The next big pipeline protest?

Native Americans lead the fight for clean water
The next big pipeline protest?
Photo by Thomas Yonash

I was horrified by the images coming out of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota this past winter. The attack dogs, the rubber bullets and the water cannons used in subfreezing temperatures on the supporters who called themselves Water Protectors–it’s unthinkable. Like many other native people, I wanted to be there, but teaching obligations prevented me from making the trip. Others from my community on the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation did go to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, displaying our tribal flag with nearly 400 others at the Sacred Stone Camp. At the heart of the issue are tribal sovereignty and the right of American Indian people to clean water.

I’ve wondered in the months since why this issue resonated with so many of us, and why it should matter to people in Madison. Like moths to an environmental flame, thousands of indigenous people traveled to North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors. There were plenty of non-Native Americans too, which brought to mind an Ojibwe prophecy that describes a “New People” who will emerge during a turbulent era to reclaim the old ways. Our teachings predict a time when the path splits–one way is soft and sustainable and leads to peace and prosperity; the other is hard and destructive and leads to, well, the end.

In fall 2016, when everything seemed to be exploding at Standing Rock, I was on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for one semester and teaching at Northwestern University. In October, three of the students I was advising traveled to North Dakota to report on the pipeline story. I met with them before their trip, offered what advice I could, and connected them via Facebook to native and non-native friends along their intended route. One of those friends is Madison alderwoman Rebecca Kemble, who traveled to the protest site to deliver a resolution from the Madison Common Council in support of the Water Protectors.

The students were there the same month that Kemble and 26 other individuals were arrested. The Madison alderwoman was charged with four misdemeanors, including criminal trespass and resisting arrest. She posted a $1,250 bail after spending a night in the Morton County jail. While in North Dakota, Kemble was shocked to see Dane County sheriff’s deputies, along with Wisconsin state troopers and deputies from Rock, Marathon and St. Croix counties assisting North Dakota law enforcement. In an interview with NU student journalists June Leffler and Cloee Cooper, Kemble said, “We shouldn’t be sending our law enforcement to do security for the pipeline company.”

DAPL opponents complained that mainstream media ignored the pipeline story until the struggle turned violent. However, Leffler and Cooper’s story was one aspect of the issue that did gain traction. After Madison media reported that 13 deputies and supervisors had been sent to the protest site, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney succumbed to citizen pressure and ordered the deputies to return home.

Following the election of Donald Trump as president, work on the pipeline resumed [and oil is now flowing under the Missouri River, the sole source of Standing Rock’s drinking water]. In ordering the Water Protector camps dismantled, the tribal council announced that the protest was now in the hands of the lawyers. Many Water Protectors felt betrayed by the council’s edict, a decision that sharply divided the Standing Rock community and created wounds that have not healed.

Was the protest worth it? As a member of an indigenous community that may be the site of the next big pipeline battle, I selfishly say “yes.” In January 2017, the Bad River Tribal Council refused to renew easements and ordered the energy company Enbridge Inc. to remove 12 miles of crude oil pipe from the reservation. The aging Line 5 pipeline, now nearly a decade and a half past its 50-year shelf life, traverses the reservation along our northern boundary and is located on sovereign land.

Bad River, along with several other tribal nations in Michigan and environmental groups, warn that the pipe is corroding. We worry about another Enbridge spill similar to one in 2010 that dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. That cleanup cost more than $750 million. Even a small spill on the Bad River reservation, Tribal Chairman Robert Blanchard warned, could harm our wild rice and threaten mino-bimaadiziwin, our “good life.”

In March 2017, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers met with tribal members and staff, asking that Enbridge be allowed to repair four “anomalies” in the pipe. “We told them that Enbridge was being evicted,” tribal member Sandy Deragon told me outside the meeting, “and it’s like they’re telling us they want to fix a leaky faucet and paint the bathroom!”

It’s clear that the Standing Rock protests have elevated public awareness about pipelines–not only nationally but also in Madison. However, unlike DAPL, which is located off the reservation, Line 5 is on sovereign Bad River land. This is a battle with different and arguably bigger stakes. If the issue ends up in court, as most observers predict it will, few expect that the current administration will defend the rights of native people. In his first week in office, President Trump signed executive orders to allow construction on both the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines to resume. His surrogates have even talked of privatizing the reservations.

What does that mean? The last time Congress attempted to privatize the reservations was through the Allotment Act of 1887, leading to Indian nations losing 90 million acres, or two-thirds of their land base. This was a legalized land grab from which many native communities still have not recovered. Now it’s about what’s underneath those lands. About a fifth of U.S. oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath Indian trust lands. Few Americans understand that native nations do not technically own their reservations. Our lands are held in trust by the federal government, which is obligated by law to act in our best interests. Will a conservative U.S. Supreme Court decide that an aging pipeline is in Bad River’s “best interests?” Will it rule that we need to be privatized and unburdened from our natural resources for our own good? If the next pipeline battle is here in northern Wisconsin, Indian sovereignty itself may be at stake.

Patty Loew is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until the end of August and is a member of Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin. She begins teaching at Northwestern University in September.