On Indigenous Peoples Day, Let’s Discuss Big Oil’s War on Native Rights | Opinion

On Indigenous Peoples Day, Let’s Discuss Big Oil’s War on Native Rights | Opinion

This summer, Anishinaabe Tribal Nations throughout the Great Lakes celebrated an achievement: Wild rice, called manoomin in our language, was growing in thick and golden clumps from the lake bottom. Using push-poles and traditional bundling to re-seed the waters, we have long tried to revive this aquatic plant from habitat loss and climate change. Manoomin to us is more than just a nutritious food or commodity; it’s a sacred gift that brought our people to settle these shores. It is the keeper of a culture. To this day, manoomin plays a significant role in our traditions. But to protect our manoomin, we must protect our own existence here, and across the country we call Turtle Island. To do so, we need to win a war waged by the fossil fuel industry—the war against tribal sovereignty.

Although Tribal Nations control just 2 percent of all land in the U.S., these lands hold about $1.5 trillion in untapped fossil fuels—around a third of the country’s coal, methane gas, and oil. Fossil fuel companies are impatient to extract, transport, and sell all of it before the renewable energy transition puts them out of business, and tribes like mine are getting in their way. The treaties we signed with the U.S. government give many tribes the right to preserve what has always been sacred to us: lands, waters, and wildlife. Although these rights are often ignored, they are a real and important source of power.

My tribe—Bay Mills Indian Community’s fight against Line 5 is a case in point. Line 5 is a crumbling pipeline that cuts through our ancestral lands in upper Michigan as it delivers 23 million gallons of crude oil and methane gas daily. After causing the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history, oil giant Enbridge is now seeking permits to extend Line 5’s life by building a tunnel underneath the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge’s untested tunnel design carries the serious risk of explosion, potentially contaminating the world’s largest freshwater stronghold. If state and federal agencies grant Enbridge permission, the tunnel project would also lock in climate-warming fossil fuel production for the next century. Line 5 is not just an affront to treaty rights, but to our existence, too.

Wild rice
Wild rice, called manoomin in our language, growing in thick and golden clumps from the lake bottom.
Photo Courtesy of Whitney Gravelle

The Straits of Mackinac are the center of creation for Ojibwe people. An oil spill in the Great Lakes would have unthinkable consequences for our cultural sites, our fisheries, our manoomin, and our drinking water. Every Tribal Nation in Michigan and others have demanded that Line 5 be shut down. With 90 percent of the oil going to end users in Canada, even Enbridge that without Line 5, gas prices may only rise by half a cent per gallon. Studies show that there are viable alternatives to Line 5, from oil and propane transportation to processing, that will supply energy and maintain existing jobs. Yet Enbridge continues trespassing on Indigenous lands, appropriating our language and culture in their ads, and trying to re-route their antiquated pipeline around Tribal Nations so they can keep profiting. In response, we’ve taken our case before the courts, showing how Line 5 violates our treaty-protected rights—a legal safeguard that may soon disappear.

wild rice
Growing wild rice is pictured.
Photo Courtesy of Whitney Gravelle

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Brackeen v. Haaland this fall, a case that attacks the power of tribes to have a say in some child welfare cases. It follows on the heels of Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, in which the Supreme Court upended 200 years of precedent by granting some criminal jurisdiction over tribal lands to the state of Oklahoma. This intentional chipping away at Indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty is largely a reaction to the mass resistance of Indigenous people to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which cost the oil industry billions and inspired water protectors around the world. Seven months after the #NoDAPL resistance camp was shut down, a law firm with oil industry ties filed Brackeen v. Haaland, at no charge to their clients. If Big Oil can successfully exploit an ultra-conservative Supreme Court bench to dismantle Indigenous power in this country, they will earn an enormous windfall at the expense of us all.

The U.S. government has a treaty trust responsibility to Tribal Nations and must act. While tribes will receive a whopping $720 million for climate and energy funding via the Inflation Reduction Act, true partnership means respecting our treaty rights and defending tribal sovereignty against fossil fuel projects. In Michigan and other states, agencies must consult in a meaningful way with Tribal Nations. In Congress, lawmakers must oppose fossil fuel giveaways like Senator Joe Manchin‘s permitting side-deal, which could weaken tribal input and expedite industry pet projects. On Indigenous Peoples Day the government said the U.S. “celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.” There is no better way to honor us than by stopping Big Oil’s war on tribal sovereignty.

Whitney Gravelle is president of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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