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Native communities demand seat at international Line 5 negotiations

Great Lakes Today
Great Lakes Today
A diver inspects a section of the Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac in 2013.

Native communities in Michigan said this week that the treaties they signed with the federal government more than a century ago should take precedence over the 1977 treaty that Canada invoked on Monday in an effort to keep oil flowing through a pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan is trying to use courts to shut the pipeline down. Several tribes in the state have filed briefs in support of that effort. Now that Canada has turned to the treaty with the U.S. -- which could take the dispute out of courts -- tribes said they need to be present at negotiations between the two countries.

“We want to be at the table,” said Whitney Gravelle, the chair and former tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Eastern Upper Peninsula.

“We are prepared to educate individuals about what our treaty rights mean, and it’s important that they hear from the people that a Line 5 spill would have a catastrophic impact,” she said.

Under an 1836 treaty, tribes in Michigan ceded land to the United States in exchange for the U.S. and Michigan protecting tribal water and fishing rights in that land.

Pumping oil under the Straits jeopardizes those rights, Gravelle said.

“If a resource that a treaty right depends upon is destroyed, you almost have a causal chain effect where the treaty right was violated, the resource was destroyed, and then the way of life -- the very existence of indigenous people -- is also then destroyed,” said Gravelle.

The Anishanabek Nation of Canada has raised similar concerns.

A 2016 University of Michigan study found a spill under the Straits could foul 700 miles of Great Lakes Shoreline.

Enbridge, which operates the pipeline, maintains that it’s the safest and most energy-efficient way to transfer oil between the U.S. and Canada.

Gravelle said if tribal treaty rights are violated, the tribes' only recourse is litigation. The way to protect their rights, she said, is to ensure that tribal leadership is present to assert the 1833 treaty in any discussions between the U.S. and Canada over the 1977 pipeline treaty.

“It’s pretty clear that we should be invited. This treaty predates 1977 by more than a century.”

Neither the U.S. state department nor Canada’s foreign ministry immediately responded to questions about whether tribes will be invited to treaty negotiations.