In northern Minnesota, Anishinaabe people are fighting an oil pipeline that threatens their sustenance and spiritual connection to the land.
In northern Minnesota, Anishinaabe people are fighting an oil pipeline that threatens their sustenance and spiritual connection to the land.
May 18, 2021
September 10, 2021 update: This month, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe filed a lawsuit to stop pipeline-related water pumping and the ongoing arrests of water protectors, marking only the second case ever filed in U.S. courts for abridging the rights of nature.
In the mist of a chilly October morning, Anakwad Migizi, who also uses the name Wendy Stone, pushes her family’s canoe into a tiny lake in the Crooked Creek watershed in east central Minnesota. The wild rice, or manoomin, is so tall and thick that, for a while, everything is obscured except the patch of blue sky overhead. Holding a pair of cedar knocking sticks in her hands, Stone, a Crane clan Anishinaabe writer and educator, pulls the top of the rice stalks over the boat and gently taps them to release some of the grains into the boat.
As the morning passes, the canoe fills up with rice and with the many small worms and insects that live on the rice as it grows in the shallow lake water. While Stone does the knocking, her nephew pushes the heavy canoe through the tall rice with a long pole. Wild rice grows in deep muck, and the danger of capsizing or falling out of the canoe is ever-present, so the pair moves cautiously and Stone grabs on to the rice stalks on both sides of the boat to hold it steady.
For Stone, and thousands of other Anishinaabe people (or Anishinaabeg), ricing is both a source of sustenance and a spiritual event that takes place every year. It begins with a ceremony that includes singing and other forms of paying respect to their rice relatives. It always includes knocking some grains into the water for animals and other beings, and to ensure there is seed for the following year’s rice.
At the end of the day, Stone will let the rice rest so that birds and other animals can feast on the insects. Even though much of the processing these days is done mechanically, Stone’s family always hand-processes some of it in the traditional way, and that rice is saved for ceremonies. Her family will parch it with fire to preserve it, while they gently dance on it in special moccasins made of elk or moose hide.
“Ricing is a family reunion and a celebration of what allows us to live on the earth,” says Stone.
Now, this sacred tradition is at risk, as the Canadian energy giant Enbridge has moved to expand and essentially reroute its tar sand pipeline through a region of Minnesota that has been described by activists as “untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of Anishinaabe peoples.” The construction of Line 3 began in December 2020 and was halted while the rivers were frozen, but Enbridge says it is expected to pick back up on or around the first of June. Meanwhile, construction of pumping stations has been ongoing.
The plan involves drilling under 22 river crossings in Minnesota’s pristine northern lake region, and Anishinaabeg and other “water protector” activists have been protesting the construction for years. But in the last six months, their response has been ramping up to include a number of camps, hunger strikes, blockades, and direct appeals to President Biden. In March, Jane Fonda flew in to show her support for the protesters, and dozens of water protectors have been arrested.
In April, Canada’s National Observer reported that Enbridge had been accused of paying police in Minnesota to harass activists by deploying drones, disrupting prayer ceremonies, and detaining them in cages. And while it hasn’t yet received the level of media coverage that the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock did, the resistance to Line 3 isn’t likely to die down any time soon. In fact, Rising Tide—a network of environmental activists working on five continents—is planning a week of action in response to Line 3 in early June.
Environmental advocates point to the fact that Line 3’s expanded capacity would add 50 new coal plants’ or 38 million additional cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere every year for the next three to five decades. But for the Anishaanabeg, it’s also a matter of legal rights, as the construction would violate a series of treaties with the U.S. government that grant them rights to hunt, fish, and gather food in the region. And for them, wild rice—both the food and the cultural symbol—is at the center of the fight.
“We are defined by manoomin. It is the whole reason we were sent here by Creator,” says Stone. “So, when the rice is destroyed, it is modern-day genocide. When the rice is gone, we cease to be who we have been for thousands of years.”
The Great Lakes region of the north central U.S. is home to wild rice or manoomin. It is an ecological keystone species in the region, and a sensitive aquatic plant that has been eradicated from many areas by water quality changes due to development.
Now, activists worry that the remaining rice lakes will be impacted by the compaction of wetland soils by heavy equipment use in the watersheds as well as inevitable leaks in the pipeline itself.
