Shanai Matteson, a 39-year-old White settler, sat in the stuffy overflow room watching the packed Public Utility Commission meeting, along with more than a hundred others, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in June 2018. Over several hours, she listened as dozens of people—Native elders, local landowners, and young people concerned about their futures—testified against the Line 3 tar sands pipeline, urging the commission to deny the project a key permit. She listened, too, as Enbridge workers, bused in by the company, voiced their support for the pipeline.
Matteson remembers the collective dismay and anger in the room as the five-person board approved Enbridge’s permit request. She also remembers what happened next: Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stood up and told the commissioners that they had just declared war on the Ojibwe people.
Outside of the conference hall, organizers held a rally. Matteson listened as Winona LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Nation and executive director of the nonprofit Honor the Earth, spoke alongside several youth interveners—teenagers who were suing to stop the pipeline in court. Listening to their words, Matteson was moved by their unwavering dedication―to the land, water, and climate, but also to upholding the treaty agreements, which were being violated by this pipeline project.
Only by confronting the context of the U.S.’s settler-colonial history can settlers begin to reckon with their personal identity as treaty people.
After the news conference, Matteson packed her two young children into the car. They drove for nearly three hours before reaching a part of the land where the Mississippi starts to widen into one of the nation’s most storied rivers. It was a place she knew well. Matteson’s family had lived in the area for five generations, ever since her great-great-grandfather, Amasa, settled a homestead and opened a small sawmill on 1855 Treaty land. She’d grown up in the nearby town of Palisade, Minnesota, population 150.
Here was where Enbridge planned to drill the Line 3 pipeline under the Mississippi.
Standing on the riverbank that night, Matteson made a pledge to do everything she could to uphold the treaties and to stop Line 3. “I remember that day, saying to myself ‘I am making a commitment to this fight,’ ” Matteson recalls.
Defending Treaty Rights: From the Salish Sea to Line 3
On July 25, a Lummi Nation-carved totem pole will pass through the Mississippi Headwaters, under which Enbridge plans to drill the Line 3 pipeline. It’s part of a 1,500-mile journey from the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest through numerous Indigenous sacred sites, including Bears Ears in the Southwest and Standing Rock in the Midwest, en route to Washington, D.C. The totem pole is intended to invite Native and non-Native people to connect with the idea of broken treaties and the ongoing efforts to honor them, especially when treaty rights come into conflict with extractive capitalism.
Putting a hand on the totem pole, as people are invited to do at each sacred site event stop, one can’t help but feel a sense of awe for the many stories, hopes, and prayers it carries—and to offer their own. The 24-foot pole, hauled on a trailer behind a pickup, bears images that tell stories of the present-day struggles faced by Indigenous communities—including the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the crisis of children held in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the work of language revitalization. One carving is a grandmother with seven tears, using culture to teach her granddaughter how to turn trauma into wisdom. The totem pole aims to serve as “a reminder of the promises that were made to the first peoples of this land and waters,” Lummi master carver Jewell James told The Washington Post.
Once you know the true history, you can learn from it, and become wise from it.
These promises were made in the form of nation-to-nation treaty agreements, recognized in the U.S. Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.” For non-Native individuals residing in the U.S., treaty rights are still the legal mechanism giving people the right to live on ceded tribal land. Put another way, if settlers (like the two of us writing this piece) are not actively holding up their end of the deal, then they forfeit the right to be here.
In exchange, the U.S. government promised tribes services, such as health care, education, and housing—and in many cases, treaties reserved the right for Native people to hunt and fish within their traditional territory. Instead, the reality has been a history of genocidal massacres, forced displacement, brutal residential schools, the outlawing of language, religion, and culture, and broken treaty obligations. Only by confronting the context of the U.S.’s settler-colonial history can settlers begin to reckon with their personal identity as treaty people.
“Part of what’s so wonderful about the pole is how it invites people to learn about the treaty, and to learn about the true history of this country,” says Lummi tribal fisher and treaty advocate Ellie Kinley, co-founder of Sacred Sea, a Indigenous-led nonprofit whose mission is to defend Lummi sovereignty and treaty rights and promote Indigenous stewardship of the Salish Sea.
“Once you know the true history, you can learn from it, and become wise from it.”
