By Brett Larson, June 30, 2015
Last month, District II Rep. David ‘Niib’ Aubid and Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin coordinated a public hearing in the Minisinaakwaang community to gather testimony on a proposed pipeline that would cross tribal lands, bringing North Dakota oil through Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.
The hearing was held June 5 at East Lake Community Center as a response to the state’s failure to hold any hearings on tribal lands about the proposed pipeline. Enbridge, the corporation that would build and operate the pipeline, has dubbed it “Sandpiper.”
The hearing was a directive from Melanie based on the fact that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) “seemed to be ignoring us,” she said.
“I decided we needed a forum for Band members to make their voices heard,” Melanie said. “Band Statutes provide the Chief Executive with authority to hold Executive Inquiries, so that’s the authority I used to hold this hearing. It was an exercise of the Band’s sovereignty as an Indian Nation.”
Melanie appointed hearing officer Nicholas Targ, an environmental lawyer and former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, to listen to testimony and submit a summary report to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Melanie will request that the agencies consider the findings of the hearing and that the Band be designated a “cooperating agency” under federal law, which would give the Band a role in conducting the Environmental Impact Statement.
Melanie opened the hearing by welcoming those in attendance, introducing Nicholas, and explaining the importance of the hearing. “This is not just about the rights of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe,” Melanie said. “This is about the rights of Band members to live, work and raise our children in an environment free from pollution.”
Two common themes emerged during the morning testimony: the lack of government-to-government consultation throughout the process, and the need for an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed pipeline.
During her testimony, Mille Lacs Band Secretary/Treasurer Carolyn Beaulieu said Gov. Mark Dayton signed an executive order requiring Executive Branch agencies to consult with tribes on a government-to-government basis prior to taking action on issues of interest to tribes.
The Public Utilities Commission made no effort to reach out to the tribes, saying tribes had the same right as any individual citizen to submit a letter.
“Treating a federally-recognized tribal government the same as an individual private citizen offends Minnesota public policy, Governor Dayton’s Executive Order, and our sensibilities,” Carolyn said.
The PUC claimed that it is not a Cabinet-level agency identified in Dayton’s Executive Order. Carolyn responded, “Failing to consult with tribes based on a hyper-technical reading of the Executive Order violates the basic tenets of respect between sovereigns. It also violates the spirit of the Executive Order that Governor Dayton issued.”
The PUC was not alone in its failure to consult with tribes. The Department of Commerce and other state agencies also failed to do so. Like the PUC, Enbridge made no effort to consult with the tribes until after Mille Lacs and White Earth bands had scheduled their own hearings,” Carolyn said.
“We ask that the PUC slow down. Stop. And back up to a point where it can give tribal governments the respectful and honorable consultation we are due,” Carolyn concluded.
Multiple testimonies stressed the importance of manoomin (wild rice) to the culture and spirituality of the Rice Lake and Sandy Lake communities; the potential impact of an oil spill on the water, air, wildlife and forests; and the Band’s right to harvest in the region.
A panel of Elders — Kaadaak (Dale Greene), Niib, Miskwaanakwad and Russell Shabaiash — talked about the importance of wild rice. Niib said the ancestors made sure to preserve their right to gather wild rice when they signed treaties with the U.S. government. He said members of other Bands often traveled to Minisinaakwaang and Sandy Lake because of the prevalence of rice.
Natalie Weyaus of the Mille Lacs Band’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office warned that the existence of archaeological remains could create problems during the construction of a pipeline. Her colleague Charlie Sam said Enbridge has not contacted the office or considered historic preservation in its plans.
DNR scientists Perry Bunting, Ryan Rupp, Chad Weiss, Todd Moilanen, Kelly Applegate, Charles Lippert and Jacob Horbacz discussed the impact the pipeline could have on the water, wildlife, forests and air quality. Health and Human Services Commissioner Sam Moose explained health disparities between Indians and the general population and the importance of culture and tradition to the welfare of the tribe.
