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LaDuke: This rice lake is our life

In an overcast and quiet midday, 50 Anishinaabeg from ricing families and friends gathered at Big Bear Landing on the shores of Big Rice Lake. It is 138 years to the day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Some say the odds were not great for the Lakota at that point, and some might say the same now for the Anishinaabeg. The Ojibwe hold ricing poles, knockers, and carry canoes to the lake. Michael Dahl has called us together to talk about our manoomin, our wild rice, and the lake. This is the most bountiful wild rice lake in Minnesota – four miles long and two wide; solid bed of wild rice on a good year. There is nothing like it.

It’s an epic moment. The newest version of the Indian wars is coming toward Rice Lake. This 7th Cavalry reincarnation is fossil fuel, extractive mining and pipelines – big ones headed every which way across the heart of Indian Country: Kinder Morgan and Enbridge Gateway to the north in what is called British Columbia, and into the Salish Sea; Energy East projected to go from west to east to Miq’Mac territory; the Keystone XL, Alberta Clipper, Line 9 and the Sandpiper are all intended to move fracked oil and tar sands oil across territories that have no pipelines. The companies, Kinder Morgan, Trans Canada and Enbridge, with the largest armament, are intent upon reaching their ports: Superior, St. Johns, Kitimat and Vancouver. They face opposition.

June, or the Strawberry Moon in Ojibwe country, was good for the Enbridge Corp. They received the approval of Premier Steven Harper for the contentious Gateway Pipeline, despite a plebiscite in Kitimat opposing the line, the opposition of 140 first nations, huge numbers of fishermen and a good percentage of British Columbia. That was to be expected. After all, Harper has shown immense support for energy companies, little support for the environment and none for Native nations.

On the heels of that victory, the Alberta Clipper line was approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, clearing one more obstacle for the company to proceed in doubling their tar sands oil pipeline capacity from 400,000 to 800,000 barrels per day. Then, a bit of icing on the cake. The North Dakota Public Service Commission approved the first 500 miles of the Sandpiper Line, intended to carry 375,000 barrels per day of Bakken oil across Minnesota in a route separate from the other eight pipelines that cross the state. That is a lot of oil headed across the lake country.

“There is nothing like this lake anywhere,” Blaze Neeland, a ricer, told me. “This lake has rice forever. We eat from this lake, fish at this lake, and it is our life.” Elder Joanne LaFriniere remembers ricing since she was 16 on this lake. It is the lake of the Anishinaabeg prophecies. That tradition continues, and today she names pin cherries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, chokecherries, which grow in the lands around the lake. “One oil spill and it is gone, our whole life is gone.”

Alfred Fox, chief conservation officer for the White Earth tribe, came to the gathering and told stories about how the people used to gather, dance and then work together to build up landings and access to the lake. The lake is a treasure for the Anishinaabeg. The Sandpiper line would go within the reservation boundary, within the watershed that feeds the lake.

I can’t help thinking that the 7th Cavalry of 138 years ago had a lot of guns, and was arrogant. I also can’t help thinking that the Indian wars are not over.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.