“There has never been a pipeline that did not leak,” is a warning frequently delivered by Indigenous environmental activist Winona LaDuke, who is helping lead the resistance to Line 3.
Elizabeth Skinaway, a member of the Sandy Lake Band of Ojibwe, hails from a watershed in northern Minnesota that is home to a confluence of rivers and streams, and the state’s premier wild rice lakes. She is very concerned about the potential for an oil spill from the construction of Line 3.
“All of these lakes, rivers, flowages, and rice beds are connected,” says Skinaway. “Wild rice is very, very delicate. Any change in the weather, water quality, and chemicals in the water really affects the rice in all of the connected waters in our territory,” she said.
Skinaway has been harvesting rice for 41 years. She does it in part to sustain her family throughout the year. “We supply our grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins as well as selling some to pay for basics like my son’s school clothes,” she said.
It’s also an important part of her cultural identity; her father, the late hereditary chief of the Sandy Lake Band, made traditional rice knockers out of cedar, which he used until she became proficient at harvesting, and he passed them on to her.
“This is part of our cultural teaching—our young ones know how to rice and they can feed themselves. If the rice is gone, what will we live on?” she asks.
Enbridge refers to the work it plans to do on Line 3 as a “replacement project” despite the fact that it involves extending the pipeline to the south and west of the original route. The company also claims that the new pipeline will be safer than the existing one.
After several recent protests, Juli Kellner, communications staff from Enbridge, has repeatedly issued the following statement: “We hoped all parties would come to accept the outcome of the thorough, science-based review and multiple approvals of the project. Line 3 has passed every test through six years of regulatory and permitting review including 70 public comment meetings, appellate review, and reaffirmation of a 13,500-page EIS [environmental impact statement], four separate reviews by administrative law judges, 320 route modifications in response to stakeholder input, and multiple reviews and approvals on the state, federal, and tribal levels.”
The company’s website says that the pipeline is currently being built under the supervision of Tribal construction monitors or “Tribal citizens who have the authority to stop construction and ensure that important cultural resources are protected.”
As the result of negotiations with tribal leadership, Line 3 was routed outside of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation and through the Reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Both Leech Lake and Fond du Lac leadership have spoken and written repeatedly in support of the project on the grounds that it brings jobs and support to local businesses, although there are also factions in the Fond du Lac band that vociferously oppose the project.
In her statement, Kellner continued: “The replacement of Line 3 . . . is creating significant economic benefits for Minnesota counties, small businesses, Native American communities, and union members, including 5,200 construction jobs, millions of dollars in local spending and tax revenues at a time when the state needs it most.”
In November 2020, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency granted the final state permits that would allow Enbridge to get federal approval to drill below 20 river crossings in Minnesota, Enbridge released a statement that read, “The Line 3 project has been designed to minimize impacts to sensitive streams and wetlands. Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with some of the nation’s most productive wild rice waters for 70 years.”
But Indigenous ricers say they have already seen the resource diminish over the years due to the development of lakeshore properties, climate change, and construction. And local ecologists also appear to hold a range of opinions on the topic.
In an April 2021 interview in the Minnesota Reformer, veteran wild rice ecologist (and recently retired University of Minnesota professor) David Beisboer was fatalistic about the future of the wild food.
“Wild rice is a little bit endangered because people are building pipelines, draining lakes, a million people live along lake shorelines and they don’t like wild rice. It’s just viewed as a slimy weed in their front yard around their dock. And so they want to eradicate it; they don’t know what it is and they don’t care,” he said.
Beisboer went on to compare pipelines to transporting tar sands by train, and concluded: “This oil is going to come here anyway, probably by train. And trains are a problem because they crash once in a while and spill their oil all over the place. Green energy isn’t going to happen at scale for a long time, and petroleum is important. And I don’t want to see the ecology of all these sites ruined. These pipelines are underground, out of sight, and safer in the long run. And spills are the price you pay for modern society.”
But Elizabeth Skinaway has concerns not only about oil spills, but also about the lack of transparency she has come to expect from the Canadian pipeline company. “Enbridge Energy has always lied about their spills, which often don’t get reported until months later. They won’t even tell us what they are hauling in their pipelines.” She added that she believes one of the company’s payloads is benzene, which has been shown to cause cancer in humans and animals. “All the water is connected. Even a gallon [of benzene] spilled in the waterways is a concern.”