Some of the most memorable testimony came from East Lake community members. Michaa Aubid, a Minisinaakwaang resident well versed in the history of the region, joined a panel of attorneys Frank Bibeau, Peter Erlinder and Philomena Kebec to put the pipeline in legal and historical perspective, explaining that the Ojibwe people have rights to use the land through which the pipeline would run, yet those rights were ignored by Enbridge and the PUC.
Michaa said the Anishinaabe reserved the right to harvest throughout the area Elders called the tribe’s “dish” or “onaagan.” “If you look at the map where the pipeline is coming through, it affects our ability to harvest and gather into the future. These treaty rights that the Anishinaabe saved in 1855 and subsequent agreements, that future is in jeopardy. … Literally, Enbridge is coming right through our ‘dish’.”
Darrell Shingobe brought his daughter and his aunt to the table to demonstrate how the issue affects all generations. He dumped a quart of oil into an aquarium full of grass so people could see how it affects the water and the soil.
“I’m fighting for her,” said Darrell, referring to his daughter. “If I get emotional it’s because I want her to be able to go out and rice. I want her to be able to take me out there to knock.”
Harvey GoodSky Jr., accompanied by his baby boy in a traditional cradleboard, gave a passionate speech about his activism in opposition to the pipeline. “I would like for all the other youth, the ones that aren’t even born yet, even this little guy in the cradleboard, to be able to exercise their inherent rights as well. And I want you to know there is no price — there is no price — to any of our inherent rights.”
His mother, Tania Aubid, who has been battling the pipeline across the state during the past year, also spoke from the heart about the inherent dangers of oil pipelines and the devastating effect a spill would have on the environment.
Tania’s other son, Algin, was equally eloquent in his description of the importance of traditional activities. Like many who testified, Algin introduced himself in Ojibwe, pounding the table as he said, “Minisinaakwaang indoonjiba. Minisinaakwaang indaa — I am from Minisinaakwaang, and I live in Minisinaakwaang.”
“When I’m out ricing, when I’m out collecting, when I’m out harvesting, I know peace and happiness,” he said. “For a company, a corporation, for any human being to take away that happiness and that way of life and that right is completely wrong, and I would like Enbridge to think about that because their peace and happiness can be taken away just as easily.”
Opitchee Mushkooub said, “This is our food. This is where we live. This is our water. Our basic human rights. And that’s all we want.”
After hours of testimony, the hearing concluded with a look at the “big picture” of fossil fuel dependence and global climate change.
Winona LaDuke, a White Earth Band member, called the pipeline one more example of Indian people being victimized — a “dangerous” action given the fragile health of Indian communities. She said building a pipeline is “egregious from beginning to end,” emphasizing that burning the remaining oil reserves “is pretty much a death sentence to the planet.”
Don Wedll, a former Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Natural Resources, said Enbridge is planning a second pipeline through the corridor to transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands, and he discussed the potential costs to remove carbon from the air. “This is no different than years ago when people would dump pollution into rivers to avoid the cost of disposing of it properly,” said Don. “We will not see the impact of what we’re doing today for 75 to 100 years, but one of the ways we can prevent some of this is to stop expansion of pipelines.”
Dawn Aubid, another Minisinaakwaang resident, gave the final testimony of the day and summed up many of the arguments against the pipeline: “We are the caretakers of the land,” Dawn said, “and to protect the land is our civic responsibility.”
Before the testimony concluded, those in attendance learned that the Public Utilities Commission had voted 5-0 in favor of the certificate of need for the project. Although the action approves the construction of the pipeline, the final route of the pipeline has not been decided, so the testimony of Band members may still affect the outcome.
A routing permit will be granted after additional study of route alternatives. It is not clear how long that process will take, but Enbridge has said it hopes to begin construction in 2016 and finish in 2017.
After the hearing, Melanie said, “This is far from over. We will do everything we can to protect our homeland.”