• Dan Robinson

Taking a Risk to Protect the Earth: a Conversation with Brenna Cussen-Anglada and Michele Naar-Obed

Updated: Sep 8

Sometimes protecting the world around us means putting our own selves at risk. For Brenna Cussen-Anglada and Michele Naar-Obed, risking prison time was worth protecting the water and the land in and around the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation in the Lake Superior watershed.

In February of 2019, Brenna and Michele, along with Allyson Polman and Daniel Yildirim, went onto land owned by Enbridge Energy Corporation. They then informed Enbridge that they were going to turn off one of the valves on their Line 3 pipeline. Enbridge’s Line 3 brings tar sands oil from Canada to Superior, WI, and the current route takes it through Ojibwe treaty territory as well as publicly-owned land. Enbridge proposes to build a new pipeline to replace the current Line 3 and to increase the amount of oil being transported through the pipe. The company is trying to secure the state permits it needs in Minnesota to construct the new pipe.

The four people, known as “The Four Necessity Valve Turners,” write on their website that they took this action in protest of a proposed pipeline going through the Ojibwe treaty land, but also as a witness to the damage being done to our climate through the continued use of fossil fuels. “The recent scientific study on climate change presented to the UN indicates that the threat of irreversible damage and destruction to our planet is imminent. Therefore, having exhausted all legal and political avenues, and having found those avenues lethally inadequate either to curb our dependency on fossil fuels or to stop its expansion, we find it necessary to take this direct action of turning off the flow of this poisonous tar sands oil.”

For both women, their Catholic faith provides the motivation and moral support for their activism. “I grew up Catholic, and I think my Catholic faith has everything to do with it, “Brenna said. “I grew up with a reverence for the created world.” Living near the ocean in Massachusetts as a child, she added, “I grew up with my mom, every time we passed the ocean, saying, ‘There’s proof that God exists.’” Michele cited her roots in Catholicism, particularly the Catholic tradition’s social justice teachings, saying, “This is a faith-based journey for me.”

Both women eventually joined the Catholic Worker movement, a group of people within the Catholic tradition that is committed to working for justice and peace. Brenna is a member of the St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in southwest Wisconsin (which is on Ho Chunk and Meskwaki territory). She lives there with her husband, another family of four, along with guests and interns. Michele is a member of the Hildegard House Catholic Worker in Duluth, Minnesota. In addition, she’s also worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in areas of conflict in southwest Asia.

Both women also draw upon their experiences in seeking to be allies of indigenous communities, and upon what they have learned from those communities. For Brenna, a significant moment came when she read a chapter by Dr. Jennifer Harvey in the book Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together. In the chapter, Dr. Harvey made the argument that if someone is a Christian who cares about the environment, they must take seriously reparations, or the return of land, to the Indigenous people who were originally on the land. “Here I am, a Christian,” Brenna said, “who is working on behalf of creation, trying to live sustainably, so what does this even mean?” Another key moment for Brenna came when she was introduced to Jim Bear Jacobs, a Mohican man who does education around Indigenous history and concerns in the Twin Cities area, and with whom Brenna has developed a friendship.

For Michele, she has worked to support the efforts of the Fond du Lac Band as they contest the permit request of Enbridge. She has also, however, learned a great deal from the Indigenous people she has befriended, including a different approach to our environment. At best, Michele said, the Catholic tradition sees a hierarchical world with humans on top and responsible for protecting our resources, and at worst, that tradition sees the natural world only as a commodity.

Michele told a story of how a friend of hers from the Fond du Lac reservation was concerned not only for her community today, but also for the ancestors, when it looked like the route for the pipeline would still go through the reservation. “That’s how deep this goes. That is a level that my Catholic faith never taught me, never gave me that depth of understanding, what it meant to be connected to a spiritual world and where that spiritual world exists.”

Both their Catholic faith and their connection to Indigenous communities led them to make an act of civil disobedience, going onto land owned by Enbridge and informing the company that they were going to turn off one of Line 3’s valves to stop the flow of oil. Before they could turn the valve off themselves, Enbridge turned it off. The four “Valve Turners,” however, were soon arrested and have been waiting for their trial since then. Their court date has been postponed most recently because of the Coronavirus, and while it is now scheduled for August, Brenna expects it to be postponed again.

Michele and Brenna acknowledge that this act of civil disobedience, in the American tradition of Henry David Thoreau and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, was only a temporary solution. Enbridge soon turned the valve back on. The two of them are hoping, though, that their witness becomes part of a movement for long-term change. “We said this was a time-out,” Michele added. “Now, how can we permanently turn this thing off, permanently get away from the exploitation, commodification of everything in our world for the benefit of a few? How can we turn that off for good?”

“It seems to me,” Michele said, “that all of the faith traditions can come together. We all have a piece of the truth. If we can all come together and understand the best of our own and how to work then together, we might actually be able to have a shot at addressing this.”

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