and stop Line 3. I’ve never witnessed a mightier spirit. As Keith Secola said during “NDN Cars,” ‘Welcome to the Resistance’.”
Andy Witchger (@andywitchger) works as a naturalist at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota. You can find his previous work in MPR, Far Out Magazine, Bring Me The News, Rolling Stone and on his mom’s refrigerator.