Calling for justice for Native American people, a senior district judge has thrown out criminal charges in Aitkin County against three Native women — including American Indian activist Winona LaDuke — who were involved in a nonviolent protest in 2021 against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.

"The charges against these three individuals who were exercising their rights to free speech and to freely express their spiritual rights should be dismissed," Judge Leslie Metzen wrote in a memorandum issued Friday accompanying her ruling. "To criminalize their behavior would be the crime."

LaDuke wept when she read Metzen's memorandum, she said Monday — the day the trial was expected to begin.

"I was expecting a jury trial of an all-white jury in Aitkin County to convict me, and instead I got justice," LaDuke said.

Aitkin County Attorney Jim Ratz did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

LaDuke, Tania Aubid and Dawn Goodwin — all from the Mississippi band of Anishinaabe — were arrested in January 2021 for protesting construction of the Enbridge pipeline while dancing to a drumbeat. They contend the pipeline violated an 1855 treaty with the United States that ceded the land but maintained it as territory for Indians to live and work, LaDuke said.

"A bunch of Indian women came to pray where they drill," she said. "I stood next to an officer. I kept asking if there was a dispersal order. There was no dispersal order issued."

When the order was eventually issued, she said, the three women left and were not arrested. But after video of their protest appeared on social media about four weeks later, the three received letters in the mail charging them with gross misdemeanor trespass and two misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly.

Joshua Preston, one of the lawyers for the women, noted Monday that he had urged Metzen to dismiss the case, suggesting prosecutors had been more lenient with Enbridge. He said that Attorney General Keith Ellison had brought a single misdemeanor charge against Enbridge for breaching an aquifer in Clearwater County, which was continued for dismissal.

"As an attorney who represented dozens of the nearly 1,000 people arrested and charged for protesting and resisting Line 3 pipeline construction, I know many former clients who wish they could've received the same deal that Enbridge got," Preston said.

Ellison's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In her memorandum, Metzen noted the protest may have briefly delayed construction and increased expenses for the law enforcement officials who cleared the gatherings, much of which was reimbursed by Enbridge.

"But the pipeline has been completed and is operating in spite of their efforts to stop it through peaceful protests," she wrote.

The memo went further, however, with Metzen reflecting on her own changing views of American Indians. She said she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when all she knew about Indians came from TV shows and school courses "where the Caucasian European view of the world and history was the only one discussed."

In the last two decades, the judge wrote, she had "come to a broader understanding of what we, the now dominant culture did to try to eradicate our indigenous neighbors. We moved them by force and power and violence off the land where they lived for thousands of years. To make peace, we signed treaties with them that promised many things they never received. When they had been forced to live within reservation boundaries, we stole their children; forced them to attend boarding schools where their language, long hair, spiritual beliefs and contact with their families were forbidden.

"Many of them died from disease, violence and some probably from a broken heart. I know only enough of this history to wonder how those of us in the 'dominant culture' could ever have thought any of these actions were okay or justified."

Citing Native American reverence for the Earth, Metzen wrote that the three women wanted to express "their heartfelt belief that the waters of Minnesota need to be protected from damage that could result from the pipeline."

In dismissing the charges, she noted that protesters in other northern Minnesota counties had seen charges dropped or had been issued small fines with admonitions not to commit similar offenses.

"I was so relieved," said LaDuke. "I cried. Then I went to the Battle Point Pow Wow on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and danced in my jingle dress and felt much, much better."