ChangeMakers: Mysti Babineau, protecting land and people

A woman stands near the lake
Mysti Babineau, 34, stands at Bellaire Beach on White Bear Lake. She is an organizer with climate change organization MN350 and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Mysti Babineau, 34, has been standing up for others since her youth. Her father taught her to stick up for her younger brother. He told her to take action if she witnessed something wrong happening. However, Babineau said she was really motivated to “get out and be really loud and vocal” in 2016 when she saw the fight against the proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

She is an organizer with climate change organization MN350 and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of climate and social justice issues. For example, she said, fossil fuel infrastructure projects impact more than just clean water and land. Babineau said there’s also a potential for an increase in violence against Native American women as construction brings an influx of workers living in “man camps,” or temporary housing. This issue led a group of Native American and women’s organizations, including Honor the Earth and Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, to request in 2015 that the United Nations intervene

“Our land is being extracted and raped, and then they're coming through and they're extracting from us and raping us as well,” said Babineau, a citizen of Red Lake Nation. “It's such a visceral example of what they're doing to our people is what they're doing to the land as well.”

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What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

I don't know that being Indigenous to Minnesota means anything different than it did centuries ago. My bones and my blood are from this land. I love her. I treasure her and I honor her. I just want to see every creature that exists on her [are] living in harmony with her. And I also try to make sure that I'm being a good relative to my community members, too. 

What figures have shaped you?

My adoptive mother Sheryl Babineau was probably my first hero. She took in children who didn't have a home and she gave them one and love. That wasn't easy for a single mother. 

Once I started really paying attention to the world and seeing what's going on, I was really inspired by Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska and Taysha Martineau, who is a Two Spirit individual from Fond du Lac. 

The one person I am most inspired by right now is a dear friend of mine named Sheila Lamb. She's a city councilwoman in Cloquet, Minn. She also sits on the Minnesota MMIW Task Force. She's just an inspiring being of light. 

All of these individuals have seen the ugliness of the world. They still continue to put their heart on their sleeve and go out there and fight in a good way to make it a better world for everybody. 

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

I want them to be able to exercise their treaty rights and know what they are. I want non-Indigenous folks to understand what their obligations to treaty rights are.

And I want everyone — people in general in this country — to just stop the fighting, quit looking at what makes us different and just really focus on what really unites us. We all just want a happy life, clean water, clean air and a future for our children. 

Who do you see as a changemaker in your community, and inspires you?

Taysha Martineau founded a group who started patrolling the Duluth harbors, doing outreach to homeless populations, and flyer drops for missing people in the area. Once they started doing that the crime rates against the homeless and Native populations decreased. They are always trying to look for ways to better invest in their community. They do food drives, clothing drives, and community events in these times of COVID. They're always somebody who is trying to give back in different ways all the time.

Where are we and why is it significant to you?

Today we are on White Bear Lake at Bellaire Beach. This is where I come and bring my tobacco. I come sing to her. I pray to her. In times of great despair and pain, I come and cleanse myself in her. I just wrap myself in that love and protection that Mother Earth is trying to give us.