Line 3 construction brings complication, controversy to Fond du Lac Reservation

Taysha Martineau stands in a protest camp on land she helped purchase near an Enbridge Line 3 construction site in Cloquet, Minn. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / Indian Country Today via AP.)

By Dan Kraker/MPR

About a month ago, Taysha Martineau walked out of the protest camp she built in a small patch of woods near her home on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation and knelt in the middle of the road.

Elders from her community surrounded her, scolding, telling her to leave.
“Go!” they shouted. “We want you out of here! Don’t do this to us!”

For several weeks, Martineau had been welcoming activists to the plot of land she had dubbed Camp Migizi – which means “eagle” in the Ojibwe language – to take part in the yearslong fight against the Line 3 oil pipeline, a 380-mile replacement project that Enbridge Energy began building across northern Minnesota in December.

But for some in the community, the pipeline and the protest that follows its construction have attracted outsiders – and with them, trouble.

A day earlier, growing tension over the protesters’ presence on the Fond du Lac Reservation had boiled over. The Carlton County Sheriff’s Office said it had received a call alleging that three people connected to the pipeline protests had thrown suspicious packages into a Line 3 worksite, just a half-mile from the camp. An emergency alert was sent out to people in the area. The sheriff called in a bomb squad.

No bomb was ever found, and the case remains under investigation. But accusations flew, on both sides. Martineau called it “law enforcement-induced hysteria” on Camp Migizi’s Facebook page. Forty households within a half-mile radius had to be evacuated for several hours.

It was that threat, in part, that brought the elders – among them, the tribal chairperson – to Martineau’s camp. But that moment at Camp Migizi was one among many, part of a long, complicated relationship between the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Line 3.

“I was a conduit for their misplaced anger and their grief, because I’ve been out here and I’ve been vocal,” she said. “When they’re mad at protesters, they think of me, because I’m from here, and they know me.”

For decades, a network of pipelines has crossed the Fond du Lac Reservation, carrying millions of barrels of Canadian crude oil underneath its land every day. One of those pipelines is the existing Line 3, which has been around since the 1960s. When Enbridge first proposed replacing it with a new line, the Fond du Lac band was among the most vocal opponents, arguing the project wasn’t needed and that it threatened tribal resources.
But after state regulators first approved the project to replace Line 3 nearly three years ago, the band changed course, and agreed to allow the new line to be built across the reservation.

Signs greet visitors to Camp Migizi on the Fond du Lac Reservation in February. (Photo by Dan Kraker / MPR News.)

So while the governments of some Native nations are in court trying to stop the pipeline, others – including the Fond du Lac band – have agreed to the project as the best way, in their view, to protect their land. And while some tribal members, like Martineau, are on the front lines actively trying to block construction, others are among the more than 4,000 workers building the $4 billion project.

Martineau’s sister and other members of her family were part of the crowd telling her to leave last month. Several people posted videos of the encounter on social media, as one by one, elders approached Martineau as she knelt on the ground.

“If you care about your kids you wouldn’t be doing this,” one man said, standing over her.

Tribal chairperson Kevin DuPuis was also there. He told Martineau that he and others wanted her to stay. They know this is her home, he said.

But then he addressed the people inside the camp who weren’t from the community.
“This is our band member. She’s one of us,” he told the crowd. “We’re tied together by blood. We’re tied together by culture. We’re tied together by language. We’re tied together by land. And this is not your land, it’s ours. So we’re asking you to leave.”

Later, in an interview, DuPuis said that people had characterized the suspicious package incident as a threat against Enbridge, the company building the pipeline. But he took it much more personally.

“When you have to evacuate your people and you have to evacuate elders who are on oxygen, yeah, that’s a threat,” he said. “That’s definitely a threat to the band.”

Martineau apologized to the elders for what had happened. “I humbled myself before them, as a sign of respect,” she said. “I took a knee when they circled and publicly shamed me.”

But, she said, that hasn’t dampened her fight against the pipeline.

“Being in open opposition of Enbridge has definitely put me in a place where there are times where I have to stand against members of my own community,” Martineau said.
“I can’t put that out, that fire that burns in me has been burning for thousands of years. And I’m not ashamed of that.”

‘A camp for the people,’ a hub for protest

Camp Migizi is an unassuming place, a rough camp hacked out of an acre of woods. There’s a small fire pit, several tents, yurts and ice houses for sleeping, even a heated outhouse donated by supporters from the Twin Cities.

“At Camp Migizi, we have the nicest bathroom on the front line,” Martineau jokes.
Martineau, 27, is a single mother of four. She’s a member of the Fond du Lac band, and grew up on the reservation. She still lives nearby with her kids. A few months ago she crowdfunded $30,000 to buy this acre of land, right next to a site where workers are installing the pipeline in a 13-mile corridor across the reservation.

“This isn’t my camp,” she said. “This is a camp for the people. This is a camp where people who are opposed to resource extraction can come.”

Since January, Camp Migizi has been a base for activists fighting Line 3. They come from Duluth, the Twin Cities, reservations across Minnesota, and all around the country. They’re Native and non-Native. Sometimes, there’s just a handful of people there; sometimes, a few dozen.

They oppose Line 3 for many reasons. They decry the pipeline’s contribution to climate change, saying it will only deepen our reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels. They say it tramples on Native American treaty rights. And they’re concerned the oil could spill into the more than 200 waterways the pipeline is slated to cross.

They call themselves water protectors. And they use the camp as a base for direct action: locking themselves to equipment, climbing into trenches, and often, willingly getting arrested – all in an effort to slow down construction of the pipeline, so that maybe it will be stopped by politicians or the courts.

