The Power of One
Guided by Spirits, Undaunted by Threats
The ancestors told Geraldine McManus to come here, to this narrow dirt vein beside the flat farmer’s field, in the shadow of an open-air gun range that sits just a few hundred metres west, at the very edge of Canada where the U.S. border cuts an invisible line through the ditch.
The ancestors told her to set up camp here, she says, and the ancestors gave her the camp’s name. "Spirit of the Buffalo," she heard them whispering once, when she was driving her dinged-up ’94 Dodge van somewhere through Washington state. At the time, she didn’t know what they were trying to say.
But then there was that night in July 2018, when she and about a dozen other people converged on this spot of Crown land just south of Gretna, where McManus had heard the ancestors whisper "yep." And they put up a canopy, and built a sacred fire, and someone asked her if the camp had a name, and that’s when she knew.
Oh yeah, she replied. The Spirit of the Buffalo Camp.
That was almost a year ago, and McManus has stayed here most nights since. The site has grown since that first fluttering tarp: there is a wigwam now, built by a Haudenosaunee man from Six Nations. It has two couches and a table and is more spacious, McManus quips, than her old studio apartment.
So that’s where she spends most nights, often alone, heating cans of soup on the wood stove and watching the shapes dance in the fire. She prays then, listening for more words from her ancestors, and when she has visitors stories flow out of her like water, rushing one into the other until it is time to sleep.
There are stories about where she has been, from the streets of Winnipeg to Vancouver and back again, where she worked for years renovating houses until a heart condition forced her to retire. She enrolled at the University of Winnipeg then, and later joined the camps at Standing Rock as a water protector.
Now, she believes her journey has called her here, to near where Alberta oil company Enbridge laid the Line 3 pipeline replacement, a $5.3-billion project green-lit by the Trudeau government in 2016. The Spirit of the Buffalo camp exists to hold a prayer and protest vigil against its completion.
"After Standing Rock, this place is a walk in the park," McManus says with a brisk wave.
It is April 1, and McManus says she’s tired. The winter was brutal. Some nights, she slept fully clothed in the van while the wind rocked it in its tracks; arthritis took hold of her hands. She is 53 years old, a Dakota "elder-in-training," she says, and none of this gets any easier.
But she could manage the cold. The hardest part was the loneliness. Some nights, when it set in, "you feel like nobody gives a s--- anymore," she says. When that happened, she told herself to snap out of it. She cranked the radio up and danced or went outside and found something to do around camp.
Sometimes, she goes into the city to spend a few nights or a week at her son’s apartment. And she has friends and supporters who come visit. They sign their memories in marker on the tarp that covers the wigwam, or — in a more modern iteration — as a review on the Spirit of the Buffalo Camp’s Facebook page.
"At the camp, conversation comes easily and a profound sense of Common-Unity holds sway, whether you’ve been there before or whether you’re a new face," one visitor wrote on Facebook. "Together, we say No More."
One question that swirls around them all is whether they’re being heard, or if there’s a chance to be heard at all.
According to Enbridge, the Canadian portion of the Line 3 replacement is already finished, stretching more than 1,000 km from Hardisty, Alta., to Gretna. But the U.S. portion of the line struck permit delays in Minnesota, where there have been stout Indigenous-led protests against its development.
In March, Enbridge revised its construction schedule, saying that the full line will be finished by the second half of next year. When it is completed, it will pump upwards of 760,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta to Wisconsin. The aging current line, built in 1968, has seen its capacity restricted to half that volume.
In a statement last week, Enbridge said they are aware of the Spirit of the Buffalo camp, but that it has not disrupted the pipeline’s operations. McManus has heard the same things — "Everyone kept saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re there for nothing, the pipe’s already there, it’s too late" — but, to put it bluntly, she doesn’t believe them.
"Maybe they want us to give up," she says. "But if everything is here for me to stay, then I’ll stay."
Besides, this camp is about more than that, she explains, in her free-flowing way. It’s not just about opposing the pipeline. It is also about connections, about relationships, about calling people to meet here on the land together.
"There’s a big change coming, and this is that time," she says. "This is the change of our prophecies... that good things will happen, and people will come together. And that is happening. It’s slow, but you see it, and it’s been coming about for a long time, anyways."
