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White Earth recognizes the rights of wild rice: Officials hope ordinance bolster challenge to Line 3

BEMIDJI--A Minnesota Ojibwe band has codified a piece of its culture, which could strengthen a potential challenge to a controversial oil pipeline project.

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White Earth Nation leaders unanimously approved in late December a new ordinance granting legal rights to wild rice. (Forum News Service file photo)
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BEMIDJI-A Minnesota Ojibwe band has codified a piece of its culture, which could strengthen a potential challenge to a controversial oil pipeline project.

White Earth Nation leaders unanimously approved in late December a new ordinance granting legal rights to manoomin-"wild rice"-which is a traditional staple of Ojibwe spirituality and diets.

Manoomin itself, the ordinance reads, has inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as rights to pure water and a healthy environment that's unaffected by climate change and human emissions.

It's patterned after similar "rights of nature" resolutions in Wisconsin and Oklahoma, and it could be part of a challenge to the state government and Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 replacement plan. The transnational energy giant wants to construct a multi-billion dollar pipeline to replace the majority of one that runs from Edmonton, Alta, to Superior, Wis. The project is often vehemently opposed by environmental activists and tribal leaders, who worry about spills and a multitude of other hazards.

The federal Clean Water Act requires Enbridge to get a "401" water quality certification from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to keep moving the pipeline project through the state and federal regulatory processes, but White Earth attorneys believe the band should have it's own say in the matter.

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White Earth leaders claim that Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights in lands ceded through a complex series of treaties are subject to U.S. Congress, not the state, and therefore aren't subject to state regulation. So, the argument goes, Minnesota's government alone cannot grant the water quality certificate because the band is on equal footing, legally speaking, with the MPCA.

"The state can't regulate tribal rights," said Frank Bibeau, the executive director of the 1855 treaty authority and an attorney for the band who helped draft the ordinance.

The manoomin ordinance could bolster that argument, he said.

"We're defining what the rights of manoomin are so that they understand that we're going to protect manoomin and that manoomin requires quality water resources," Bibeau said. "And so that's what we're going to use to go into the 401 process and challenge the state's ability to unilaterally grant that permit to Enbridge because we believe our consent is required because we have shared property rights with the state of Minnesota."

It's similar to the line of thinking offered when band members make a point of fishing the day before Minnesota's opener. The state sees it differently, and the anglers are usually cited.

White Earth leaders told Gov. Tim Walz in January they'd request a "full hearing, with contested case proceedings, if Minnesota plans to exercise primary jurisdiction" on the water quality certification.

Enbridge submitted a request for the certification in late October. The MPCA is still reviewing that application, and is expected to announce a public comment period soon.

Related Topics: LINE 3 REPLACEMENT PROJECT
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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