Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
It’s all about strategy and timing in Indian Country, especially in the legal system.
Shortly after a groundbreaking lawsuit was filed in the White Earth Nation’s tribal court defending the rights of wild rice to fight the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, the United Nations released its 6th Assessment on Climate Change.
The UN report includes an entire chapter dedicated to the powerful role that Indigenous knowledge can play in global development of adaptation and mitigation strategies aimed at addressing climate change.
According to the report, recognition of Indigenous rights, governance systems and laws are central to creating effective adaptation and sustainable development strategies that can save humanity from the impacts of climate change. In this first of three climate change reports, the working group focused primarily on physical science, providing evidence that a climate crisis caused mostly by human activities is upon us.
Boom. The report’s release created the perfect public moment to exert tribal sovereignty and advance the legal theory that nature itself, in this case wild rice, has the right to exist and flourish even in the face of the construction of a massive infrastructure transporting fossil fuel.
The so-called “rights of nature” argument recognizes that nature has rights just as human beings have rights; rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature cases contend that nature, rivers, forests and ecosystems have the right to exist, flourish, maintain and regenerate their life cycles. Further, humans have a legal responsibility to enforce those rights.
According to the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, Indigenous cultures recognize the rights of nature as part of their traditions of living in harmony and recognition that all life is connected.
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For Ojibwe, wild rice or manoomin, “good berry” in the Ojibwe language, is like a member of the family, a relative. Manoomin is more than food, it is a conveyor of culture, spirituality and tradition. Therefore, legally designating manoomin as a person in the White Earth Nation’s lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources aligns with the Ojibwe world view.
Manoomin is considered an indicator species; it is sensitive to changes in water levels and flow reflecting changes in the local climate. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports that the 2021 wild rice harvest in the state’s waterways should be average this year but that low water levels caused by drought will make access difficult. Rice is harvested from a canoe.
Frank Bibeau, attorney for and citizen of the White Earth Nation, blames the Enbridge pipeline construction for exacerbating the lower water levels in neighboring rivers.
“We are seeing rivers along Line 3 that are now essentially dry bottoms with rice growing out of the mud. We can’t get our canoes in to harvest,” he said.
On Aug. 6, manoomin was named as a plaintiff, along with several White Earth tribal citizens and Native and non-Native water protectors who have demonstrated against Line 3, in a complaint filed in White Earth Nation Tribal Court against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
It is only the second “rights of nature” case to be filed in the U.S. and the first to be filed in tribal court. Several tribes, however, have incorporated rights of nature into their laws.
The lawsuit accuses the department of failing 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 that itself is tied to climate change, which increases the pace of extreme weather swings and contributes to lags in the jet stream that keep heat waves, cold snaps and rain in an area for longer periods.
The suit also claims that the department has violated not only the rights of manoomin but also treaty rights for those who hunt, fish and gather wild rice off-reservations in ceded lands. The lawsuit seeks to establish the rights of manoomin, stop the extreme water pumping by Enbridge and stop arrests of water protectors opposing the pipeline at construction sites.
Juli Kellner, communications specialist for Enbridge, wrote an email responding to Indian Country Today’s request for the company’s reaction to the lawsuit.
“Line 3 construction permits include conditions that specifically protect wild rice waters. As a matter of fact, Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota's most sacred and productive wild rice stands for over seven decades,” she said.
“The current drought conditions in Minnesota are concerning to everyone. In response, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has suspended the use of some water sources due to low flow in specific watersheds. We are focused on protecting, conserving and reusing water on the Line 3 project. More than 50 percent of pipeline sections being tested on Line 3 by reusing water. We continue to work with agencies on next steps during these drought conditions.
“Enbridge has demonstrated ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty,” she wrote.
Department of Nature Resources spokesperson Gail Nosek said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment.
Exerting tribal sovereignty by filing the lawsuit in tribal court rather than in state or federal court and advancing the legal theory of the rights of nature are unique, according to legal scholars.
“The rights of nature is quickly gaining traction in American legal law,” said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. Warner is a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
“It’s already established in some other countries; the rights of nature is definitely a burgeoning area of law and I think we’ll continue to see it develop,” Warner said.
Courts in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, India and New Zealand have litigated cases based on rights of nature.
The first “rights of nature” case filed in the U.S. came in April in Orange County, Florida, when the state’s waterways filed suit against a housing developer and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The suit says that a proposed residential development will destroy acres of wetlands.
