Eaton: Treaties, tribes and Turtle Island

A second look into the nuances of stopping Line 3.


by Emily Eaton

Find part one of this column here.

The day President Joe Biden took office, he canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial pipeline extension. Roughly 22 days later, construction on the Enbridge Line 3 barrels forward, with no sign of stopping.

Line 3’s path will travel through Ojibwe treaty grounds and Fond Du Lac tribal lands. For professor Michael Dockry, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a professor in the Department of American Indian Studies and assistant faculty member of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, tribal sovereignty is a complicated and important issue. Federal law and state regulations require governments to consult with Indigenous groups before making environmental decisions. But state and federal governments are not legally required to adhere to what tribal governments want. Recently, the Red Lake and White Earth Bands of Ojibwe have asked for construction on Line 3 to be paused until challenging lawsuits can be heard. A U.S. District Court judge denied the request.

As Dockry explains, tribes think about the natural world and its resources in a much different light than westernized society. Natural resources aren’t commodities for consumption, they are family. Indigenous activists and tribal members refer to the United States by a name with strong ties to the natural world: Turtle Island. A pipeline spill that damages a bed of wild rice would not only violate treaty rights, but it would also damage an important part of Indigenous culture. For Dockry, the construction of Line 3 sits at a complicated nexus of ideals. Much of his work is devoted to tribal sovereignty, pushing him to defer to the decisions of tribal governments. But, he said, “Our tribal leaders are saying we need to start healing our relationship to the planet” — that includes phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

Changing the way we look at tribal nations isn’t just about considering another point of view. For Tara Houska, it’s about going back to her roots. Houska is a prominent voice in Indigenous advocacy and the fight against Line 3. She’s a Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe, a former tribal attorney, advisor to Bernie Sanders and creator of this TEDTalk, among many other accomplishments. When I called her, however, she was on her way to buy a new skinning knife.

After fighting inequities and mistreatment of indigenous populations at the federal level, Houska recognized the need for a strong frontline fight against tribal erasure. In response, she founded the Giniw Collective, a group led entirely by Indigenous women and two-spirit individuals. The organization focuses on land protection and defense. Protesting Line 3 is a piece of that, but so is mutual aid work, spreading traditional knowledge, wild ricing, hunting and fishing. In essence, the Collective works to restore the native way of living in balance with the natural world. The name itself pays homage to the generations past who have fought for the Indigenous lifestyle. Giniw is the golden eagle, believed to live between the human and the spirit world, a messenger who connects the past and present. The Giniw Collective creates a space that honors history and allows young people to grow and learn.

Houska understands first hand what it’s like to care deeply about a cause and feel as though no one is listening. Though she still participates in traditional advocacy (for example, The Giniw Collective recently hosted Rep. Ilhan Omar), Houska passionately believes that “direct action … standing with the land in a real way, in a physical way, is one of the most under-resourced, undersupported forms of advocacy.” Advocacy is empowering, she explained to me, but only when people take risks and see the impact that can be had.

When asked what she would like to say to people who are passionate about Line 3, but can’t seem to make the leap to protesting on the frontlines, Houska replied. “There were 68,000 comments submitted by concerned community members against the Line 3 pipeline,” she began. “There were thousands of hours put into hearings, … and there was a unanimous decision made to approve the pipeline. Our system is broken. It is heavily skewed towards industry. We aren’t going to make change comfortably. I don’t think we’re going to stop Line 3 by sitting behind a computer screen. It takes bravery and it takes action to effect change.”

On Jan. 29, I attended a protest against Line 3. I listened as people spoke of the native belief of water as the grandmother, the giver of life and ultimate healer. I was reminded of my conversation with Dockry in that moment, and how he spoke of nature, and of the world around us, as family.

As we marched, chants of “stop line three” echoed between the historic buildings of downtown St. Paul. The crowd was not large, but a feeling of generational pain hung heavily in the air. After weeks of reading and writing about Line 3, it was empowering to see the community in action and to be surrounded by people who understood my frustration and anger.

Building Line 3 poses incredible environmental risks and bureaucratic challenges. But, in a time of deep partisanship, it has united people from all walks of life in protest. It has turned attorneys into community organizers, pulled college students away from their textbooks and pushed them up north, and made opinion columnists go rogue.

I spoke to an older gentleman working solo on the Stone Arch Bridge to spread awareness. It was a quieter form of advocacy: him, his sign and the mission to speak to everyone who passed by. When I asked what motivated him to be out there on that bridge in the middle of January, he explained very simply: “I do this for my grandkids.”

For those looking to learn more about Line 3, check out the following resources:

To learn more about Line 3 and Enbridge, look into Stop Line 3. To get involved, resources and information can be found through Honor the Earth, Welcome Water Protectors and UMN Climate Strike, among many others.