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Mille Lacs Band vows to fight Sandpiper

McGREGOR - The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe on Friday railed against the proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline they claim threatens the wild rice fields essential to the band's identity.

Tribal elder David Aubid speaks of the importance of the wild rice harvest to the Mille Lacs Band. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Tribal elder David Aubid speaks of the importance of the wild rice harvest to the Mille Lacs Band. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
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McGREGOR - The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe on Friday railed against the proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline they claim threatens the wild rice fields essential to the band's identity.

During a hearing organized by the tribe, officials and elders expressed outrage with the state of Minnesota and with Enbridge Energy for allegedly failing to properly consult them during the planning and permitting process for the pipeline. Following a traditional pipe ceremony and invocation in the Anishinaabe language, Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin vowed to do everything in the band's power to keep the pipeline from interfering with their way of life. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted later that day to approve the overall pipeline project, despite a letter from Benjamin in May asking them to postpone their decision until after consulting with the tribe.

Benjamin said Mille Lacs would fight regardless of what the PUC decided.

"This is far from over," she said. "We will do everything we can to protect our homeland."

When asked if the tribe had considered legal action, Benjamin said Mille Lacs would go over its options after the PUC had voted.

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"We will determine what that next step will be, based on the Public Utilities Commission's hearing," she said.

Following news of the PUC's decision, Benjamin released a statement expressing her disappointment.

"The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will continue to fight any and all actions that threaten our culture, our health, our natural resources and our ability to exercise our constitutionally-protected gathering rights," she said.

During the Mille Lacs hearing, David Aubid spoke as part of a panel of tribal elders on the importance of wild rice to the Mille Lacs Band. Wild rice is part of the tribe's culture and there are a limited amount of places on the earth where it grows. The pipeline stands to potentially damage a wild rice harvest area protected by treaty rights, he said.

"It's not only a threat to me - I'm an elder now, I think about the generations to come, my children, my grandchildren," he said. "It's a total disregard for our treaty rights and our existence as a people."

Later on in the hearing, Mille Lacs Secretary Carolyn Beaulieu gave a detailed argument for government consultation she said the state failed to do with Mille Lacs.

She pointed out Gov. Mark Dayton signed Executive Order 13-10 in August 2013, which requires cabinet-level state agencies to consult with tribes on issues that affect American Indians, but the PUC didn't schedule a public hearing on an Indian reservation like it had done in other communities across the state. When the Mille Lacs Band approached the PUC regarding Sandpiper and the public hearings, they were told to file a comment just as any individual could do during the permitting process, Beaulieu said.

"Treating a federally recognized tribal government the same as an individual private citizen offends Minnesota public policy, Gov. Dayton's executive order, and our sensibilities," she said.

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The PUC response to Mille Lacs Band's complaint they hadn't been consulted was to say the PUC didn't count as a cabinet-level agency, Beaulieu said.

"The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe takes issue with this response," she said.

Even if the PUC wasn't specifically required to consult with the tribe by the order, "failing to consult with the tribe based on a hypertechnical reading" of 13-10 went against the general principle behind Dayton's words, Beaulieu said.

In addition, Enbridge Energy, the company developing the pipeline, has demonstrated a "complete disregard" for Mille Lacs and other Indian bands, she said.

"Not once has Enbridge Energy requested a meeting with the Mille Lacs Band to discuss the Sandpiper project," she said.

Enbridge Energy released a general statement to media on the PUC approval, in which they underscored the benefits of the project to Northern Minnesota with an estimated $25 million in annual property taxes going to local communities and the creation of 1,500 construction jobs.

"While we understand that others may not agree with the commission's decision, we respect their point of view and will continue to engage with people along the proposed route to discuss our plans around safety and environmental protection," the release said.

"We will also continue to work cooperatively with the regulatory and permitting authorities, state agencies, elected officials and the public as we proceed with the route permitting process."

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Organizers estimated more than 100 people attended the hearing, held at a tribal community center about an hour east of Brainerd. Staffers from the office of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. as well as the Army Corps of Engineers were present at the hearing.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
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