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PARK RAPIDS, MINN. - Not long ago, protesters demonstrated outside the former Carnegie library here that served as the temporary regional office for Enbridge, the Canadian multi-national company that was building a 1,097-mile oil pipeline through Minnesota.

The protesters, who called themselves water protectors, contended the pipeline endangered wetlands and violated Indian treaties. In the end, Enbridge won; the Line 3 pipeline was built, the company packed up and sold the building.

But the old library didn't stay vacant for long. Last week, the Giiwedinong Treaty Rights and Culture Museum opened there — a Native-owned museum driving home the message that the struggle for Native rights continues on.

"We get to honor our history and culture," said Winona LaDuke, the longtime Native activist and a prime mover behind Giiwedinong (Gi-WAY-din-ong), meaning "to the north" in Ojibwe. "This is our land. A lot of people don't know the history."

The museum focuses on the treaties that Anishinaabe tribes struck with the federal government and other Indigenous nations, said Don Wedll, retired natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a museum board member. Historical maps and timelines on display outline the treaties.

"It was Winona's idea," Wedll said. "She felt the Carnegie library should remain as something for the public good."

The project initially was funded by Honor the Earth, a Native environmental group that LaDuke headed until recently but which is no longer connected to the project, and Akiing, a nonprofit Anishinaabe community development organization. Project leaders acquired the building from a title company.

The museum features paintings by Rabbett Strickland of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, an exhibit about the struggle to stop Enbridge from building Line 3, and another exhibit on the 2014-17 controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Frank Smoot, director of the Chippewa Area History Center in Chippewa Falls, Wis., helped curate the displays.

Future exhibits are planned on Standing Bear — the Ponca chief who successfully argued in federal court for civil rights for Native Americans — as well as displays on wild rice, northern ecology, horse culture and the American Indian Movement (AIM), according to LaDuke.

Rita Walaszek Arndt, program and outreach manager for Native American initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, said she's excited by the museum because of its focus on the history of treaty rights. "That is a different approach when we are talking about Native culture and history," she said.

It would be great, she added, if the museum could display some of the Historical Society's extensive Native American collection in the future.

"It's a great opportunity," Arndt said. "It's rare to have a museum like this run by Indigenous staff."

Ross Karvonen, a disabled veteran and skilled construction worker, volunteered 1,500 hours of time to repair the library's ceiling, walls and floors and install the exhibits. Karvonen, who is white, said he began to grasp the victimization of Native Americans during conversations he had with an Apache in his unit when he was a Marine stationed in Iraq in 2003.

"It's about the treaty rights the U.S. government have broken time after time," says Karvonen.

Don Wedll and Winona LaDuke welcomed guests to the opening Thursday of the Giiwedinong Treaty Rights and Culture Museum in Park Rapids, Minn.
Don Wedll and Winona LaDuke welcomed guests to the opening Thursday of the Giiwedinong Treaty Rights and Culture Museum in Park Rapids, Minn.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Enbridge controversy

Travis Zimmerman, a museum board member and site manager of the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, which is operated by the Historical Society, noted the irony of Giiwedinong's location in a facility once used by Enbridge. He recalled occupations by AIM activists at Fort Snelling's Naval Air Station in 1970, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.

"Now we get to occupy the building of the oppressor, and nobody can remove us," he said.

Enbridge does not see itself as the oppressor. Asked what the company thought about a treaty rights museum opening in its former Park Rapids office, company spokesperson Judi Kellner said in a statement: "Enbridge supports treaty rights. ... Line 3RP does not impede the exercise of, nor violate treaty rights."

She said 30 tribes took part in the Line 3 pipeline project consultation process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Enbridge spent more than $450 million with Native-owned businesses and on employment of Native American workers on Line 3 replacement in Minnesota," she said.

Kellner also cited a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that found the state's Public Utilities Commission had "reasonably selected a route for the replacement pipeline based upon respect for tribal sovereignty, while minimizing environmental impacts."

LaDuke responded: "Enbridge's support of Native people would do better creating pipes for water and sewer systems than oil."

Tami Hensel, director of the Hubbard County Historical Museum a few blocks from the Giiwedinong museum in Park Rapids, said she has known LaDuke for more than 20 years.

"She is a force to be reckoned with," Hensel said. "This is a woman who knows her mind and knows how to get things done. So I expect the museum to be very successful."

'Honor the treaties'

LaDuke, who lives on the White Earth Reservation and was a Green Party candidate for vice president in 1996 and 2000, has been in the news for other reasons this year.

In March, she resigned as executive director of Honor the Earth, which she helped found 30 years ago, after the organization lost a sexual harassment case. A Becker County jury awarded a former employee $750,000 for lost wages and emotional distress after she was sexually harassed by a co-worker.

LaDuke apologized and said she took personal responsibility for failing to appropriately handle the victim's complaints, and posted a lengthy note of regret on her personal Facebook page. She said Honor the Earth had been consumed with fighting the Enbridge pipeline, but added that wasn't an excuse.

Then in a separate case last month, a district court judge threw out criminal charges in Aitkin County against three Native American women — including LaDuke — for their role in a nonviolent protest against the Enbridge pipeline in 2021. Judge Leslie Metzen said the women were exercising their right to free speech and that criminalizing their behavior "would be the crime."

Frank Bibeau, a treaty rights attorney who chairs Akiing, the organization funding the museum, said Giiwedinong will help Native Americans "understand their rights because that's where the real power is." People generally don't grasp that treaties gave Native Americans constitutionally protected property rights, he said, "to use all the resources of the land in perpetuity, including the rights to hunting, fishing and gathering."

During cold winter months two years ago, protesters held a large banner outside the Carnegie library that read "Honor the treaties." They danced the macarena to stay warm and projected light shows on the side of the building, making their case against the pipeline.

Today, there's a large mural on one side of the library that reads "Water is sacred." It was designed by Isaac Murdoch, an Anishinaabe artist from Canada, and painted by Brian Dow, a Red Lake Reservation artist.

There's humor there, too. A parking sign next to the library says: "Reserved: Water Protector Parking." A second sign reads: "Reserved: Norwegians Who Like Natives Parking."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Enbridge, the Canadian multi-national company, left Park Rapids, Minn., after building the Line 3 pipeline through Minnesota. The company has a maintenance facility with offices near Park Rapids Municipal Airport and a pumping station in Two Inlets, about 14 miles northwest of Park Rapids. A previous version also gave an incorrect location for the Chippewa County Historical Society, a branch of the Chippewa Area History Center. It's based in Chippewa Falls, Wis.