But tribal courts have no authority to order the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to rescind its water permit to Enbridge, according to Matthew Fletcher, a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and a law professor who is director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center.
Fletcher agrees, however, that establishing the rights of manoomin as a legal entity in tribal court is a sound strategy.
“Those rights likely would not be recognized on their own in state or federal court; this suit may be a valuable exercise,” Fletcher said.
Attorneys chose to file the suit in White Earth’s tribal court as a means to quickly get the case heard in federal court. Tribal court civil cases involving non-Natives are permitted by consent of the defendant.
Legal scholars say that in this case, the state government would typically seek to have the case removed to the federal courts.
Bibeau said that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has already asked to file a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in the case. Although states and their agencies have their own sovereign immunity from lawsuits, Bibeau thinks that the department won’t be able to dodge the suit even if federal courts return the case to tribal court. The key is asking for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief rather than monetary damages.
“I don’t think the state has immunity from declaratory judgment,” Bibeau said.
A declaratory judgment declares the rights of the plaintiff without any specific action or award for damages. Injunctive relief restrains a party from engaging in certain actions or requires them to do the actions in a certain way.
“I think that declaratory relief is within the boundaries of tribal court,” Bibeau said.
After the tribal court issues its order, regardless of the state’s participation, it will have created case law to which the federal court can refer when deciding to hear the case or return it to tribal court.
“I don’t think anybody has tried to sue a state from a tribal court but I don’t think there’s any federal statute against it,” Bibeau said.
“They (the DNR) won’t be able to stop the tribal court order. When we go to federal court based on the simplicity of water and wild rice, we can go a long way because we already have those rights as a sovereign nation,” he said.
Either scenario, according to Bibeau, is a win for plaintiffs.
Bibeau’s legal strategy, however, is not without pitfalls.
Treaties signed between the Ojibwe and the federal government in 1837 and 1854 guaranteed tribes the right to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands. The 1855 treaty or Treaty of Washington, however, conspicuously lacks language spelling out this right. The bulk of the Line 3 pipeline runs through 1855 treaty lands.
In 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state regarding 1855 treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands. Two Ojibwe men were cited by the state for illegally taking fish from Gull Lake located on off-reservation lands in the 1855 Treaty area. One judge, however, offered a dissenting opinion in the case saying that rights apply to treaties as the Indians at the time would have understood them.
Bibeau represented one of the defendants in this case. “There is nothing in the 1855 Treaty that relinquished rights to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands,” Bibeau said.
This is known as the reserved rights doctrine; treaties describe the specific rights tribes gave up, not those they retain. In many cases, the federal court has interpreted treaties using the reserved rights doctrine.
The elements of White Earth’s lawsuit that depend on rights to hunt, fish and gather on ceded lands within the 1855 Treaty area are contingent on these rights being affirmed. For instance, plaintiffs claim that the state deprived them of their civil rights by charging them with trespass and other crimes as they protested Line 3 construction; they argue that they were lawfully engaged in exercising their treaty rights.
Establishing that the 1855 treaty should be interpreted to include hunting, fishing and gathering rights on ceded lands could be a challenge, according to treaty scholars. At least one scholar, who preferred to be quoted anonymously, cautioned that each treaty is different.
Although Warner agreed that establishing treaty rights in this case might not be an easy argument, it would be consistent with existing Indian treaty law.
“Tribes have been having a lot of success in the current Supreme Court; all of the cases relying on treaty rights have been successful,” Warner said.
She pointed to the McGirt case in Oklahoma and the Boldt decision in Washington.
Most of these decisions have been led by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Although considered a conservative, Gorsuch has demonstrated a keen understanding and appreciation of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights expressing respect for the reserved rights doctrine. During his tenure, Gorsuch has ruled in favor of important treaty rights cases such as Herrera v. Wyoming, rejecting past theories of state sovereignty and Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den affirming the state’s obligations to tribes. Gorsuch served as federal judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where he gained extensive experience in Indian law.
“The interesting thing would be if White Earth’s right to nature claim could be incorporated into or run parallel to a treaty right,” Warner said.
The release of the UN’s climate report alongside White Earth’s lawsuit could be auspicious for both treaty rights claims and the rights of nature, according to Warner.
“The urgency of the UN findings make this litigation and advocacy work so much more important now because we literally have a window of time in which to make changes,” Warner said.
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