In this audio story, the terms ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’ are used. Though sometimes used interchangeably in other forms of writing, this article uses nation as a legal term that refers to tribal sovereignty. Tribe is used to refer to a general self-determination, encapsulating lived experiences beyond the legal realm.

[“Lake Superior Waves” by BullSam is licensed under CC BY 4.0.]

The sound of freshwater rushing against the sand in Lake Superior is common noise for Joe Bates. He is a tribal elder of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Northern Wisconsin. Bates was born there. Then, at seven years old, he moved away with his family but finally returned at 29. This is when he made the reservation his permanent home.

BATES: “This is my homeland. This is what my ancestors died and fought for, this homeland that we have here. I’m just so grateful to be able to come back to my home and remain here for the remainder of, you know, what I have left.”

Bates said that water is sacred. To him, the presence of Lake Michigan on reservation lands is meaningful.

BATES: “And my words for the water was, essentially: essential. Without that good, clean water we will cease to exist. We have everything that we need to survive right here, right here in our homeland that we call Bad River.”

[“Cinematic and Emotional Background Music For Documentary Videos & Film” by MorningLightMusic is licensed under CC BY 4.0.]

He spends an extensive amount of time capturing drone footage of the lake. But this endeavor isn’t just a hobby to collect B-roll. Bates uses his drone to trace the path of a specific oil pipeline. The pipeline is called Line 5 – an underground oil pipeline built by Enbridge, a multinational Canadian pipeline company.

Line 5 carries 22 million gallons of refined oil and natural gas liquids each day. The pipeline spans over 645 miles. It stretches from Superior Wisconsin, where Bates is located, and through Michigan. Line 5 ends in Sarnia, Ontario.

The problem is that the state of Michigan originally considered Line 5 to have a lifespan of 40 to 50 years. It was built in 1953.

Currently, Line 5 is 70 years old and its state of deterioration is responsible for 33 recorded spills. The old age of the pipeline has caused corrosion and cracking in certain sections. The Michigan easement that allowed it to function in the straits of Mackinac also requires the line to be supported every 75 feet. Yet, many stretches are unsupported for over 200 feet. One unsupported section even exceeds 400 feet. This lack of support causes stress and makes rupture even more likely. The state of Michigan, climate activists and Native Americans are worried that a larger rupture could compromise the Great Lakes, which accounts for 21% of the world’s freshwater.

Jack Kelly and Catherine Buntin discuss the significance of grassroots activism in the face of multinational pipeline company Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline. Photo by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern.

Jack Kelly and Catherine Buntin are the co-chairs of the Chicago Area Peace Action Climate Group or CAPA. CAPA is an activist organization that supports various climate issues in the Chicago area. They are involved in the fight against Line 5 and have held protests downtown at Chicago Chase bank locations to call out corporations that fund oil pipelines. They’ve also signed petitions and spoken with local politicians like congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, to share their concerns. Kelly believes in the importance of localized grassroots activism.

KELLY: “Local communities should have a say in what their security would look like, not only today, but as we go forward.”

Like Kelly, Catherine Buntin sees organizations like CAPA as a mechanism for change.

BUNTIN: “You get the environmental groups, you’ve got the indigenous people that live on the land, that grow the wild rice, they know the ecology, they know the damage, that once it’s done you can’t clean it up. So when you have the people at literally the grassroots level, and you have the environmentalists, you have the scientists and then you have climate advocates like our groups, that's how you build a powerful coalition.”

The fight against Line 5 is a fight against a major corporation: Enbridge. This is why CAPA has organized protests against large corporations like Enbridge and Chase Bank, and encourages  those around them to boycott businesses that fund oil pipelines.

BUNTIN: “Follow the money right? And see if you can get these guys to realize, ‘Oh, actually maybe I shouldn’t fund that pipeline because I’m losing some customers here.’ So it’s a process and you have to have many things working simultaneously to actually put a dent in the power of these corporations.”

