White Earth Tribal Court dismisses trespass charges against 3 Native Water Protectors

A year ago June, Indigenous leaders set up Camp Fire Light, an eight-day ceremonial camp held near the Mississippi headwaters. They established it to exercise their treaty rights to hunt, fish, gather, and occupy lands they ceded to the United States. They invited non-Indigenous allies to participate in support of treaty rights.

Camp Fire Light participants camped on the wooden matting Enbridge Energy installed to build the Line 3 tar sands pipeline under the Mississippi and surrounding wetlands.

Many Camp Firelight participants received criminal trespass charges in Clearwater County.

Several Indigenous participants had their cases transferred from Clearwater County District Court to White Earth Tribal Court, including Nancy Beaulieu, Justin Keezer, and Todd Thompson.

These three defendants asked the Tribal Court to dismiss their cases “on grounds that their actions were lawful exercises of sovereign Indigenous rights reserved in the 1855 Treaty and protected nonviolent direct action pursuant to the White Earth Tribal Code,” according to a news release issued on their behalf.

Last week, White Earth Tribal Court Judge David DeGroat granted their motion and dismissed their case.

“This is a huge win for us, not just here in Minnesota, but a win for all of us,” said Beaulieu, who is enrolled at Leech Lake.

Camp Fire Light, located near the Mississippi Headwaters, June 21, 2021.

The Water Protectors hope the case will encourage other Indigenous peoples to practice their treaty rights and sovereignty.

“Take our story and find ways you can do it in your own homelands, Bealieu said at a media conference. “It can’t just be here.”

More than 800 people were arrested last year in Line 3-related actions. Some 300 case remain open, the media release said.

A number of non-Indigenous allies who participated at Camp Fire Light still face trespass charges in Clearwater County District Court. Their next court date is Thursday, July 28. (Full disclosure: The author is a defendant.)

It’s unclear if the White Earth Tribal Court’s decision might affect the outcome for cases involving allies.

“We invited them here to stand with us,” said Keezer, who is enrolled at White Earth. “In our eyes, they did nothing wrong. They were standing up for us and for Mother Earth.”

It bears repeating that the scales of justice were out of whack on Line 3.

The criminal charges against water protectors resulted from an unprecedented arrangement where the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) allowed Enbridge to reimburse state and local law enforcement for Line 3-related expenses. In all, Enbridge reimbursed $8.6 million to law enforcement “to arrest, subdue and surveille community members resisting the Line 3 tar sands pipeline,” the media release said.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources received the single largest reimbursement, nearly $2.2 million, or roughly 25 percent of the total.

Meanwhile, the DNR lacked transparency in holding Enbridge accountable for Line 3’s environmental damage, including at least three aquifer breaches which collectively released some 57 million gallons of groundwater. In the first case, in Clearwater County, Enbridge failed to report the breach to the DNR.

After nearly 5 months, the DNR learned about the problem from Independent Environmental Monitors. On paper, these independent monitors worked for the state agencies such as the DNR. In reality, the PUC allowed Enbridge to hire and train the monitors and indirectly pay their salaries. A number of monitors had past work history with Enbridge, calling into question their “independence.”

Camp Fire Light was a peaceful, prayerful, treaty camp, Beaulieu said. Damage from Line 3 would threatened the sacred waters and the plants animals they support, diminishing treaty rights.

“We are here as guardians to protect all that is sacred,” Beaulieu said.

The issue is simple, said Thompson, who is enrolled at White Earth. “We have a connection to our land. We are caretakers of our land. The land is who we are and how we take care of our families. We have inherent rights from the creator, and a responsibility to defend our way of life, and it doesn’t get any higher than that.”

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