Wild Rice Sues Minnesota in 'Rights of Nature' Case to Stop Pipeline

A lawsuit could allow the White Earth Band to reclaim sovereignty over its ancestral lands.

A closeup of Manoomin branch with wild rice growing from it.
Wild rice, called manoomin in Ojibwe, is found in Minnesota.

Lorie Shaull / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

A Native American Nation has filed a lawsuit against the state of Minnesota in a tribal court arguing that the construction of the Line 3 pipeline violated the rights of manoomin (wild rice).

Manoomin—the word hails from the Ojibwe and Anishinaabeg languages—itself is a named plaintiff in Manoomin, et.al., v. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, et.al., thanks to a 2018 Rights of Nature law in which the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, recognized that wild rice has “inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve.”

The plaintiffs, which also include the White Earth Band and tribal leaders, argue that Minnesota officials violated the “legally enforceable rights” of manoomin when they allowed Enbridge to use 5 billion gallons of freshwater to build and test Line 3, a 1,097-mile duct that transports heavy tar-sands oil from Canada through North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

“Manoomin has been a part of our traditional stories, teachings, lifeways and spirituality since the earliest times to the present day. For the Chippewa, manoomin is alive like all living creatures and they are our relations. We Chippewa have a sacred covenant with manoomin and the water (Nibi) and all living creatures, without which we cannot live,” reads the lawsuit.

White Earth claims that Line 3, which started operations on Oct. 1, will do as much climate damage as building 45 new coal-fired power plants and affect 389 acres of wild rice and 17 water bodies that support wild rice cultivation, as well as sacred sites on treaty lands.

The lawsuit argues that the water diversion was done illegally because it violates the rights of manoomin and contravenes treaties by which the Chippewa gave away territories to the U.S. government but maintained rights “to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice.”

On the one hand, the lawsuit is the latest chapter in an eight-year battle against an $8.2 billion oil pipeline. On the other, it is part of a struggle for sovereignty that dates back to the 17th century, when European colonizers first started seizing land from Native American tribes. 

The case also marks the first time that plaintiffs seek to enforce a “Rights of Nature” law in a tribal court.

These laws, which establish legally enforceable rights of nature, species, and ecosystems, have been adopted by several tribal groups and dozens of municipal governments in the U.S. and Canada, enshrined in the constitutions of Ecuador and Uganda, and recognized by court rulings in Colombia, India, and Bangladesh.

“It is important to mention the indigenous roots of this movement. The cosmovision that is shared by indigenous groups in terms of nature not only having rights but being an entity that we need to protect,” Maria Antonia Tigre, a global climate litigation fellow at Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Treehugger.

Tigre said that even though these laws are gaining traction worldwide, many rulings are not enforced in their totality because it is hard to hold companies or governments accountable for climate change or environmental destruction.

“Enforcement is really hard. That’s really the issue. You get court decisions that are amazing and really progressive but they are often not enforced,” she said.

However, this time may be different because the case is being heard by a tribal court.

“It brings a whole different perspective because I assume that a tribal court will be more accepting of the Rights of Nature, and tribal groups will be more likely to enforce the ruling,” Tigre said.

Strong Fight

The plaintiffs have asked the court to nullify the water permit that allowed Enbridge to build the pipeline, declare that the rights of manoomin were violated, and make “a binding legal statement” that going forward, the State of Minnesota must obtain explicit consent from the tribe before issuing permits that may affect their territories.

“And that Chippewa tribal members have a right of sovereignty and self-determination to actually adopt the laws that they've adopted. And those rights cannot be infringed or violated by governments, or business entities like Enbridge,” said Thomas Linzey, the senior legal counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, who is advising the plaintiffs.

During a recent webinar, Linzey explained how Minnesota is putting up a fight in both federal and tribal courts. If first tried to block the case in tribal court and when that failed, it sued the White Earth Tribal court in a U.S. District Court. When the case was dismissed, the state of Minnesota asked a federal court of appeals to overturn the decision. Federal litigation is expected to continue into 2022.

Meanwhile, the White Earth Tribal Court of Appeal is yet to issue a ruling regarding another appeal filed by the State of Minnesota.

Linzey describes the case as a “complicated maze with lots of moving parts,” which shows “the steps they've taken to try to stop the tribal court from actually hearing this case and deciding it.”

If the plaintiffs succeed, the case could have widespread repercussions, said White Earth tribal attorney Frank Bibeau, because it would set a precedent, allowing other tribes to file similar suits to uphold “Rights of Nature” in their territories.

“I think what's happening here may very well be what causes the stopping of new pipelines in North America and may very well be the rebalancing of environmental tools and scales between tribes and states. And if tribes have the ability to require consent, then I think that's gonna make the states have to think a lot more about how they go forward with their permitting,” Bibeau said.

Tigre also thinks the case could have a knock-on effect. 

“The ‘Rights of Nature’ movement started in Ecuador and quickly spread to other countries, first within Latin America and then to other geographical regions. I think it is the same with climate litigation cases. There is cross-fertilization. If a case is successful it can spark a trend.”

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