CAPA also organizes fundraisers to support legal fees of “water protectors” – these are Native American activists who defend the earth’s water systems. But water protectors need data to support their legal claims in court battles.

Kim Marion Suiseeya is an assistant professor of political science and environmental policy and culture at Northwestern University. She is working on a research project in collaboration with Ojibwe nations to help them collect environmental data about reservation lands.

MARION SUISEEYA: “The idea is that tribes will then have data both to inform their management decisions but also to fight, to assert their treaty rights in courts.”

Kim Marion Suiseeya, assistant professor of Political Science and Environmental Policy at Northwestern University talking about her research project to provide Ojibwe nations with data on their reservation lands. Photo by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern.

Marion Suiseeya hopes this will give them stronger evidence in court battles that involve the network of conflicting treaties surrounding Line 5.

MARION SUISEEYA: “Line 5, if it bursts and oil spills into water sheds, that will directly impact tribes’ access to those resources, it will devastate those relatives and it infringes on tribal sovereignty. So what does it mean to maintain treaty rights – is it just the ability to go and gather in that moment or is it the long-term sustainability of those resources and the ability to maintain relationships?”

Marion Suiseeya is optimistic about Native American participation in broader U.S. politics. Tribal representatives from the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan have been involved in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fight against Line 5. In 2021, Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s permit. This made it illegal for the pipeline to function in the straits of Mackinac. Yet, the line is still operating.

MARION SUISEEYA: “To me what this is demonstrating is the ability for tribes to really shape much broader policy outside of their reservations.”

Line 5 has continued to run because of the numerous contradictory treaties. Only the federal government has the power to renegotiate the treaty that allows Line 5 to continue functioning today. There is an on-going legal battle involving the state of Michigan, various Indigenous tribes’ and Enbridge. They are arguing over who has the right to shut down Line 5. Enbridge claims that treaty rights between the U.S. and Canada protect their right to continue operating it.

Amid the entanglement of cross-country legislature, treaties, and discussion with business corporations it can be difficult for activists to situate themselves in a way that creates substantive change. CAPA member Jessy Bradish believes that starting locally is the key.

BRADISH: “I wrote on a post-it note for myself last year: local positive action now. When I was trying to figure out my theory of change, so you have to start somewhere. Evanston has so many resources. Theoretically, we vote in a way that we care about the climate. I think it's a real testing ground. If you can't get action in Evanston, where can you get it?”

Chuck Wasserburg is the co-lead of Citizens Greener Evanston. He finds local action more encouraging because he feels he can have a larger impact.

WASSERBURG: “I can kind of bring it about at the small level. It's very hard to bring about big change at a national or we’re talking international level, really, with a pipeline. And I'm not saying it's not possible but I'm just saying that that's where I sort of threw my energy was into the small scale stuff, because it's very hard for me to feel confident that anything I do is going to actually change what these companies do on a bigger level, whereas I can try to make change happen on a smaller level.”

Even though it can be disheartening to fight against corporations, activists still persist. For Catherine Buntin and Jack Kelly, it’s about ensuring a bright future for their grandchildren.

BUNTIN: “We each have several grandchildren. I have six, my partner has six. I grew up in Michigan in an area called the Land of the Lakes and I swam in a small spring-fed lake that was absolutely pristine, beautiful water, I mean you could see to the bottom 30-feet down. It was so clean and lovely. I want my grandchildren to have that.”

As for Bates? He hopes to protect the Bad River Band tribal origins against Line 5.

BATES: “That’s why we’re here today, and that’s why our tribal members hold it with the highest regards as far as what we have to survive because that’s sustained our elders, our ancestors for centuries. We want to make sure that we do whatever we can to save that for the next seven generations.”

The future of Line 5 is uncertain amid the entanglement of laws and Enbridge’s persistence to keep the pipeline functioning. But the tribes, activists and politicians in pursuit of clean lakes will not stand down any time soon.

For NBN Audio, Kim Jao.