Native activists fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline two years ago called it Zuzeca Sape, the Black Snake, referring to the ancient Lakota prophecy warning of the black snake that will come across their land, poisoning their water. But at the forum “Indigenous Involvement in North America’s Energy Future” held October 25 in Washington, DC regarding a different pipeline, another image came to mind, a glacier.
But at the forum, which also included representatives of Enbridge Energy, Wells Fargo, and Suncor Energy, a Canadian producer of synthetic crude from oil sands, the views of one important group were not included in the panel discussions, independent indigenous activists who oppose the project.
The forum touted Canada’s creation of the Line 3 Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee that oversees the Canadian regulation and monitoring of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 replacement project. Formed in 2017 with an allocation of $21.6 million by the Canadian government, the committee is comprised of 16 indigenous members and two non-indigenous members. Six First Nations groups are represented: Alberta First Nations, Alberta Metis, Manitoba Metis, Manitoba First Nations, Saskatchewan Metis, and Saskatchewan First Nations.
A new pipeline? Relax, it's just a replacement
Line 3, which was built in the 1960s, runs from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada down across the northeastern tip of North Dakota and through Minnesota to Lake Superior. Now nearly 50 years old, the pipeline has over 900 “integrity anomalies” such as corrosion and seam cracks, according to its Canadian manufacturer, Enbridge Energy. Enbridge wants to abandon the old pipeline and build a brand new one along a different route, a bigger one that can send twice as much oil sands to the U.S. for refinement into gasoline.
Enbridge is playing down the construction of this new line, saying it’s simply a replacement of an existing line, more like maintenance and not a brand new bigger and potentially more dangerous pipeline. But this replacement will run through traditional wild rice fields in Minnesota that the Anishinaabe people have harvested yearly for over a thousand years.
A ‘seat at the table’ means you've already lost
Salesmen are familiar with the term “assumptive closing.” It refers to a technique in which the salesman begins asking questions as if the customer has already made the decision to buy. Answering these questions, the customer ends up buying whatever it is without the salesman ever asking for the sale.
The energy forum had a similar feel. Issues important to Native activists, such as the impact of pipeline construction on wild rice fields in Minnesota, were completely avoided. Instead, the participants discussed how to “involve” Native governments in the pipeline’s development. While this is important, it implies shutting out the feelings of non-tribal government activists who oppose the pipeline due to cultural and spiritual reasons. This blind spot was made obvious in a question posed at the forum.
An audience member asked what should be done when members of an indigenous group disagree with each other about the project. Corey Dekker, of the Department Natural Resources Canada, a division of the Canadian government, and a member of the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee said the following statement:
“We have built into our process a decision-making or a governance model which allows for members to register concerns, to register opposition to a particular decision that the committee is considering and for that to be recorded. But there's still the kind of ultimate question of, well the language that we use is, are they blocking a particular course of action? So an item comes to the table, there's a vote, yeses, abstains, opposed. Everyone gets to articulate their view…” The answer went on for about another hundred words.
This circuitous response implied the committee considers activists who oppose the pipeline, and are not members of their tribe’s government, to be “blocking” the inevitable, blocking the oncoming glacier so to speak. And the best way to deal with this is to give dissenters a chance to voice their concerns and then allow the vote of committee members to bulldoze over them.
This bullying by governmental groups is evidence of the influence Enbridge has with governmental entities in both Canada and the U.S. In August the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which approved the pipeline in June, forced the Fond du lac Band of Lake Superior Chipppewa to sign an agreement with Enbridge approving a pipeline corridor through their reservation.
Another ominous indication of Enbridge’s clout came on October 22 when the city of Duluth approved spending $84,000 for riot gear to outfit their police force in anticipation of protests against Line 3.
But what about rice?
Wild rice grows all over Northern Minnesota. Anishinaabe “ricers” harvest it in canoes, tapping the grains over the hull and into the canoe with two wooden knockers. It is dried in traditional ways, shared, used in ceremonies and for healing and at funerals. Many stories are told about how it came to be central to Anishinaabe life. Like most Native traditions, Manoomin has many layers of meaning woven into the culture and identity of the Anishinaabe people.
When placed beside the billions of dollars invested in the pipeline, the jobs created, and the revenue generated, the potential of oil spills destroying wild rice fields appears insignificant. But to people like Winona LaDuke, the Anishinaabe activist, writer, and founder of the group “Honor the Earth,” who has opposed the Line 3 replacement for years, Manoomin is a sacred bond with the Creator that must be protected.
The reasons for opposing Line 3 are many. Oil sands produce more greenhouse gasses when refined into gasoline than regular oil. Forests will be clear cut to make way for the pipeline. Man camps will be created to support its construction, threatening the safety of indigenous women. These are just a few. But by protecting the Manoomin, a gift from the Creator known as the “food that grows on water,” these other concerns are automatically resolved.
The Canadian energy forum on October 25 portrayed pipelines as being inevitable and unstoppable, like an advancing glacier, and the best thing to do is to take a seat at the table overseeing their creation. But the work of indigenous activists, as evidenced by the shutdown of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in August, demonstrates they are more like a snake and snakes can be killed.
Frank Hopper, Tlingit, is a fellow with Indian Country Today due to a grant from theBay and Paul Foundations.
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