The day after she set up camp, she met a couple from Gretna — Sandra and Peter Reimer. They’d heard about the effort through the media, and set out to find it; since then, the trio have become good friends. The Reimers offered the teepee that long sat in their yard, and keep an eye on the camp while McManus is away.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, the Reimers and McManus hosted a feast. They called it For Giving Day, a nod to both Indigenous gift-giving traditions and to reconciliation; people from Winnipeg came, and Gretna and Roseau River First Nation. If Spirit of the Buffalo seeks to draw together community, that was a start.
"We’ll probably do it again," Sandra Reimer says. "It’s the idea of reclaiming a tradition, and where reconciliation isn’t just saying ‘sorry.’ It’s doing something... just working together, just understanding. A settler can’t really understand an Indigenous perspective until you get to know somebody who is from that perspective."
Outside the wigwam, the wind of early spring shrieks through the camp, whipping at the tarp, sending bits of hay tumbling into America. As McManus sinks into the couch cushions, she wonders if Enbridge is scared of her. She wonders what they think about the stand that she’s taken.
"They’re not dealing with an extreme activist," she says, and then gives a laugh that rustles like dry leaves in the wind. "They’re dealing with an old, tired, cranky woman who just has prayer left in her. That’s all I got left in me is prayer, there’s nothing else."
Two months later, summer has spread its embrace over the Spirit of the Buffalo Camp. There are new voices now, courtesy of the blackbirds that chatter in the fields. The air is hazy with heat and bitten by the sharp scent of wood smoke and young grasses.
Spring landed heavy at the camp. There have been tensions. Members of the Border Lane Shooting Association are frustrated; for the second summer, they’ve had to shutter their gun range while McManus sits just east of its earthen berms. McManus says she didn’t know the range was there, when she set up camp.
In May, her family was struck by violence. Her nephew’s wife, Shalynne Hunter, was murdered outside her Simcoe Street home. Two women have been charged with second-degree murder in her slaying.
While McManus was in Winnipeg for a week, tending to family and fixing her van, grisly messages began appearing at camp. The Reimers found them first: someone left a pile of sticks arranged to spell out "GO HOME." Someone left dead gophers at the wigwam, one with a bullet hole right between its eyes.
There’s no way to know who did it. It could be youth messing around or it could be something more sinister. But it’s clearly a threat, and McManus bristles at the attempt. She called RCMP who, she feels, downplayed her concerns and she recorded a video affirming her resolve to remain in the camp.
"I couldn’t stand the fact that they think they’re making me afraid," she says. "I’ve told them all to their face, ‘I’m not afraid of none of you. You’re just men.’ Besides, think about it — my people have been suffering for so long. I’ve suffered, I grew up on the streets of Winnipeg. There’s nothing anybody can really do to me."
Today, McManus has visitors. Her friend, Sagkeeng elder Alma Kakikepinace, is out for a visit, as well as supporters from the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition. McManus puts their hands to work rolling tarps, raising towering teepee poles and staking new flags in the dirt.
Everyone can do something around camp when they visit. In a way, that’s one of McManus’s talents, and how she’s drawn her community together.
"She’s so good at convincing them that everyone has gifts to offer," says Rebecca Burnell, who has been supporting the camp since its inception.
The afternoon sun glares overhead. The group finds respite in the shade of a tarp stretched around the teepee poles, while the conversation turns to the work ahead.
"For whatever reason, the ancestors brought us right here," McManus tells them. "They really want us to figure something out here. They don’t want to put everything on your plate all at once. They want you to figure it out. And the more people that come out here, the more thoughts, the more ideas.
"There’s gonna be a potential point where I think we’ll all of a sudden go, ‘Oh, that’s why we were brought here.’"
McManus has plans for the camp; she wants to take out the wigwam carpet, which has grown musty with damp, and put in a wooden subfloor. She wants to raise a tiny house on a mobile platform beside it. She wants to build bunk beds for students and activists to stay the night.
"Once I get the bunk beds made, ah, it’s going to be sweet," she says cheerfully.
Almost a year she’s been out, and she has no plans to leave. The ancestors told her to come to this place, she says, and now they tell her to stay. That’s where this story begins, and maybe it will also end that way: she thinks again about the dead animals thrown against the wigwam door.
"If I died out here, I would die very happy," she says, and she flashes her broad, easy grin.
"Very, very happy. You people would probably find me with a smile on my face, and my finger up."
Story by Melissa Martin, Published in the Winnipeg Free Press
I followed Geraldine at her camp and in the city for a year in 2019. Since then, the camp has been burned to the ground by vandals. Geraldine continues to commune with the Spirits and educate any who will listen despite pressure from many to stop.