When a Pipeline Is a Threat to Earth, Water, and Sacred Spaces | Sojourners

When a Pipeline Is a Threat to Earth, Water, and Sacred Spaces

Activists and faith leaders father to protest the Enbridge Line 3 Replacement Project. Photo Courtesy Carla Aronsohn at Cultivate Strategies.

In 1855, the Ojibwe people signed a treaty in Washington, D.C., that retained extensive land use rights in the Great Lakes region for hunting, gathering, fishing, and worship rights for the community. Today, the Ojibwe, who live throughout Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, still retain these 1855 treaty rights, which are separate from reservation land.

But the Line 3 Replacement Project is seeking to cut through the land, which activists say would directly violate those treaty rights. The original Line 3, which was built in the 1960s, is a 1,097-mile pipeline that runs from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wis. The Canadian company Enbridge is currently seeking to replace a portion of the 34-inch diameter pipeline with a new 36-inch diameter pipeline running through North Dakota and Minnesota, where it crosses the Mississippi River twice, in addition to 200 other water crossings. Its crossings in Minnesota have garnered the most attention from activists.

For the Anishinaabe people, of whom the Ojibwe are a part, and other Indigenous communities, Line 3 poses a threat to sacred water and land, and crops like wild rice, which is grown in Northern Minnesota. It’s also a grave threat to Indigenous sovereignty itself.

Indigenous sovereignty

Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican nation and a parish associate at Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church in Columbia Heights, Minn., told Sojourners that Line 3 “infringes on land that was unseated treaty territory, to which the Ojibwe people have rights.”

For instance, the pipeline’s placement would interfere with over 3,400 acres of wild rice beds, one of the fundamental staples of Ojibwe culture. Wild rice is essential to the Ojibwe diet, and it’s also essential to the community’s spiritual life.

“The whole process of harvesting wild rice, of preparing wild rice, it’s a ceremony,” Jacobs said. “Whole families will gather for the process of harvesting and preparing wild rice, and it’s a time when the elders can pass on knowledge and share history and stories. It’s very much not just the actual physical act of harvesting food but there’s a whole cultural and spiritual component to it.”

Jacobs said the right to sacred spaces is a fundamental human right, and insisted that the right to gather for ceremony is not one granted by the United States. “These are the rights that Creator has given us.”

Faith in opposition to the pipeline

While Enbridge maintains that the pipeline will yield new jobs and that transporting oil via pipeline is safer than rail or truck, faith leaders, Indigenous communities, and environmental advocates maintain that the pipeline is unnecessary and dangerous.

Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, justice pastor of Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, told Sojourners the proposed pipeline is a disaster from all perspectives.

“If you look at climate, it’s a disaster. If you look at treaty rights, it’s a disaster,” Voelkel said. “You can’t turn any which way and find anything good about it.”

Rev. Dana Neuhauser, a racial justice organizer with the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and a minister of public witness at New City Church in Minneapolis, has been opposing Line 3 since 2018.

“For those of us who have a [baptismal] ritual that is rooted in coming through water, we can’t turn around and then support an infrastructure project that is a dire threat, that is very potentially disastrous, to water itself,” Neuhauser told Sojourners. “As people who come through baptismal waters, for us to not stand in a protective stance against harm to waters feels deeply wrong.”

Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, who is based in Minneapolis, said that her faith "has everything to do with” her anti-fracking advocacy.

“Jewish tradition teaches that we respect the original inhabitants of a place, thus it is my ethical obligation to respect and honor the Indigenous people whose land this is,” Rosenberg told Sojourners. “When I see the drills set up to go underneath the water, that’s a violation of the Earth’s body, and, if I truly feel myself connected and understand the connection between myself and all life, then that violation is happening to me.”

Tar sands oil exacerbate climate crisis

Line 3 is transporting tar sands oil, which is dangerous in its extraction, refinement, and transportation, according to Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.

“If it spills, it cannot be cleaned up,” Nerbonne said. “It sinks to the bottom of the water source and becomes part of the landscape. People in Canada have some of the worst cancer rates; there’s a huge cancer epidemic because it’s being mined out of the ground up there.”

When a pipeline ruptured and spilled a million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, the cleanup cost over $1 billion, and over 40 miles of the river is still contaminated with tar sands nearly six years after the spill, according to Natural Resources Defense Council. Scientists have also found that tar sands production creates air pollution.

Tar sands oil uses more resources when converted to gasoline. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that “for every gallon of gasoline produced by tar sands, about 5.9 gallons of freshwater are consumed during the extraction, upgrading, and refining process,” which is roughly three times as much as used for conventional oil.

Nerbonne noted that the 760,000 barrels of oil per day that could run through Line 3 “is more than the entire emissions of the state of Minnesota in all energy sectors: transportation, electricity, etc.”

This poses a serious threat to the land through which the pipeline passes, and the people who live on it.

Treaty people gathering

From June 5 through June 8, Voelkel, Neuhauser, and Rosenberg joined over 2,000 people from around the country for the Treaty People Gathering, a gathering in Minnesota’s north land to oppose the pipeline. Anishinaabe women invited non-Indigenous allies to see the pipeline construction, pray on sacred land, and advocate against the pipeline.

The gathering included sacred chants and prayers by Native elders, as well as speeches by Bill McKibben, Jane Fonda, Rosanna Arquette, and Taylor Schilling. Participants protested on pipeline construction sites and active pump stations, handcuffing themselves to the pipeline.

Rev. Ben Connelly, a Zen teacher at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and network council member of Minnesota Multifaith Network, said the Treaty People Gathering was a rare opportunity for him to be with “people of all major world religions, people of many races, people from many different countries, people from all over the U.S., queer folks in every color of the rainbow, all of whom held a deep commitment to making a movement that could be healthy for us as individuals and as a group and for the whole planet.”

“I was finding and deepening relationships with one of the most diverse groups of human beings I have ever been with,” Connelly told Sojourners. “The modeling of how to do that is coming from the Indigenous people who had called us onto their land.”

Jacobs said that the gathering stressed that Indigenous people grant rights of occupancy to non-Indigenous people through treaty rights, not the other way around.

“We are all treaty people,” he said.

Activists see path for victory

On June 10, the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline, which traveled through Oceti Sakowin land, from Alberta to Nebraska via Saskatchewan, Montana and South Dakota, canceled the project months after President Joe Biden revoked the pipeline’s permit to cross the U.S.-Canada border. The cancelation was seen as a sign of hope from activists, and they hope to accomplish a similar outcome with Line 3.

On June 14, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld Line 3’s approval, ruling that “there is sufficient need” for the pipeline.

Nonetheless, faith leaders and environmental advocates aren’t giving up.

Treaty People Gathering organized a bail fund for those arrested during the protest, and other organizations are continuing their advocacy. MN350, a Minnesota climate advocacy organization, is hosting biweekly calls to educate and activate the public about Line 3, and Welcome Water Protectors has an interactive tour of Water Protector Tourism inviting people to visit pipeline construction sites. Resilient Indigenous Sisters Engaging with our Allies (RISE) Coalition is calling for people to physically block pipeline construction throughout Minnesota. And activists are circulating petitions asking President Biden and major banks to halt the project.

“Realistically it’s going to take the power of the people in an embodied way to keep showing up in a way that disrupts the progress of the pipeline,” Neuhauser said. “We have to embody the people-over-profit mindset. It’s time for mass embodied action rather than just words. I think that’s what it’s going to take. I don’t see as much evidence that the system is going to stop itself.”