Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

On Sept. 3, a federal judge dismissed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources motion for an injunction against the White Earth Band of Ojibwe tribal court and judge in its lawsuit, Manoomin versus Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The federal court rightly noted that it has no authority whatsoever to enjoin a tribal court judge from hearing a tribal court law case,” said Angelique EagleWoman, professor and co-director, Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“This is a matter of respect between different sovereigns and is also a matter of U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that tribes have sovereign immunity,” EagleWoman added.

EagleWoman is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate.

“Manoomin will have its day in court; this is big,” said Michael Fairbanks, chairman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe on hearing about the court’s decision.

(Related: 'Rights of nature' cases could bolster treaty guarantees)

In a first of its kind legal action, opponents of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline construction project filed a complaint in August on behalf of wild rice, or manoomin in the Ojibwe language, in White Earth tribal court claiming the Department of Natural Resources violated the rights of manoomin as well as multiple treaty rights for tribal citizens to hunt, fish and gather outside the reservation. Plaintiffs in the case say that the agency failed to protect the state’s fresh water by allowing Enbridge to pump up to 5 billion gallons of groundwater from construction trenches during a drought and thus endangering the health of wild rice.

Manoomin or wild rice is more than food for Ojibwe; it conveys culture and tradition. 2020. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

The Department of Natural Resources argued that the White Earth tribal court lacked jurisdiction over the state agency, citing its own sovereign immunity and the fact that it’s not a tribal citizen.

In her order, U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright wrote, “The Supreme Court has made clear . . . that a tribe’s sovereign immunity bars suits against the tribe for injunctive and declaratory relief; In summary, plaintiffs are not entitled to injunctive relief because this Court lacks the authority to enjoin the defendants in this case. Moreover, in light of Defendants’ tribal sovereign immunity, the Court also concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over this case and must dismiss the complaint without prejudice.”

EagleWoman expressed surprise that the Department of Natural Resources went to federal court to try to stop a tribal court rather than seeing the rights of manoomin lawsuit as an opportunity to discuss the claims and seek a settlement.

“Their expectations that the federal court would ignore federal law were not well thought out,” EagleWoman said.

The case will move forward in tribal court. Spokespeople for the Department of Natural Resources did not respond to an email from Indian Country Today asking about their plans in the case.

In a letter shared with Indian Country Today, Oliver Larson, Minnesota assistant attorney general wrote to Judge Wright on Sept. 5 requesting leave to file a motion with district court to reconsider its order. Larson offers examples of case law backing up his claim that federal courts have jurisdiction to review tribal court jurisdiction and enjoin tribal court proceedings.

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