‘You are increasingly at risk’: Tara Houska and the sacrifice of being on the front lines of resistance

Pouring all of your efforts into a front-line resistance comes at a cost, physically and mentally.

For the past five years, it’s the life Tara Houska, has been living.

“The cost mentally, of seeing trauma and experiencing trauma,” hurts a lot says Houska.

It didn’t start out that way for Houska, who is from Couchiching First Nation in northern Ontario. She was born and raised on the other side of the bridge in International Falls, Minnesota.

Houska attended the University of Minnesota and earned a law degree.

“I was working for a lot of different tribes as a private practice lawyer and I had an intern at president Obama’s administration and I saw a process that was so paternalistic,” says Houska on the latest episode of Face to Face.

“It had all of these pieces to it that were just not at all in recognition of sovereignty. It was really slow working and slow-moving and understaffed and underfunded and a lot of people were really tired with trying to do their best with very little.”

Houska would also go on to work as a Native American advisor to Bernie Sanders during his 2016 campaign. That presidential run came to a close around the same time a group of youth from Standing Rock helped launch a movement not seen in generations.

Houska felt those fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline were not only going to take a stand but were physically going to stand in the way of the so-called black snake.

Houska answered that call and hasn’t looked back.

In 2018, when Canadian oil giant Enbridge received approval for its Line 3 project, Houska founded the Giniw Collective, an “Indigenous women, 2-Spirit led resistance to protect the earth.”

In Canada, there was very little resistance to the project which is a replacement pipeline that runs from Edmonton, 1,600 km to Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, there have been nearly 1,000 arrests, and much like Standing Rock, things often took a violent turn.

Law enforcement, private security firms, oil companies and states all learned a lot during the protests near Standing Rock.

In Minnesota, 15 county sheriff’s offices teamed up to form the Northern Lights Task Force to help keep protests opposing Line 3 “under control.”

The task force’s Facebook page says the goal is to “provide a safe environment that protects life, property, and free speech through a respectful approach by well-trained, disciplined peace officers relating to the lawful activities conducted by those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Enbridge was required to set up the “public safety escrow account” to reimburse local communities for associated costs such as overtime.

“The Northern Lights Task Force was created years ago and they were trained many times by the folks over at Standing Rock and by different private security firms, including some from Nicaragua where I mean, land defenders in other parts of the world are far less privileged than we are. They’re assassinated openly and regularly, for doing this work,” says Houska.

“And that’s who Enbridge hires because in other jurisdictions they can get away with a lot more. And they obviously still got away with quite a bit here in Minnesota.”

In an emailed statement, Enbridge’s senior advisor of corporate communications and media relations wrote “to insinuate Enbridge uses security firms to hurt others or train police on such tactics is a lie. Unarmed security personnel on the project had nothing but a radio and cell phone.”

The emailed statement continued, “The State of Minnesota required Enbridge as a condition of project approval to fund an independent public safety escrow account to reimburse communities overwhelmed by public safety costs during illegal pipeline protests. Enbridge provided funding but decisions were made by a State-appointed administrator, not Enbridge. Public safety concerns were addressed by the police who made their own decisions on response efforts.

“Ms. Houska’s falsehoods and campaign of misinformation only serve to undermine the important discussion around Indigenous inclusion.”

In late July, Houska was on the receiving end of law enforcement’s rubber bullets, mace and pepper balls.

Houska says years of resistance have taken a toll, despite what some people may think.

“Oh well you’re in media or you’re on Facebook or on social media or something like that and it looks so exciting, it looks so cool, right? But in reality, a lot of it is sacrifice,” says Houska who adds you miss a lot when you’re not with your family and not in your home territory.

“You are increasingly at risk when you do this type of work. You’re under surveillance by law enforcement, sometimes federal law enforcement. They’re actively trying to suppress resistance. The workers who come in, it can be really quite frightening at times,” says Houska.

“When you’re out here and you’re in these places, you’re on a dirt road in the middle of the woods and it’s just you and it’s just them and it’s not like there’s this massive 10,000 person swell, it’s just a handful and it can be really quite dangerous.”

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