Big Oil in the Mackinac Straits Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen

Big Oil in the Mackinac Straits Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen

Big Oil in the Mackinac Straits Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen

And recognizing Native American sovereignty—giving the tribes sworn to protect the waters a place in the negotiations determining their fate—is the best way to prevent it.


Detroit, Mich.—“Native American sovereignty supersedes Big Oil’s authority.” This was the thought that occurred to me as I made my way home from Lansing, through the Mackinac Straits, the body of water that connects Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, last month. I had just made a presentation to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (MSCA) as part of the Indigenous community’s ongoing battle to shut down a 1950s-era oil pipeline built and operated by the Canadian company Enbridge. 

The Great Lakes hold 21 percent of the world’s fresh water, and the outdated pipeline, known as Line 5, runs along the bottom of these life-sustaining waters. Given the volume of water that passes through the straits and the direction of the currents in the area, the University of Michigan Water Center has determined that the Mackinac Straits are the very worst place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill to happen. The pipeline should not be there at all, but now Enbridge wants to go even further, blasting a new underground tunnel beneath the straits to replace the existing underwater pipeline. A broad coalition of Michiganders have come together to oppose Line 5, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel.

The MSCA was created by the state’s former Republican Governor Rick Snyder during his last days in office as a rubber-stamp organization to legitimize Enbridge’s interests. So we were not surprised when the authority granted Enbridge permission to move forward on the project. But a storm is coming. An elder woman from my tribe once recounted an Anishinaabek prophecy to me: A black snake would come to our land and try to poison our waters—but would end up uniting our people as never before. This has come to pass. In an unprecedented action, all 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan came together to write a joint letter to President Joe Biden, arguing that Enbridge’s black snake under the straits violates treaties that the United States made with us, as sovereign nations, when it forced us to cede our land.

Thinking about this on the drive back to Detroit, along I-96, through Potawatomi land, the words of the Native poet, musician, and activist John Trudell came to me: “Every human being is a raindrop. And when enough of the raindrops become clear and coherent they then become the power of the storm.”

Waking Up

My own path to this clarity and coherence came into focus for me with a dream I had when I was 14. At the time, I was being raised by my parents in the Detroit area, but I would go back every summer to my ancestral homelands, just below the Mackinac Straits. My family told me my dream was a healing-dream, and they helped me through the year-long process of making a jingle dress and preparing to become a jingle dress dancer.

I have been dancing since that dream, but in recent years, as I have come to understand my heritage and witnessed the struggles in this country over land and water, my own responsibility has come into sharper focus.

In 2016, I was a student at The New School in New York, studying jazz, when the battle erupted over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was planned to run through sacred Lakota land, threatening the tribe’s water supply. Watching the protests at Standing Rock, I realized how skewed the US legal system was against Native people and against any efforts to protect the water.

The Standing Rock movement woke me up—as it did so many Native people of my generation. The following year, I returned to Michigan, and worked as a visual artist and musician in Detroit. I soon became increasingly interested in the water that surrounds us in the Great Lakes region. After all, the Anishinaabek first migrated here from the east hundreds of years ago because of a prophecy that requires us to protect the water.

As I began to research the water beneath Detroit, I learned how dozens of rivers and streams were turned into drains and covered with concrete—and then saw how inadequate this arrangement was during the terrible flooding last summer after monsoon-strength rains hit Detroit. This led me to a conclusion: Every catastrophe that has befallen my state in recent memory has been a direct outcome of humans’ lack of respect for the water, from the tragedy in Flint to the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill (caused by another of Enbridge’s pipelines), to the flooding in Detroit.

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

All of this led me to the disaster waiting to happen: Line 5’s potential to defile the Mackinac Straits. I am registered to the Little Traverse Bay Band Odawa, and it is our specific duty to protect the straits. “Mackinac” means “Place of the Turtle,” and I am Mud Turtle clan. I didn’t set out to be an activist or to be involved in politics, but when I heard that people were gathering last May to protest the pipeline, I put on my jingle dress and showed up.

