On Ojibwe Lands, Protecting Water and Life from the Line 3 Pipeline

Ojibwe protestors march against the Line 3 pipeline, carrying signs and chanting

On a sunny late September day in 2019, a crowd flocked to the “Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3” on the shores of Gichi-gami (Lake Superior) in Duluth, Minnesota. Indigenous leaders from the Ojibwe Nation, along with the Dakota, Navajo, and other Native Nations, had called on water protectors to march to raise public awareness of Line 3, an oil pipeline operated by the Canadian company Enbridge Inc. Both in solidarity with the movement and out of my interest as a graduate student investigating Indigenous-led engagements with fossil fuel developments in the Upper Midwest, I took the Sierra Club bus from southern Wisconsin to join the crowd.

While non-Native allies handed out pamphlets warning of the environmental, social, and cultural dangers of Line 3, Native advocates gave speeches about Indigenous genocide and its many forms throughout history. Their passionate testimonies made evident that supporting the pipeline resistance movement would also mean acknowledging the struggles of Indigenous peoples who have, since time immemorial, occupied the lands now known as the United States. The protest was just one of the many ways the Ojibwe people, along with other Native and non-Native allies, have fought oil infrastructure.    

Elaborate protest display in park reads "Protect the water, Governor Walz! You can't drink oil. No water, no life."
At the Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3, protection of water and Indigenous sovereignty were key demands. Photo by author, September, 2019.

Despite stark opposition demonstrated through direct action, marches, public hearings, lawsuits, and beyond, Enbridge Inc. was granted, in late 2020, all required permits to start construction of Line 3 in Minnesota. This included water permits which allow the pipeline to cross streams, wetlands, and rivers in northern Minnesota as well as wild rice lakes. According to their oral histories, when the Ojibwe people migrated from the East Coast to what is now known as the Upper Midwest, they were looking for a place where food grows on water, namely Manoomin (wild rice). Little did they know that one day their descendants would be fighting a Canadian oil company that threatens their ways of living, including their land, water, and wild rice.

We Are Still Here

Line 3 is an oil pipeline that transports tar sandsa highly viscous mixture composed of sand, water, clay, and bitumenfrom Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. Threatening the land and the water in its path, it puts Native and non-Native communities in jeopardy. The extraction of tar sands in Canada releases three times more greenhouse gases than regular oil extraction and has been hailed the world’s most destructive oil operation. Line 3 has been operating since the 1960s and its history is fraught with spills, including the U.S.’s largest inland oil spill which occurred in Minnesota.

Native peoples and Non-Native allies march along the shores of Gichi-gami at the Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3. Photo by author, September, 2019.

In 2013, Enbridge Inc., the Canadian company responsible for Line 3 and many other pipeline corridors in Canada and the United States, decided to replace the old corroding Line 3. The company does not plan to remove the aging pipeline, but rather aims to build another while rerouting some of the Minnesota corridor across 200 bodies of water, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This means that not only is Enbridge Inc. leaving a dirty old pipeline in the ground, which itself can contaminate soil and water from the residual oil remaining within, but is also building a brand new one.

Enbridge has already completed all the pipeline segments in Canada, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. It is in the state of Minnesota that Line 3 has faced most opposition to the so-called ‘replacement’ project. The Ojibwe people lead the fight against Line 3. They, like many other Native Nations in the U.S., have both been forcibly removed from their lands and had their lands reduced through historical treaties with the United States. Their movement against Line 3 represents part of a larger historical struggle, since colonization, against genocide and erasure.

Indigenous-led opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure is often referred to as a fight, but it is also part of a nationwide movement to uphold Indigenous treaty rights and sovereignty. Indigenous-led grassroots movements and organizations, such as the Giniw Collective (led by Indigenous women), Honor the Earth, Indigenous Environmental Network, Spirit of the Buffalo Camp, and others have played a central role in resisting fossil fuel infrastructure. “We are still here.” I heard this phrase from Indigenous speakers at the Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3 and have heard it again and again at many other Indigenous rallies protesting fossil fuel developments. It is an outcry of peoples who have seen their ability to coexist as sovereign increasingly undermined. Economic and political interests delegitimize Indigenous treaties and self-determination. Systemic racism underpins the case of Line 3 as well as numerous other cases across the U.S. in which people of color are disproportionately exposed to the dangers posed by oil and gas infrastructure. Fossil fuel developments sharply illustrate the continuation of injustices against Indigenous, Black, and other marginalized peoples.

A sign leans outside a building, reading "No Pipeline Abandonment. Clean Up Line 3!"
Not without resistance, Enbridge Inc. is leaving its now-defunct Line 3 pipeline in the ground as it builds a new one. Photo by Lori Schaull, June, 2018.

Crossing through the 1863, 1855, and 1854 treaty territories in Minnesota, the new proposed Line 3 pipeline is a direct threat to Ojibwe treaty resources. Treaties are meant to safeguard Indigenous self-determination, sovereignty, and rights on both ceded and unceded lands. On treaty territories, Native Nations also reserve the right to hunt, fish, gather and practice sacred ceremonies. However, history has shown that Indigenous treaty rights are regularly ignored.

Consultation is Not Consent

The Line 3 permitting process in Minnesota is largely being carried out by state agencies which have the obligation to consult with tribal nations regarding any development or activity that affects tribes on ceded or unceded lands. States and federal agencies alike are responsible for coming up with the means to ensure consultation with tribal governments through a process of clear and meaningful communication. This relationship between the government and tribes stems from the Constitution, treaties, and documents signed across presidencies, such as Executive Order 13647, which established the White House Council on Native American Affairs in 2013.

