‘We’re still here’: Indigenous water protectors call for Enbridge to respect treaty rights

By: - Monday July 25, 2022 12:00 pm

‘We’re still here’: Indigenous water protectors call for Enbridge to respect treaty rights

By: - 12:00 pm

Tribal citizens and supporters march through Mackinaw City to protest Line 5 as part of the “Heart of the Turtle” international Indigenous gathering in opposition to oil pipelines, May 14, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Tribal citizens and supporters march through Mackinaw City to protest Line 5 as part of the “Heart of the Turtle” international Indigenous gathering in opposition to oil pipelines, May 14, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

On a cloudy May afternoon, a short walk from the turbulent Mackinac Straits waters, tribal citizens from Michigan to Siberia marched miles down the streets of Mackinaw City in protest against fossil fuel projects on tribal lands.

The date was May 14, 2022: One year and a day since Canadian pipeline company Enbridge became an international trespasser in the Straits after refusing to comply with an order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to shut down the Line 5 pipeline.

Also being disregarded, tribal citizens say, are the treaty rights that local tribes have in the Straits of Mackinac. All recognized tribes in Michigan are opposed to the dual 69-year-old pipeline that runs for miles under the choppy waters.

“I don’t think that Enbridge has any respect for [treaties] whatsoever. They’re sort of like locusts,” said Holly T. Bird, a Traverse City-based Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache attorney and longtime Indigenous activist in Michigan.

“They feel that whatever land they cross is disposable to them. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them.”

In Michigan, there were eight main treaties signed between 1807 and 1842 that ceded Ottawa (Odawa), Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Potawatomi tribal land in modern-day Michigan to the federal government. Most relevant to Line 5 is the 1836 Treaty of Washington, as the nexus of its treaty territory lies at the Straits.

While at the “Heart of the Turtle” international Indigenous gathering in May, the Advance spoke to water protectors in Michigan and Minnesota about what treaty rights mean to them, what they envision full treaty recognition in the Great Lakes would look like and more.

“It seems like we as Indigenous people always are in some sort of battle, some sort of war” in regard to treaty rights, said Nathan Wright, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He and his Indigenous water protector group, MackinawOde, organized the May gathering for the second year in a row.

“It’s almost hard for us to communicate with [Enbridge] as Indigenous people because we’re not speaking the same language,” Wright added.

Map of Michigan treaty land cessions | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said in a statement that the company “recognizes the legal rights of Indigenous Peoples and the important relationship they have with their traditional lands and resources.”

“We support the restoration of treaty rights as well as the acknowledgment of historical reservation boundaries. … We work with Indigenous communities in a manner that recognizes and respects these rights,” Duffy said.

Tribes in Minnesota, including the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, have also been locked in fierce opposition against another Enbridge pipeline in their treaty territories — Line 3.

“They’re here at our door,” said Ray Whitehawk St. Clair, a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Eagle Clan in Minn.

“They’re never gonna get the message. … [But] we’re still here. Tomorrow, we’re gonna be here.”

There are currently two active lawsuits between the state of Michigan and Enbridge that are awaiting a decision from a federal judge. Both could have major implications for the fate of the current Line 5 oil pipeline.

Nessel v Enbridge et al was filed in state court by Attorney General Dana Nessel in 2019 and seeks to decommission Line 5 via public trust protections and other state laws. Judge Janet Neff will first need to determine whether it will play out in state court, which would benefit Nessel’s case; or federal court, which would benefit Enbridge’s case.

Enbridge v Whitmer et al is also teed up for a ruling by the same judge. In it, Enbridge seeks a judgement that a federal agency, not the state of Michigan, has sole regulatory authority over Line 5.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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