Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
SOLWAY, Minnesota — Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson spent a lot of time in the sun. By the time folks occupying the Fire Light camp finished their ceremonies and broke camp, his clean-shaven head was a bright shade of red.
Despite a nasty sunburn and some sleepless nights, it was all worthwhile for the sheriff of this small Minnesota county bordering the White Earth Reservation.
On the evening of June 14, Halverson quietly escorted about 50 water protectors from the camp out to Highway 40 where they were issued citations for trespassing on an Enbridge Line 3 work site. One of the water protectors was arrested at his own request, according to Halverson.
It was a far cry from the large police presence and more than 100 arrests at an Enbridge pumping station in nearby Hubbard County.
“Well,” he said, diplomatically, “every county is different.”
Members of the Rise Coalition, an Indigenous-led environmental organization, and allies erected a prayer camp on June 7 at the Enbridge construction site along the Mississippi River near Solway. They and other Line 3 opponents had marched to the area with hundreds of others protesting the pipeline before pitching their camp at the end of a wooden boardwalk leading to the site.
They lit a spirit fire and began to fast and pray.
“We are in peace and we intend to stay in peace; we are upholding our end of the treaties,” said Dawn Goodwin, co-founder of the Rise Coalition and a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Halverson was there from the beginning, standing in the crowd, quietly listening to the speakers. Two of his deputies stood nearby. Indian Country Today asked him if he would be arresting or citing anyone.
“No, we just want to be sure everyone is safe,” he said.
Indeed, as water protectors quietly left the Enbridge construction site on June 14, one week after pitching camp there, one couldn’t help but wonder at the difference between that scenario and the chaotic scene at the Enbridge pump station on June 7.
After threatening water protectors with a helicopter, law enforcement surrounded the site and arrested nearly 200 people, leading them away in handcuffs to waiting buses.
Halverson, however, had a different vision for his county. In his daily visits to the Fire Light camp, he and the water protectors formed a plan.
“We decided we wanted to write our own narrative,” he told Indian Country Today later in an interview. “We would show the world that things can be done in a peaceful way.”
'What peace talks should be about'
Born and raised in the nearby town of Bagley, Halverson has lived in the area all of his life. He grew up and went to school with some of the water protectors.
“I went to school with him,” Goodwin confirmed. “His mother was my lunchroom supervisor.”
She also knew the sheriff from his attendance at the coalition’s educational events teaching people about treaties.
Halverson and the water protectors talked and negotiated for seven days.
“Sheriff Halverson uplifted our treaties,” Goodwin said. “This is what peace talks should be about.”
Goodwin said Halverson helped avoid a mass arrest and convinced Enbridge to give the group more time to finish their ceremonies.
“He could see we were there in prayer and ceremony; he honored that,” she said.
Clearwater County is one of 16 northern Minnesota counties that are members of the Northern Lights Task Force, created to help fund law enforcement costs in policing protests against Enbridge Line 3. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Enbridge to fund the task force as part of the approval process for the pipeline project.
In some counties, task force members have eagerly arrested people protesting Line 3 or cited them with elevated trespassing charges such as trespassing on a critical infrastructure site.
Halverson was careful not to criticize other counties but said, “I told them I didn’t want anything like what happened at the pumping station down here; we can end it peacefully.”
Several officers from other counties were staged nearby, waiting to assist Halverson in clearing water protectors from the site.
'They kept their word'
On June 12, Enbridge sent Halverson a letter stating that the water protectors were trespassing on the company’s construction site, damaging property and endangering the health and welfare of Enbridge workers. Although the company had initially agreed to allow water protectors to conduct a ceremony at the site, they now wanted them removed.
Halverson, however, stood his ground.
“It was a little tense for a while there,” he said. “People wanted them off the property right away but I think if we’d gone in with a large police presence, I don’t believe they would have left any faster.”
He continued, “Everybody knows when they come into our county that I’m the one who calls the shots, so they listened to me. In the end I think they were impressed at how well we communicated with the protestors.”
Water protectors expressed anger at Enbridge’s accusatory letter.
“There was nothing here when we arrived other than a wood plank road that was already carved up by the coming and going of heavy equipment. There was no equipment here to damage,” Coalition members wrote in a letter posted on the group’s Facebook site.
“We reject Enbridge’s empty trespass claims.”
In the end, however, water protectors walked peacefully away from the camp.
“They promised that everything would be cleaned and picked up (from the campsite)," Halverson said. “They kept their word on everything. I didn’t see so much as a gum wrapper on the ground after they left.”
Goodwin said it was very important to the coalition members to honor their agreement with the sheriff.
“He trusted us and we trusted him,” she said. “We told him we would leave when our ceremonies and prayers were done, and we did.”
Both Halverson and Goodwin agreed that the negotiation process — with its air of mutual respect — could be a model for future actions between water protectors and law enforcement officers.
“At the end of the day, we have to stay here and live with everyone,” Halverson said. “I don’t want to ruin the good relationships we’ve worked so hard to build.”