Wild rice sues to stop oil pipeline

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe exercised the Rights of Manoomin in a legal effort to halt the Line 3 pipeline.


Ojibwe manoomin harvest on Lower Rice Lake in Bagley, Minnesota.

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In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the 1855 Treaty Authority, an organization that upholds treaty rights for Chippewa bands, enacted legal personhood for manoomin -- wild rice. Manoomin, which translates to “good berry” in Ojibwe, is a sacred food for Chippewa, Ojibwe and Anishinaabe people and has been a part of traditional teachings, stories and way of life since time immemorial. 

The Rights of Manoomin was the first tribal law to pass and grant legal status for a plant or animal species. It declared that within White Earth and other ceded Chippewa territories, manoomin has “inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” 

The Rights of Manoomin are modeled after the Rights of Nature, an international concept which argues nature should have the same rights as humans. Several Indigenous communities have adopted similar proclamations such as the Yurok tribe which declared the rights of personhood for the Klamath River in 2019 (“The Klamath River now has the legal rights of a person”).

In August, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe exercised the Rights of Manoomin in a legal effort to halt the construction of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline. The lawsuit, which seeks to stop both pipeline-related water pumping and the ongoing arrests of demonstrators, is only the second rights of nature case ever filed in the U.S.

The complaint was filed in White Earth Nation Tribal Court, with manoomin acting as the lead plaintiff along with several tribal members and water protectors. They say the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is failing to protect the state’s fresh water by allowing Enbridge to pump up to 5 billion gallons of groundwater and surface water for construction amidst a devastating drought. Furthermore, Frank Bibeau, a lawyer for the White Earth tribe, claims the DNR has violated multiple treaty rights that allow tribal members to hunt, fish and gather wild rice, and the rights of manoomin. “This action is about upholding manoomin’s right to exist and flourish as established by tribal law, and about Minnesota’s legal obligations pursuant to the treaties signed with the Chippewa,” Bibeau said.

Jessica Douglas is a staff writer at  High Country News  and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. We welcome reader letters. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

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