Several challenges to Line 3 continue to wend their ways through state courts.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments in March in a case that calls into question the need for the pipeline – and that could bring work on the Line 3 project to a halt. But Enbridge Energy is already halfway through with construction of the project, which will replace an existing, corroding pipeline that carries crude oil from the Canadian tar sands with a new one along a slightly different route across the state.

Camp Migizi is one of several resistance camps that have sprouted up along the 340-mile pipeline route that stretches across northern Minnesota to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wis. Some are located on reservations, on or near tribal land, including the Red Lake and White Earth reservations. Others are located on land where tribal members retain treaty rights. Many of the camps are led by Native American activists like Martineau.

‘We just want it to end’
When Enbridge Energy first proposed the Line 3 project, the Fond du Lac band was among its most fervent opponents.

But then state regulators approved Line 3 – for the first time – nearly three years ago. Originally, the plan was to skirt the new pipeline around the Fond du Lac reservation, across land the band had ceded in an 1854 treaty, but where band members retain the right to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice. But the band concluded that, if the pipeline was going to be built, it should be built along the existing corridor, across the reservation.

So the band negotiated a deal for Enbridge to repair its other pipelines that already cross  reservation land, and to compensate the band for having the pipelines located on its land.
DuPuis says routing the new Line 3 through the reservation gave the band a seat at the table, to make sure the project meets strict tribal water quality standards.

“If we allowed it to come through the 13.2 miles of the reservation, we would have some control over it,” he said. “If it went through the ceded territory, we would have no control over it.”

That control was critical to the band, since that route around the reservation took the pipeline close to important beds of wild rice, which hold critical cultural importance to Ojibwe people.

DuPuis knows some people don’t like that decision, but says that it was the band’s right as a sovereign nation to negotiate the change. Activists have the right to legally protest, he said – but they don’t get to speak for the tribe.

“We just want people to understand that the so-called protection of your land and your water, I believe that we can do that ourselves,” he said.

But Line 3 – and the decisions around it – has divided friends and family on the Fond du Lac reservation.

About a week after the alleged bomb threat, Courtney Thompson parked her car a little ways down the road from Camp Migizi, with her young kids in the back seat. She was one of several band members who had volunteered to keep an eye on the camp – and the pipeline construction – in the days after the alleged bomb scare that she said traumatized the community.

“I just don’t think that [the protesters are] here in a good way, as they claim,” she said. “We just want it to end, and we want our homeland to return to a peaceful state and a safe state.”

Thompson is Martineau’s niece. She said she doesn’t have any ill feelings toward her aunt. But she wants outsiders to leave.

It’s not easy to have the new pipeline built through Fond du Lac land, she said. But she thinks it’s the best of two bad options, because the old Line 3, which is already here, is corroding, and she believes a replacement of the 1960s-era pipeline is safer than leaving the old one in place.

“If they were to stop this pipeline replacement, what are we going to do with this current pipeline that’s here? What if that pipeline busts?” she said. “And that I think is the bigger scare to me. That’s more of a threat than the replacement.”

Enbridge says the existing pipeline is safe, but says replacing it will result in an even safer line, built with thicker steel and modern technology. It will also allow the company to transport nearly twice as much oil as what currently flows through the pipeline.

And even for Martineau, it’s complicated. She said she has family members, and good friends working on the Line 3 project, even as she fights to stop it.

“It’s discouraging to see the division that Enbridge has created on the reservation,” said Deb Topping, a band member and longtime pipeline activist who lives about five miles from the camp.

Topping understands that the band faced a difficult decision in navigating the pipeline project. But she said she wished the tribal government had first gone to the people, before making its decision.

“Let’s talk about it as a community,” she said. “Then I wouldn’t have nothing to argue about, because the community has spoken.”

But other band members support the tribal government’s decision because of the economic benefits the project provides. When the state approved the Line 3 replacement, regulators required Enbridge to invest in training for Native American workers, and to award at least $100 million in contracts to Native-owned businesses.

Construction had barely begun in December when Enbridge announced it had already spent $180 million, which the company called a “level of engagement … historic in scale for Minnesota energy projects.”

Rob Abramowski owns a small firm that earned one of those contracts with Enbridge, to provide the heavy weighted bags that prevent the pipeline from rising out of the ground in wetlands.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time, with COVID and everything shutting down,” he said. “All of a sudden we needed that money and then they’re lucky they did it, because what would happen to the reservation and its businesses?”

Continue the fight
Topping said she’s grateful that younger activists like Martineau have picked up the fight against Line 3.

And Camp Migizi remains busy.

Recently, Steve Karels drove to the camp for the day from Duluth to help put up a big tent. He’s spent a few days helping out at the camp over the past month. “It feels like a tangible, supportive action to be here, and to be uplifting Indigenous people,” he said.
Karels says he’s not aware of the request that non-band members stay home.

“The people that I’m listening to are leaders like Taysha,” he said. “And she’s definitely not telling white allies to leave.”

For her part, Martineau said she has apologized for the turmoil the recent bomb scare caused.

“But I’m never going to apologize for standing for what I believe in – and I’m done apologizing,” she said. “I’m going to stand true to what I believe in and I’m going to do everything I can to stop Line 3.”

Eventually, she said, she hopes to build a lodge on the plot of land in the woods, and reclaim her heritage by learning the language and how to hunt, fish and gather wild rice.
For now, Enbridge plans to continue work on the project for about another week, before taking a planned break on April 1. Construction is then scheduled to resume on the pipeline in earnest in June. And so, in all likelihood, will protests.