In November of 2020, Governor Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s easement for the pipeline, citing the “unreasonable risk that continued operation” posed to the surrounding waters, and gave the company six months to shut down the line. In May, when that deadline expired, the state’s lawsuits continued to progress—but the oil continued to flow through Line 5. Currently, Line 5 carries light crude and natural gas liquids through Michigan to Ontario, providing little or no benefit to Michiganders. Enbridge argued that it was protected against Michigan State’s actions by an overly broad reading of a 1977 treaty between the United States and Canada guaranteeing the free flow of energy products between the two nations.

The Canadian government invoked the Transit Pipeline Treaty of 1977 in a bid to make this a federal issue. Those of us fighting the pipeline in Michigan disagree—after all, it was the state that issued Enbridge’s land use easement, and the state is responsible for ensuring protection of the publicly owned waters of the Great Lakes.

But to the extent that Line 5 is a federal matter, we, as Native people, hold a trump card: We are a federal matter too! The federal government has treaties with us guaranteeing our sovereignty, and our rights to the land and the water. These long predate whatever deal the United States made with Canada in 1977, and certainly supersede it.

There is a precedent for this, from within Michigan itself. When the five tribes, including my own, signed the 1836 Treaty of Washington that ceded the land that became Michigan state, we exchanged our land for perpetual fishing and gathering rights.

The apex of tribal fishing happens to be in the Mackinac Straits, the breeding grounds for Whitefish. When the state told Anishinaabek in the 1970s they could no longer use traditional gill nets and had to adhere to sports-fishing rules, the Bay Mills Tribe took the matter all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court—and won. The tribe’s sovereign status was upheld.

According to the law, we are no different than any other sovereign nation, and only Congress can change this. We have rights to land and water that are guaranteed through a sovereign treaty. Enbridge’s failure to consult us, let alone negotiate with us, is a violation of this sovereignty. Ignoring the councils, Enbridge has made a mockery of our sovereignty by finding individual Native supporters of the pipeline and using their views to cast doubt upon our unanimous and consistent opposition.

And so what Enbridge imagines to be a “win”—that it can proceed with the tunnel because the Canadian government is seeking to make this a federal issue—actually shifts the struggle onto terrain where we have even more power to push back, thanks to our federal recognition. And all of this is happening at a pivotal moment for Native people—a time when others are truly listening to our voices. In the movement for environmental justice, our community has two powerful tools: We have the traditional knowledge of how to work with nature rather than against it, and we have the legal protections provided by our sovereign status as federally recognized tribes.

Biden Has the Power

What we don’t have is time and money. Enbridge has both, and is trying to wear us down by dragging the process out, and by spending funds we can’t even imagine matching. Just last year the company dropped over $8 million on advertisements for its tunnel. Given that 2022 is an election year, we can imagine that it will spend even more this year.

This is why we need quick and decisive action from the Biden administration. Our coalition is demanding that the US Justice Department weigh in on the ongoing Michigan lawsuits against Enbridge, and that President Biden officially refute Enbridge’s and Canada’s insistence that the pipeline cannot be shut down without Canadian approval. Furthermore, because the tribes are sovereign nations with treaties that predate the 1977 US-Canadian agreement, we deserve not just “consultation” but an equal place at the table in any negotiation over Line 5 and the Mackinac Straits.

President Biden surely has the power to do this himself, but he could lend even greater support by making it clear that Michigan has the authority to revoke the easement for Line 5 and that the federal government supports this action. In taking any of these steps, he would be giving an important boost to two badass women who helped deliver Michigan for him in 2020 and who are up for election this year—Gretchen Whitmer and Dana Nessel. And he would be fulfilling his own campaign pledges—to roll back the fossil fuel exploitation that is accelerating the climate crisis, and to respect the dignity and sovereignty of this country’s original inhabitants.

Dispatches from the Frontlines are stories directly from the leaders fighting—and winning—the battle for a fossil free future. They are published monthly by the Equation Campaign in collaboration with The Nation. Equation Campaign is a ten-year initiative funding movements on the ground to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Read more Dispatches here.

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