In 2017, a tribal wild rice task force was formed in Minnesota to study manoomin and make recommendations to state agencies. The task force’s 2018 report emphasized the need to maintain water quality and clarity in wild rice watersheds, and to recognize its importance to Anishinaabe life and culture. The report addressed water quality issues, sulfates in particular, which are known to affect wild rice germination and survival.
The task force report points out that wild rice is not found to grow in the southwest portions of the state where sulfate concentrations in the water are higher. In northern Minnesota’s undisturbed watersheds, however, sulfate remains bound in the glacial and bedrock geology, resulting in low ambient sulfate concentrations. But when the waters are disturbed, that trapped sulfate can get released, endangering the rice.
Wendy Stone, who relocated from northern Michigan to Minnesota 24 years ago, says she saw first-hand how the Michigan wild rice was destroyed by the silting up of rivers as a result of an unsustainable harvest. She also says the 2010 Enbridge Energy oil spill in the Kalamazoo River near where she lived impacted the rice beds there.
In the context of the potential damage from the construction of Line 3, Stone compares the Anishinaabe seasonal harvest of tens of thousands of acres of wild rice to the work of small family farmers. “If this pipeline was threatening thousands of small family farms, maybe people would understand the gravity of the situation better. That is the way we should be thinking of this,” she said.
But Stone also sees traditional hunting and gathering as far more sustainable than agriculture. “Everything else that was in a traditional garden required a lot of input to produce, but this wild rice is something so incredibly unique—it needed no inputs from the people to produce,” she says. “The plant is so generous; the spirit behind the manoomin must be the most giving spirit that Creator ever sent.”
Many rice lakes and streams around the Great Lakes have already lost their wild rice beds. The Prairie Island Dakota Community south of St. Paul has been working to restore its traditional rice beds, after losing them to development and changes in water chemistry. The Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota and a number of tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin are trying to reseed their former rice beds.
Skinaway says lakes are like people; each one is unique. “If you bring seed from a lake with different soil and water, it usually won’t establish successfully. I have hardly heard of anyone successfully reintroducing rice once it’s gone.”
Climate change is also having an impact on the existing rice beds. Dawn Goodwin, a waterkeeper from the White Earth Reservation, told Environmental Health News (EHN) that the increase in rain and flooding in the region in recent years has changed the lakes’ water levels for the worse, disrupting rice yields. “Two years ago, we got so much water that it didn’t ripen well,” she told EHN. “That puts our lifeways in danger because it’s all connected.”
Losing rice beds also has significant implications for wildlife. During peak rice years, hundreds of thousands of ducks and other birds in the region visit Rice Lake and Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge near McGregor, Minnesota to fatten up on the grain. In 1994, a one-day survey recorded an estimated 1 million waterfowl, with 60 percent ring-necked ducks.
The lake and refuge is an important stop for birds traveling the Mississippi Flyway—the route that hundreds of bird species take every year as they travel between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico. The shallow lake is one of the most important places for wild rice left in the state, at 3,600 acres, and rice covers nearly 70 percent of its total acres.
“The refuge’s namesake lake, Rice Lake, has been vitally important to Native Americans and migratory waterfowl for eons,” said Walt Ford, manager of the wildlife refuge. “Minnesota claims to have at least 120 lakes named Rice Lake, yet no other Rice Lake has the reputation for attracting waterfowl like this one.”
Skinaway has been encouraging people from other communities to come to Sandy Lake—which she calls the “jewel of wild rice country”—to experience the manoomin harvest, the rice processing, and to witness the connection between wildlife and rice firsthand. She hosted a rice camp at Sandy Lake last fall. “There were people from all over the country, even Indigenous people from South America,” she said. Skinaway taught them how to make cedar knockers and how to do traditional ricing. She hopes to host another camp this fall to help the water protectors who come from other regions to protect the Mississippi River from Line 3 learn how to do those things, too.
Her hope is to show as many people as possible the fact that everyone from bugs to muskrats to Anishinaabeg rely on the health of the rice—before it’s too late.
“It’s a big web of life, and we can’t let a foreign company invade our habitat and destroy that delicate balance,” said Skinaway.
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