Native American contractors' letter seeks end to protests over Line 3 pipeline

·4 min read

DULUTH – Native American contractors working on the controversial Enbridge Line 3 pipeline across Minnesota say the Indigenous-led protests that escalated Monday do not speak for them.

"Protests that disrupt work, damage property and threaten our employees while claiming to be on behalf of our Native people is creating additional tension and consequences within our tribal communities," six contractors wrote in a letter being sent to Minnesota tribal leaders this week. "They also intentionally create a false narrative that there is no Native American support for this project and the economic impacts and opportunities it brings to our people."

Thousands of people gathered near the Mississippi River headwaters over the weekend, culminating in both a peaceful march and an occupation at a pump station construction site that resulted in hundreds of arrests and citations.

As protesters locked themselves to equipment and blocked the access road with debris, Enbridge said it evacuated 44 employees, 10 of whom work for White Earth Reservation-based Gordon Construction. Owner Matt Gordon was one of those who signed the letter calling for "leaders of tribal communities across Minnesota to renounce these actions and call on these groups to stop future destructive and unlawful protests that endanger our Native workers and divide the communities in which we work and live."

The White Earth, Red Lake and Mille Lacs bands have steadfastly opposed Line 3, which will cost Enbridge well over $3 billion. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa did as well until regulators approved the pipeline and the band opted for a deal with Enbridge to allow the new Line 3 on its land. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe supported the new Line 3 in order to get the 50-year-old, deteriorating Line 3 extracted from its land. (The new pipeline runs partly on a new route outside of the Leech Lake reservation).

Two smaller Ojibwe bands have not taken a stance on the pipeline.

The contractors' letter will be sent to tribal leaders who supported the removal of the old Line 3 from the Leech Lake Reservation, said Jim Jones, owner of Dirt Divers and a member of the Leech Lake Band. Other contractors who signed the letter will be sending it to other tribal councils, especially those they are affiliated with, including Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Leech Lake.

"Not everyone is against the pipeline," Jones said in an interview. The new pipeline "provides economic opportunities and jobs to our [tribal] members."

Jones, who for many years worked for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council protecting Indian burial grounds, monitors and protects tribal cultural and archaeological sites on the Line 3 route. The sites were identified in a 2018 survey, which was mandated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed by the Fond du Lac band. Jones played a key role in conducting the survey.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge has repeatedly touted its commitment to hiring Indigenous workers to help build the 340-mile pipeline that will ferry 790,000 barrels of oil per day between Canada and a terminal in Superior, Wis. Through March 31, Enbridge had spent $200 million on Line 3-related contracts with Minnesota tribal businesses and another $22.3 million directly on wages to Indigenous workers from Minnesota, according to a report the company filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

At the end of March, 501 tribal members were working on Line 3 construction, or 6% of the total workforce, the report said. Of those 501 tribal workers, 61% were from Minnesota.

Winona LaDuke, head of the Indigenous and environmental rights group Honor the Earth and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said "using Native people as a smoke screen to destroy the environment is wrong."

"Enbridge has worked hard to seed division in our communities, in our families, for the past four years," she said. "We want the jobs removing the pipeline, not putting it in."

Enbridge said it expects to put the line in service by the end of the year, though ongoing court challenges could still result in construction being halted on the half-built pipeline.

The Northern Lights Task Force, a collection of northern Minnesota law enforcement agencies coordinating the response to pipeline protests, said 179 people were arrested and 68 more received citations following the protest Monday and Tuesday. Most will be charged with gross misdemeanor trespass on critical infrastructure, public nuisance and unlawful assembly, according to the group.

"Many protesters did not abide by the law and engaged in actions that forced the hand of law enforcement and dispersal orders were given. Those who chose not to leave were subsequently arrested," the task force said in a news release Wednesday.

Hundreds of self-described water protectors remain camped at a construction site along the Mississippi River in Clearwater County. Organizer Nancy Beaulieu of the Leech Lake Band said: "We are asking all of our relatives from afar to join us in ceremony and peacefully defend our treaties and our right to exist and our right to protect the water."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003