A woman and a girl hold up signs against the Line 3 pipeline on a downtown street.
A grandmother and granddaughter protest the pipeline outside the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hearing on Line 3. Photo by Lorie Schaull, June, 2018.

Native Nations are sovereign. They are independent political units recognized by the federal government. Although this might imply they should have the power to veto any development on their territories, decisions made by federal court rulings over time have deemed tribes “domestic dependent nations,” meaning U.S. Congress has the power to alter tribal sovereignty. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act does however require consultation with tribes on projects impacting their lands.

The permitting stage of a project like Line 3 triggers a process with state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees federally-protected waters. These agencies analyze the documents submitted by the developer, containing (for example) the proposed route and need for the project, and assess the associated environmental impacts before deciding whether to grant the project permits. Enbridge Inc. officially sent an application for its multi-billion project in 2015. Ever since, Line 3 has been a highly contentious fossil fuel development project, perhaps as controversial as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

The Ojibwe movement against Line 3 is part of a larger historical struggle against genocide and erasure.

Despite staggering opposition to the pipeline—demonstrated through comments and expert testimonies provided in public hearings and lawsuits filed by Indigenous-led grassroots movements and tribes in tandem with established environmental organizations, such as one challenging the adequacy of the Environmental Impact Statement—Line 3 has been issued all permits required to move forward with pipeline construction. A federal lawsuit filed in December 2020 to stop construction was recently denied. In the meantime, Enbridge Inc. continues clearcutting northern Minnesota forest amidst concerns that the influx of Enbridge-hired workers to the region could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, putting tribal members and nearby communities at risk. A request to shut down construction was blocked by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Beyond directly violating Indigenous treaty rights, Line 3 also promises more insidious disruptions to Native communities. The “man camps” set up to house pipeline workers have been directly linked to an increase in the occurrence of drug and sex trafficking as well as other violent crimes which affect Native communities disproportionately, especially Native women. Native American women are murdered and assaulted in such high numbers as to compel a movement for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) as well as the creation of a unit in the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate and solve cases involving MMIW. Fossil fuel extraction and pipeline construction exacerbate these atrocities.

A snowy sign beside a river indicates people should not fish, swim, or canoe, reading, "Notice: No river use until further notice due to ongoing oil spill response."
An Enbridge pipeline burst in 2010 released over a million gallons of oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary in Michigan. Photo by Rocky Kistner, February, 2012.

In terms of environmental (in)justice, Line 3 is poised to defeat every attempt by the state of Minnesota to mitigate climate change. Climate change disproportionately impacts Indigenous populations and other marginalized communities. Despite Enbridge Inc.’s notable record of spills, such as the tragic 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River, the company claims to have cutting-edge technology that ensures pipeline safety. Yet, all pipelines spill. It is only a matter of time.

Despite their rights and strong arguments in opposition to Line 3, Indigenous voices have gone unheard. Consultation of tribes often fails to gain, and can even undermine, tribal consent.

Industry and Indigenous Justice at Odds

Not only do Indigenous peoples disproportionately suffer from the impacts of fossil fuel developments, but they are also the ones actively leading opposition, along with non-Native allies, through grassroots organizing.

I have attended a few public hearings and witnessed Indigenous knowledge consistently warning of the perils of fossil fuel developments. Ecosystems and sacred sites are disturbed. The land and water are hurt and polluted, impacting significant tribal resources. Manoomin and the ecosystems where it grows have been detrimentally impacted by climate change. Fossil fuel developments expedite the process of loss.

Someone uses a long stick to push their canoe through an expanse of Manoomin.
The Ojibwe people see their Manoomin harvests threatened by Line 3. Photo by George Stringham, September, 2015.

Industry, often supported by science and technology founded in settler colonialism, overtly defies Indigenous knowledge in the case of Line 3, and other fossil fuel developments, as well as the mounting evidence that the new corridor would harm the environment and Native tribes. This is not an accident. Industrial encroachment is legitimized through decisions made by those who are expected to uphold treaty rights. Agencies have failed to consider Ojibwe and other Native and non-Native allies’ adamant opposition to Line 3.

Why is the future of tribal nations in the hands of a few powerful non-Native people who deny both Indigenous and scientific knowledge that explicitly show the dangers of fossil fuel developments? Is it fair for a Canadian company to transport tar sands across tribal territories in the U.S. while threatening the environment and Indigenous ways of living only to meet an international demand for oil in a context of a fossil fuel industry in sharp decline?

While the complex answers to these questions are embedded in systemic racism and ongoing colonization, opposition to Line 3 and the fight for Indigenous justice continue. As I write this, Indigenous and non-Native water protectors are engaged in non-violent direct action in Aitkin County in Minnesota near the Mississippi River around Line 3’s water crossing. From Aitkin County to the shores of Gichi-Gami to all across the U.S., Native peoples fight to defend their sovereignty and rights to clean water and cultural practices. Amidst direct and indirect attempts to undermine treaty rights, Native peoples stand strong.

Featured Image: Leading the march against the pipeline at the Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, September, 2019.

Murilo Alves Zacareli is a Ph.D. student in Environment & Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. His research looks at Indigenous-led engagements with oil pipelines in the Upper Midwest of the United States as well as the social, cultural, and environmental impacts of such developments on wetlands, especially wild rice lakes on tribal lands. Contact. Twitter.