The Bad River Chippewa Take on an Oil Giant: Review of ‘Bad River: A Story of Defiance’

A new film chronicles how the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are united in their opposition to Enbridge pipelines

Bill McKibben March 4, 2024

The following review of the documentary film Bad River originally appeared on The Crucial Years, climate activist Bill McKibben’s SubStack column. Barn Raiser republishes it here with the author’s permission.

Film lodges images in your mind like no other medium. I was amazed the other week—after scientists came up with startling new evidence that the great currents of the Atlantic are moving towards a shutdown—to find out how much of 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow I could still recall, especially the scene of the Statue of Liberty engulfed in a giant wave.

The slowing of the Gulf Stream won’t actually flood the Lady in the Harbor, but the probable real-life results of slowing these currents would be far worse. As the Washington Post explained: “the dramatic cooling in the Northern Hemisphere would cause a shift in the band of clouds and rainfall that encircle the globe at the tropics. The monsoons that typically deliver rain to West Africa and South Asia would become unreliable, and huge swaths of Europe and Russia would plunge into drought. As much as half of the world’s viable area for growing corn and wheat could dry out.”

Bad River—a new documentary premiering in early March—is entirely unambiguous fact, not dramatized at all; if anything, some of its power comes from underplaying the tragedy it describes, that of an indigenous community forced to defend its remaining chunk of land from a heedless and rapacious oil company. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to stick in my head in somewhat the same fashion as that climate thriller, because the story is so universal and so particular all at once. You can watch the trailer here, and also find out about where to watch the whole thing when it opens at theaters March 15.

I’ve been emailing back and forth in recent weeks with Mary Mazzio, who made the film. She’s remarkable herself, having made a series of documentaries that spurred legislation and lawsuits that actually fixed some of the problems she identified. Her first film, A Hero for Daisy, tells the story of the early days of Title IX through the eyes of a Princeton rower. She writes:

Back when it came out, a girls’ high school basketball coach from Tuba City, Arizona called me.  “I’m Mac Hall and I’m calling from the Navajo Reservation. None of my girls are getting recruited by Division 1 programs,” he began. “So many of these college coaches have deeply ingrained stereotypical assumptions about Native girls,” he continued, explaining that a film project might help to dispel some of those biases.

I had only made one film back then and could not find funding for that project.  But Mac Hall and his voice have been in my head for years. He really is the reason for this new project.

Fast forward to a chance introduction to Mike Wiggins, the Chairman of the Bad River Band.  The Band had filed a lawsuit against a Canadian pipeline operator, and, as a recovering lawyer, I thought it incredible that this small community could mount such a David-and-Goliath battle.

The David and Goliath battle is between the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Enbridge, the giant pipeline company who you may remember from other battles, like Line 3, rammed across the Mississippi headwaters, and the Dakota Access pipeline. In this case, it’s Line 5 at issue, carrying tar sands from Canada across the Great Lakes region, and then back into Canada. When I say “across the Great Lakes region,” I mean underneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron—I remember well coming to talk at an early protest against the pipeline more than a decade ago, and simply being stunned that anyone could ever have built such a thing, smack in the middle of the world’s largest supply of freshwater.

The pipeline also winds across the Bad River reservation—which, as the film makes powerfully clear, is the result of the entirely typical centuries-long mistreatment of Native Americans. But after every effort to reduce their power and their culture, the tribe still holds title to their relatively small piece of paradise (captured mostly via drone shots, which have opened up new possibilities for rural filmmaking), and it’s that legal title that helps drive the story. The band sued Enbridge in federal court in 2019, arguing that there was a profound risk of a catastrophic rupture that could send oil pouring into the waters around the reservation.

This is not some idle threat: the most shocking footage in the film shows that as the Bad River has shifted the soil around the pipeline has eroded so much that in places the pipeline is just hanging there, completely exposed; it’s as grotesque and scary as seeing someone with a bone sticking out of their shoulder after a bike crash.

You would think this would be an open-and-shut case—Enbridge’s lease on pipeline right of way has long since expired, and the tribe essentially moved to evict them, much like a landlord whose tenant had decided to start breaking the windows. A court finally agreed—though they delayed the judgment until 2026, a ruling Enbridge has of course appealed.

Mazzio’s film, tight in its focus on this one part of the story, doesn’t talk about the rest of the opposition to Line 5, from other tribal groups and also from a devoted and widespread citizen’s movement that has built across Michigan in recent years, gaining enough traction that in 2020 the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer (D), ordered the pipeline shut down. But it’s been in court ever since—most recently, a hearing last week in the 7th circuit of federal court, where both Enbridge and the Bad River band have filed suit, and where justices said they awaiting a filing of some kind from the federal government before making a decision. (The Canadian government, always eager to help the tar sands barons, argued that under international treaties the flow of oil through the pipeline should continue).

All of this is to say that the fight is both legal and political—which is usually the case. In both legal and political terms, tribal sovereignty should be enough to carry the day—as the movie makes quite painfully clear, right is on the side of the Bad River band in every possible historical sense. But, as becomes ever clearer in this country, the justice system is not fully separated from politics, and so the need to make broad coalitions is paramount. And those broad coalitions can worry about different, if linked, things.

In this case, for instance, the tribal argument for sovereignty, and the fears of local residents for the clear waters of the Great Lakes, are both potent and animating—they get a nucleus of people engaged because their very lives, and the places they live them in, are entirely at stake. In recent years the groups that form in these local places are called the “front line activists.”

But in a big country, where the fossil fuel industry always has clout, it also pays to get a wider assortment of people in on the fight: people who may live far from the shores of the big waters, and who may not have paid much mind to questions of tribal rights. So far, the best way to animate them has been to point out that these projects are also climate-killers. That is, if the oil spills then it is people along the Bad River and the Straits of Mackinac whose lives will be forever changed. But if the oil doesn’t spill, then the carbon it contains will spill into the atmosphere, where it will raise the temperature for everyone. Increasingly, this scrambles—in a helpful way—the idea of the “front lines.” If one is losing one’s home to wildfire in California because of desperate heatwaves, then one are on some kind of front line of the climate fight; if one can’t breathe in a New Delhi slum because the temperate has reached 120 degrees, then ditto. We all share the same enemy, which is the business-as-usual fossil fuel industry.

These kind of coalitions are never simple or easy to build, in part because the groups that organize people to care about the climate fight tend to be national or global, and hence bigger—if care isn’t taken, they can start to blot out the witness of the people closest to the trouble. But when care is taken, then alliances and even friendships blossom, and victories can happen—that is, I’d argue, the story of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline (when indigenous people and Midwest farmers and ranchers made common cause with each other, and with global climate groups) and the recent LNG wins, when similar partnerships formed between groups of inspired leaders along the Gulf of Mexico, and national and international environmental groups.

At any rate, watch the trailer for this movie, and then make a plan to see the whole thing. It’s a powerful chronicle of some of the saddest chapters in American history, and a hopeful picture of the emerging possibilities for power in the crucial fights of our time. And oh what beautiful country is at stake!

For more information on Native opposition to Enbridge’s pipelines see the Barn Raiser’s “Special Report: Enbridge Pipelines.”

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, an author, educator, and environmental activist, is the founder of and Third Act. He is the author, most recently, of The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon.

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