FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, July 28th, 2022
Natalie Cook 651-295-3483
Treaty Rights, Land and Water Pollution, and Climate at Issue in Clearwater County Case
BAGLEY, MN – Today a Clearwater County Judge heard arguments with far-reaching implications for Indigenous treaty rights as they relate to extractive industry, land and water pollution, and climate change. In treaties with the United States, Anishinaabe peoples retained the right to engage in spiritual and cultural activities.
In June 2021, over 1,500 people gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River Headwaters to protest against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and assert treaty rights to hunt, fish, gather, and occupy ceded lands. Non-Indigenous allies were invited to participate in support of treaty rights. A ceremonial camp–Fire Light Camp–was set up at the Mississippi River crossing. A sacred fire was lit and over 50 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people held ceremony in the path of construction, which halted Line 3 construction for eight days. At the end of the eight days, participants were charged with trespassing.
At issue is the State's attempt to criminalize the Anishinaabe who exercised their treaty rights and invited guests who joined them in doing so.
The oral arguments in Clearwater County are the first step in a legal battle to recognize the obligation and right, of Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous allies, to insist that treaties be respected.
The court’s ruling could affect not only cases across Minnesota, but across the nation, anywhere that the destructive practices of extractive industry violate Indigenous treaty rights.
Pipeline construction threatens sacred waters, as well as the treaty-guaranteed ability to hunt, fish, and gather from intact ecosystems, and engage in religious and cultural practices central to Anishinaabe peoples. Further, proximity to pipeline mancamps threatened the safety and wellbeing of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit peoples as part of the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWG2SR). In the face of these threats, Indigenous Water Protectors and their invited guests lit a ceremonial fire, gathered in prayer, and camped in Enbridge’s path stretching over the Mississippi River.
Last month, the cases of three Anishinaabe Water Protectors were dismissed following their transfer to White Earth Tribal Court. The judge determined that the Indigenous Water Protectors’ participation in the Fire Light Camp was a lawful exercise of their Treaty-reserved rights.
“Asserting Treaties isn’t a crime and should never be tried as one. We feel hopeful, win or lose, we’ll continue to assert our Treaties, our sovereignty was never ceded. The Firelight encampment was the beginning of what the new future looks like as treaty partners, a future we can all thrive in.” Nancy Beaulieu, Anishinaabe defendant
“As I have educated myself more on the Treaties that allow the United States to exist and for settlers to live on this land, it has become increasingly important to me to act as a Treaty partner. Because on this land, we are all Treaty people. That comes with responsibilities.” Michelle Wenderlich, Fire Light Defendant
Indigenous peoples have long protected sacred waters through treaty-based litigation. This groundbreaking legal argument could open a new door for racial justice in the United States.
Defendants are moving to dismiss the trespassing charges against them because their presence at the Fire Light ceremony on the Mississippi headwaters was as the invited guests of Anishinaabe peoples exercising their treaty-reserved rights between the United States and the Anishinaabe peoples, including the right to hold ceremony and preserve natural resources.
Through multiple treaties between the United States Government and Anishinaabe peoples, the Tribes gave the right to settlers to be in this land, and at the same time reserved significant sovereign rights over use of the ceded land. The 1855 treaty territory extends across much of Northern MN, and Anishinaabe peoples retain the right to hunt, fish, gather, preserve natural resources, travel, participate in religious ceremonies, and otherwise maintain traditional use over the lands they ceded in the 1855 treaty in perpetuity.
The Anishinaabe have held these rights and protected the Mississippi headwaters from time immemorial. The U.S. Constitution recognizes the Anishinaabe’s negotiated treaty terms as the “supreme Law of the Land” that bind both federal and state governments alike.
Article VI, clause 2 of the United States Constitution states that “treaties” are a part of “the supreme law of the land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…."
Fire Light Camp
In June 2021 over 1,500 people gathered on the shores of the Mississippi River. A sacred fire was lit and over 50 Indigenous and non-indigenous people halted Line 3 construction for eight days during a ceremony at the Mississippi River crossing Fire Light Camp. At the end of the eight days, dozens were charged with misdemeanor trespass.
On June 27th, 2022, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court dismissed charges against three Anishinaabe defendants whose cases had been transferred out of State court. Anishinaabe Water Protectors Nancy Beaulieu, Justin Keezer, and Todd Thompson were charged for protecting the water from the Enbridge corporation’s building of their Line 3 pipeline. The tribal court affirmed the defendants were legally exercising their treaty rights when they practiced 8 days of ceremony at the headwaters of the Mississippi river as part of the Fire Light Camp.
On July 28th non-Indigenous defendants will make the same case in Minnesota District Court in Clearwater County. They will argue that they too were upholding the treaties made between sovereign nations in the face of Enbridge’s destruction as guests at the Indigenous-led Fire Light Camp.
Enbridge’s Line 3 Pipeline
In 2021, in the face of activist pressure, multiple lawsuits, and years of regulatory uncertainty, Enbridge built their Line 3 pipeline in record time. By working around the clock they were able to evade permit violations and build before all legal proceedings could be heard in court.
Line 3 carries tar sands oil from Canada through Minnesota and the upper midwest. Tar sands oil is some of the most carbon-intensive oil in the world because of its extraction and refining requirements. Line 3 is the carbon pollution equivalent of 50 coal fired power plants.
Pipeline construction threatens sacred waters, as well as the treaty-guaranteed ability to hunt, fish, and gather from intact ecosystems, and engage in religious and cultural practices central to Anishinaabe people. Proximity to pipeline mancamps threatens the safety and wellbeing of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit peoples as part of the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWG2SR).