“We Are All Treaty People”
On June 7, 2021, about 2,000 people attended Treaty People Gathering, a mass Line 3 protest in rural northern Minnesota. At one of two actions that happened that day, more than 1,000 people marched to a part of the Mississippi where the pipeline is slated to be drilled; at the other action, hundreds risked arrest (and more than 200 were arrested) shutting down an Enbridge work station for the day.
“We Are All Treaty People” was one of the gathering’s main rallying cries. They are words that Matteson has thought seriously about since that night at the Commission hearing.
In 2020, after two decades living and working in Minneapolis, Matteson moved her family back to Palisade. She quickly got involved with the Welcome Water Protector Center, a cultural camp supporting people standing with the Ojibwe opposing Line 3. She is now close friends with Tania Aubid, the founder of the camp and the Ojibwe woman who informed the PUC commissioners that Line 3 was an act of war upon her people. The women’s friendship has given them both the strength to do more. In early 2021, they embarked on a hunger strike together. To bring attention to the fight to stop the pipeline, Matteson went 21 days without food; Aubid went 38.
When asked why she moved with her two young children to the Welcome Water Protector Center, Matteson is clear that protecting the water and the climate were reasons, but so too was ensuring that her government upholds its side of the treaties.
The treaties are not just a concern for Indigenous people.
“I’ve been reminded by so many Indigenous people that the treaties are not just a concern for Indigenous people,” she says, golden light falling between the trees at camp. “They were entered into by the U.S. government, and as citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure our government honors that law.”
Over the course of the 19th century, the Red Lake Nation, the White Earth Nation, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe signed treaties with the U.S. government—treaties that granted rights to U.S. citizens and reserved rights for tribal members. In recent years, tribal attorneys have argued that Line 3 would infringe upon those treaty-protected rights, including the right to cultivate and harvest wild rice―manoomin in the Ojibwe language―which is regarded as a sacred species and is a vital source of sustenance for local tribal members. “It’s a perpetuation of cultural genocide,” founder of Line 3 resistance group, Giniw Collective, Tara Houska told The Guardian, describing the impact Line 3 would have on manoomin.
It has been a long road for the tribal attorneys, a road made more complicated by the fact that some Native-owned construction companies and two other Ojibwe nations support the pipeline. Most recently, on June 14, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against the tribes, finding that Enbridge had appropriately demonstrated that there was a need for the pipeline. There are, however, reasons to believe the Tribes’ case will fare better in a case at federal court, where it is to be heard in the coming months. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the favor of treaty rights in two high-profile cases.
But as the case makes its way slowly through the federal court system, the fight for treaty rights is playing out on its own timeline in the woods of rural Minnesota.
Before Line 3 was anywhere near the edge of the great Mississippi, Aubid and Winona LaDuke built a waaginogaaning, a traditional Ojibwe prayer lodge, on the banks of the river, in the exact spot where Line 3 was slated to be drilled under its waters. Earlier this year, in the depths of the Minnesota winter, Enbridge workers appeared on site, nailing “No Trespassing” signs to trees.
The workers informed Aubid and LaDuke that they were trespassing on Enbridge property.
“No, you’re trespassing,” Aubid replied.
When the workers returned with law enforcement, Aubid handed the police officer a copy of the 1855 Treaty Authority letter, informing them of her legal, treaty-protected right to practice her religion there. The police and the Enbridge workers left Aubid in her prayer lodge soon after, but nobody expected Enbridge to stay away for long.
They didn’t. In July 2021, Enbridge drilled under the river, despite Aubid, Matteson, LaDuke, and others wading into the river to try and stop them.
The prayer lodge still stands in the path of the pipeline, and dozens more people have joined the Welcome Water Protector Center as the fight against the pipeline is reaching a boiling point. Since December alone, nearly 600 people have been arrested for actions related to stopping the construction of Line 3 and tens of thousands more have marched, demanded that Biden intervene, and protested the banks funding the pipeline.
Aubid is clear on what she hopes will happen next. “We’d like more people to come here,” she says. “We’d like people to help us protect the lands, protect the waters, and to do what they can to uphold their side of the treaties.”
Later, as we walk beside the languorous waters of the Mississippi, Matteson reminds us of the importance of settlers upholding the treaties. “This isn’t history,” she says. “This is happening here. It is happening now.”