In early December – after years of resistance from many tribes and Native communities – Enbridge Energy company began construction on the new Line 3 oil pipeline in northwestern Minnesota. But work on one section recently stopped because of an Ojibwe ceremonial lodge that stands in the path of the pipeline.
This region is the headwaters of the Mississippi River and treaty land where Ojibwe have always retained rights to hunt, fish, gather and practice cultural traditions. So the recent discovery of a ceremonial lodge in a wooded area along the proposed pipeline route in Aitkin county stopped construction in its tracks. It’s hard to tell when exactly the lodge was built.
“No, I don’t know when it went up.” said Dawn Goodwin.
Goodwin – along with hundreds of others – has been at that pipeline construction site off and on since work began in early December. She is a water protector, resisting the pipeline in order to protect the land and water and the lives they sustain. She is a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and a founder of RISE – Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging and she’s part of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
She says the ceremonial lodge was there before Enbridge workers were on those grounds.
“I know it was before they marked their route cause they came in and put a stake right in the middle of the lodge. And then one of the grandmothers – one of our water walkers -took it out yesterday. She decided it needed to come out.” Goodwin said.
In a written statement, an Enbridge Energy company representative points out that this lodge was not included in what the company considers a very thorough Cultural Resources Survey as part of the state’s approval process.
But the state’s approval process recognized that – indeed – there may be sites they did not show up in that survey. And there is a plan in place for just this kind of situation. The “unanticipated discoveries” plan sets up a group of tribal monitors overseen by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. When they are alerted to a potentially culturally significant site along the anticipated pipeline route – like this lodge -, the plan calls for construction work to stop until the site can be assessed and a plan made.
And that is what has happened on this site near Palisades, Minnesota. The Fond du Lac tribal preservation officer did not respond to calls in time for this story.
But because this area is in treaty territory and some of the people using the lodge for ceremonies are White Earth citizens, the White Earth Tribal Historical Preservation Officer has now gotten involved. Jamie Arcenault says she has not been working directly with Enbridge or the tribal monitors from Fond du Lac. And the lack of communication is a concern.
But her position on the lodge is very clear.
“It doesn’t matter how new or how old the structure is – what matters is the practice that is going on within it. Part of my responsibility is to uphold the community’s right to have that practice. This is a place where people do go for healing and do go for prayer and especially during a global pandemic, I think that matters,” said Arcenault, “There is no one individual that really has the authority to decide what is sacred or dictate where Native people can go for prayer or go for healing.”
On one hand, you can imagine a court saying – a group can’t build a wooden structure in the path of pipeline, call it a sacred space and expect the project to come to a halt. But on the other hand, laws protecting freedom of religion and treaty rights… guarantee Ojibwe peoples’ right to practice their culture and traditions on these lands.
Dawn Goodwin says she thinks about this often.
“We are all treaty people. We need to protect our environment. Things have gone too far. Climate change affects our traditional life ways – because we depend on having a stable environment, we need clean water in order to harvest and live off the land,” said Goodwin.
For now, the Fond du Lac tribal monitors are assessing the cultural significance of the wooden lodge on the anticipated pipeline route. Eventually, they will recommend how to move forward – which could be building the pipeline through the lodge or around it.
In the meantime, both the Red lake Band of Chippewa and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe have filed an appeals to overturn the state’s approval of the Line 3 pipeline.
And the Native led environmental group Honor the Earth has filed a motion with the Public Utilities Commission to stop all pipeline construction while that appeal is pending.
The hearing for the Honor the Earth motion is set for Wednesday December 23rd.
Melissa Townsend reporting for Minnesota Native News