One Tribe’s Fight to Protect the Great Lakes
It wasn’t long before a movement began to build against Line 5. But rather than remove the section that crosses the Straits entirely, Enbridge proposed building a new segment of pipeline to go through a tunnel. While the proposed tunnel undergoes permitting and construction, which could take years, Enbridge wants to keep oil flowing. In addition, the tunnel would come with a 99-year lease to continue operating the pipeline, locking a world in climate crisis into further dependency on fossil fuels.
In early 2019, state officials sought to push back against Line 5 with lawsuits and an executive order. Against this uncertain legal backdrop, Enbridge began applying for state and federal permits to build the tunnel.
But there was one group of people the company never asked for permission: those who lived in the Straits of Mackinac region long before Enbridge, long before the oil pipelines, and long before the state of Michigan was originally formed. And they’re still here today, fighting for their way of life.
Since time immemorial, the Anishinaabe have made the Great Lakes their home, living in harmony with the natural environment. The region is also the center of an Anishinaabe creation story, and it continues to be a place of ongoing spiritual significance to the Anishinaabe people.
In 1836, facing sustained violence and pressure from colonial settlers, the Anishinaabe ceded nearly 14 million acres of the tribe’s territory to the federal government. In exchange, the Anishinaabe reserved the right to fish, hunt, and gather in the ceded area in perpetuity. Today, most members of the Bay Mills Indian Community — a modern-day successor of the Anishinaabe — rely on fishing for at least part of their annual income.
Bryan Newland, a former president of Bay Mills, credits the tribe’s longstanding efforts to uphold its treaty rights as his inspiration for becoming a public interest lawyer.
“Growing up, I heard all kinds of stories about people in the community who helped make things better here,” says Newland. “I decided to go to law school to make things better, too.”
One story Newland often heard was about a court battle with the federal government in 1976 over the tribe’s use of its traditional fishing gear. The landmark case began after a Bay Mills member purposefully set a gill net — deemed illegal by the state but used by tribal fishers for generations — into Lake Superior and then called the authorities. Though he was issued a citation, a court ruling later re-asserted the tribe’s federally protected treaty rights as the supreme law of the land.
The man who called the authorities that day was “Big Abe” LeBlanc, Jacques LeBlanc Jr.’s grandfather.
“When we signed those treaties, we wanted to ensure that our people could always have a resource to have a way of life and make a living and get some food.”
Jacques LeBlanc Jr.
Third-generation fisherman and member of the Bay Mills Tribe’s Conservation Committee
While Bay Mills weighed its options for fighting Line 5, Enbridge was moving full speed ahead, filing permits in the spring of 2020 among various regulatory agencies. Bay Mills decided it was now or never. The community wanted to stop or slow down the project, and it needed all the help it could get.
Bay Mills’ leadership reached out to both Earthjustice and the Native American Rights Fund, who have filed lawsuits against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, respectively, on behalf of tribal clients. The two nonprofit legal organizations, which worked together in the past, decided to pool their resources.
“Ultimately our organization was created to serve Indian Country,” says David Gover, an attorney at NARF. “That's our North Star, to make sure that underrepresented communities are represented to the best of our abilities.”
He adds that the Enbridge project is part of a larger pattern of the federal government’s failure to consult with tribes and protect treaty rights when considering massive infrastructure projects throughout Indian country.
In addition to intervening at the commission, Bay Mills and Earthjustice requested meetings with other permit-issuing agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Federal and state law requires such agencies to meaningfully consult with tribes.
The key word here is “meaningful,” says Bay Mills President Whitney Gravelle. She says the consultation process with regulatory agencies often feels like a vent session for tribes, where the regulatory agencies rubberstamp their approvals despite tribal concerns.
“They’ll sit down at a table with you and they’ll say, ‘All right, tell us what you think,’” she says. “Then you tell them, and they respond, “All right, thanks, bye.’ They don't ever seriously listen.”
“To see that kind of support coming from the state felt really good for all of us trying to defend our waters and our tribal rights,” says LeBlanc.
So far, Enbridge has refused to comply with the governor’s order and the Tribe’s wishes. But the public and legal pressure continues to grow. In addition to representing Bay Mills, Earthjustice is also representing the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in its advocacy against federal and state regulatory permits allowing another part of Enbridge’s pipeline to re-route around and upstream of the Band’s reservation and through the treaty ceded territory of the Band and other Ojibwe tribes. The Line 5 pipeline currently crosses the Bad River Band’s reservation.
In September 2022, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that Enbridge is trespassing on the reservation by continuing to operate Line 5 despite the Band not renewing Enbridge’s easements. And in March 2023, the Army Corps delayed its environmental review of Line 5 after serious concerns were raised by Bay Mills, other tribal nations, the EPA, and thousands of other concerned individuals and Earthjustice supporters. Finally, the company faces criminal charges for puncturing an underground aquifer in Minnesota during its shoddy construction of Line 3, a pipeline that Earthjustice challenged in partnership with several Tribal Nations and the Sierra Club.
Though the fight continues, for now, LeBlanc is relieved to see his voice had an impact and is ready for the fight ahead.
“Hearing the legends of my grandfather, Big Abe, and the issues he brought forward when he thought something needed to be done, that resonates really strongly with me,” says LeBlanc. “I have a responsibility to protect our resources and Mother Earth, and I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. As long as I have a breath in me, I will continue to try to fight that good fight.”
Originally published in 2021.
Jessica A. Knoblauch is a senior staff writer at Earthjustice. Her goal is to bring to life Earthjustice’s inspiring and crucially important environmental litigation work through engaging storytelling.
Earthjustice’s Midwest office works to partner with and support communities and Tribes fighting for environmental and climate justice. We also aim to protect our region’s precious places and wildlife, and build sustainable energy and climate solutions.
We fight to ensure our tribal and Indigenous clients’ natural and cultural resources are protected for future generations.