Tribes Across the Midwest Are Gearing up for a Big New Pipeline Battle

Tribal and environmental groups opposed to the Enbridge Line 3 project rally September 28, 2017, at the State Capitol in Minnesota. Photo: AP

The sun was still hiding Wednesday morning, November 8, when about 15 individuals woke up to leave Camp Makwa on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. The time was 3 a.m., and this time of year, temperatures can drop real low, like 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

That didn’t stop this group, though. They were on a mission to temporarily halt construction on the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Replacement Program, a new effort to boost the capacity of a pipeline carrying oil over a thousand miles from Alberta to Wisconsin. And, well, they succeeded, even if construction was just halted momentarily.


What is Line 3?

Line 3 is supposed to replace an older pipeline of the same name, and to almost double the amount of crude oil it carries, from 390,000 barrels a day to 760,000. Pipeline developer Enbridge plans to leave the old pipe abandoned in the ground to avoid any environmental risks that might result from disturbing other nearby active pipelines. Enbridge also wants to alter the new Line 3 route.

Environmentalists and indigenous activists are worried about what will result from both abandoning the old Line 3 and from shipping oil through the new Line 3. Leaving the pipe in the ground—even if it’s properly cleaned and follows all regulations in place to avoid environmental risk—can lead to soil and water contamination as it ages and leaks any residual oil. That’s one of Minnesota’s concerns about this plan, laid out in its Environmental Impact Statement, even if these impacts are expected to be “minimal.”


Activists are also worried about wild rice, which grows better in Minnesota than in any other state. It’s a traditional food for the Anishinaabeg people, the collective name for the group of related U.S. and Canadian tribes in the Great Lakes region. They consider it sacred.

Enbridge Senior Communications Adviser Suzanne Wilton told Earther in an email that the company understands the significance of wild rice to the region’s indigenous people. She clarified that the company is in talks with local tribal leaders to find a route that avoids some major rice lakes.

Image: Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Commerce

“Enbridge is committed to engaging with all stakeholders and Tribal leadership, staff, and members to identify areas of special significance and environmental sensitivity to tribes,” Wilton wrote.


Still, many Native Americans don’t want to see more fossil fuel infrastructure. Period. Not only is it exacerbating the climate crisis by driving up emissions, they argue it’s threatening their lands.

The current Line 3 cuts right through the Fond du Lac Reservation and Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota, as well as the Chippewa National Forest. Enbridge wants to place the new Line 3 a bit more south, where it wouldn’t cut right through these lands, but the proposed route would still travel right outside the Fond du Lac’s territories. It’s not far from the White Earth and Red Lake reservations, either.


About 100 opponents of the project, who call themselves water protectors, have been floating in and out of a camp on private reservation land all summer, but they didn’t give themselves an official name until August when they saw a bear dying on the side of a nearby road. It had clearly been hit by a large vehicle, they say—what onlookers assumed was a truck transporting equipment for pipeline construction. With that, Camp Makwa was born, “Makwa” translating to “bear” in Ojibwe.

If completed, this pipeline would run 1,031 miles, ending in Superior, Wisconsin. That’s where Camp Makwa members were headed Wednesday morning.


Taking Direct Action

The water protectors arrived at a construction site in Wisconsin around 6 a.m. Enbridge has secured necessary permits there, in North Dakota, and in Canada—but not in Minnesota, where Camp Makwa is based. Until then, pipeline opponents are focused on disrupting construction in Wisconsin to delay the pipeline’s completion.


“At this point, it really does boil down to civil disobedience,” said Anna Leopold, a 22-year-old water protector with the camp, to Earther. “And it is what helps us build the most power and mobilize as many people as possible against the pipeline.”

Two young water protectors, Georgia Thomas, 19, and Cody Cyson, 24, locked themselves together inside a pipe and stayed in there for more than seven hours.


Eventually, officers with the Superior Police Department arrived. They arrested Leopold for trespass and resisting/obstructing an officer, though the resisting charge is the only one that stuck. Thomas and Cyson were also arrested after jumping atop an excavator and “yelling obscenities,” according to police reports sent to Earther.


Leopold was released almost immediately. Both Thomas and Cyson have been released, though Cyson was held in jail a little while longer due to a prior trespass charge.

This all fits into the Camp Makwa members’ larger plan. They know they’re breaking the law, and they’re willing to put their bodies on the line if it stops the project from moving forward. The camp is clear, on its Facebook page, that it prioritizes nonviolent direct action.


That’s not all they do, though. They also attend public hearings to make sure they work within the system, said Leopold. And Camp Makwa is not the only camp in the state either; three Line 3 protest camps exist, all on Native American reservations. Two, including Camp Makwa, are within the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. The other is on the White Earth Reservation. They’re all demanding to be heard, even if it means developing new systems that take their concerns into account—like the Anishinaabeg Cumulative Impact Assessment.

Photo: Premier of Alberta / Flickr

Where Does This Lead?

The assessment is an indigenous-led environmental assessment, featuring the expertise of tribal elders and non-native experts on public health. One of the first of its kind, it’s meant to supplement the state’s and take into account not just local physical impacts of the pipeline, but also the way Line 3 would impact indigenous relatives in Canada, where the crude oil is extracted, and future generations through the burning of the oil.


Nicolette Slagle is the research director and deputy director of Honor the Earth, an indigenous environmental organization spearheading the assessment. She says she hopes that the states will not only acknowledge this assessment as it reviews Line 3, but that the assessment will present a new framework for tribal leaders and policymakers.

“Specifically for this assessment, we want to stop this pipeline project,” she told Earther. “But larger than just this, the goal is also to present this tool and framework that can be used for other indigenous folks fighting similar large infrastructure projects that impact their traditional lands.”


This is just one step in their fight against Line 3. The journey’s got a long way to go. Minnesota isn’t expected to decide on the project’s Certificate of Need, which will allow construction to proceed there, until April. However, the state’s Department of Commerce already issued its testimony: Enbridge has not demonstrated that the state needs this project.

Maybe Minnesota won’t be so quick to give in. And maybe—just maybe—Line 3 won’t get replaced. It’ll simply be removed. That’s what the Anishinaabeg want: their lands back with nothing more cutting through it.


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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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