The Black Snake Threatens Turtle Island

When I moved to the Great Lakes, I did not know a pipeline threatened my ancestral homeland

Monica Cady April 17, 2023

This is part of a Barn Raiser special report on Enbridge oil-and-gas pipelines.

A few years back, I was haunted by a vivid otherworldly dream: A giant Turtle as big as a house and then with a big shiny metal hook through its stomach.

The meaning, to me, seemed clear. I live within walking distance of Lake Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, named for the Giant Turtle in the Anishnaabe creation story. I interpret the dream to mean that our Great Lakes are in danger from mining, fracking, and oil pipelines — in particular the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.

I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula eight years ago to learn about my culture. The Upper Peninsula is the ancestral homeland of the Ojibwe, or Anishnaabe, the original people of the Great Lakes region, and I am an enrolled member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa, from my grandfather’s Ojibwe and Canadian French ancestry. I also wanted to live close to nature, low-impact, and in this windy area hopefully get off the grid with wind and solar power. 

Now I live one mile from Lake Huron in a boreal forest, in the Les Cheneaux area, made up of 36 islands with protected coves for kayaking, boating, and sailing. It is a pristine area with numerous protected and endangered medicinal plants, including trillium, yellow and pink lady slipper orchids, pearly everlasting, and pitcher plants.

I can see the Mackinac Bridge from the end of my road. When I moved here, I didn’t know that beneath that bridge ran a corroded oil pipeline, built in 1953.  

The Enbridge Line 5 pipeline was only built to last 50 years, but has outlasted its life expectancy. If it ruptures in the Straits of Mackinac, it would poison the water  we drink and devastate wildlife.  

In 2018, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill to move forward on a proposed tunnel for a replacement Line 5 pipeline underneath the Straits of Mackinac. But this construction would also put the Great Lakes at risk, threatening water wells and causing earthquakes. The new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) had given Enbridge a deadline of May 21, 2022, to decommission Line 5. Whitmer, along with indigenous and environmental activists, has argued that the existing pipeline be shut down, which Enbridge has refused to do.

As Ojibwe activist—and Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader’s 2000 running mate—Winona LaDuke put it, “Enbridge is holding the Great Lakes hostage.”

Protecting Our Cultural Rights

In 1836, the Tribes of the area signed a treaty with the United States. Treaties are the supreme law of the land. Article Thirteen of the 1836 Treaty of Washington reserves the right to hunt and maintain our traditional lifeways to use natural resources for food, shelter, medicines and trade. The oil pipeline—which some call a “black snake,” referring to a Lakota prophecy—threatens our Treaty rights and our traditional food and medicines. 

Under the 1836 Treaty of Washington, we retain land rights in and around the Straits of Mackinac. All 12 native tribes of Michigan want the black snake removed. Michigan needs to honor these treaty rights.

I’m a subsistence wild edibles forager, and assert my right to forage sustainably. I lead plant walks and make salads and tea from wild edibles such as heal all, sweet gale (or dreamers tea), bergamot (bee balm) and tamarack. This subsistence foraging effectively prunes certain plants, helping the forest in a reciprocal relationship, as Native peoples did before contact. 

One of my Ojibwe relatives lived to be 113. I believe that she thrived from traditional medicines such as bee balm, red willow, tamarack (a conifer that lives in water and sheds its leaves), and bear berry. These medicines are part of our cultural resources and spiritual and cultural identity. Part of our Traditional diet is Whitefish, and within Straits of Mackinac are many spawning grounds for fish. The bitumen slurry of a spill would kill our fish as well. 

In Kalamazoo, Mich., Enbridge’s Line 6 rupture released more than 1 million gallons of tar sands bitumen into the environment. It took 18 hours for Enbridge to react after the spill.

Line 5 is in an area with strong water currents. If the pipeline ruptures in the winter, under ice, there would be no way to clean up the oil. Because of Enbridge’s negligence and history of pipeline ruptures, I live in fear of oil spills in my backyard. Let’s not industrialize this pristine area.

Testifying against Enbridge 

I gave testimony on Sept. 8, 2022, on Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Line 5 Tunnel at a public meeting put on by the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Ignace, Mich., at the Little Bear Arena, which our Tribe donated to the town.

Monica Cady (far left) and other women who testified at a public comment meeting on September 8, 2022. (Whitney Gravelle)

At the meeting, hundreds of water protectors gave testimony for six hours, beginning at 3 p.m. But the event was marred by racism[or something like that].Whitney Gravelle, the chairwoman of the Bay Mills Tribe of Chippewa, had brought a Sacred Eagle staff with many Eagle feathers. At 2:30, in line outside of the arena, she was approached by an Army Corps gatekeeper and told that she could not bring the Eagle staff into the building. Whitney asserted that the sacred Eagle staff was going inside with her. Then, when she smudged the Eagle staff with sage, they told her to stop smudging. 

This cultural insensitivity is religious discrimination and racism, of a piece with Enbridge’s disregard and disrespect of our territory and treaties. The Army Corps further revealed its bias by preventing Ojibwe elders from Minnesota from bringing posters with photo evidence of another Enbridge oil spill inside the building. 

The Army Corps’ environmental impact statement should not be trusted, and an independent environment impact review needs to be done. In response to over 17,000 public comments, the Army Corps recently announced they would take an additional 18 months to draft the statement.

I had testified at a similar event at the same arena a couple years ago, and brought a painting I did inspired by my dream, depicting a Turtle with a hook through its stomach. I was told to leave the Turtle Art outside of the arena, and so I left it right where Enbridge’s staff told me to. After the meeting, my art was gone.

Rogue Enbridge’s disregard for tribal sovereignty is an assault on our future. As a mother and grandmother, I’m concerned about clean air and water for my grandson. Native peoples make decisions based on how they will impact the next seven generations. If the proposed Line 5 Tunnel is approved, Enbridge will be allowed to operate the new pipeline for 99 years. 

Water is life. We must protect the Great Lakes for the next seven generations.
We must protect the drinking water for 40 million people from the black snake.
To fight climate change, too, we need to shut down oil pipelines and invest in renewable green energy, bringing in a green economy that does not rely on oil. Enbridge could invest in clean energy. The proposed Line 5 Tunnel is a short-sighted delay tactic. Oil needs to be left in the ground.

Anishnaabe people speak of the time of the seventh fire, in which we must choose between two paths. We must choose a path honoring the Earth and treaties. We must transition away from fossil fuels infrastructure for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have a livable future. 

For more on Enbridge pipelines, see our Barn Raiser special report.

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