Last fall, Enbridge offered the Red Lake Band of Chippewa a lucrative deal if the tribe would drop legal efforts to quash the company's new pipeline across northern Minnesota. Red Lake said no.
In 2018, Enbridge made an attractive offer to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to run part of the pipeline — a replacement for its current aging and corroding Line 3 — through its reservation.
Faced with the alternative of having the new Line 3 next door with no control over it, the tribe took the deal. But it has caused lingering bad feelings with other Ojibwe.
The two offers underscore Enbridge's attempts to win over the Ojibwe bands in Minnesota — and the tensions those efforts have caused as construction of the controversial pipeline enters its fourth month.
"There has been an attempt [by Enbridge] to divide us, and to an extent it has," said Sam Strong, Red Lake's tribal secretary. "It's very negative, and it is their playbook."
Paul Eberth, Enbridge's U.S. tribal engagement director, rejected that idea.
"Our aim is to engage with the tribes to understand what their needs are and to seek solutions for both parties," he said. "Those solutions are different for different tribes."
Enbridge is spending more than $3 billion on the new Line 3, one of the largest construction projects for Minnesota in recent years. Line 3 is one of six Enbridge pipelines along a similar corridor, carrying thick crude from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wis. The corridor crosses the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations.
Enbridge platted the new Line 3 partly along a new route, largely to avoid crossing reservations, but still traversing a vast swath of land where the tribes have treaty rights to hunt, gather and fish.
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was not only against a new pipeline on its reservation, it wanted the old Line 3 gone. So when Enbridge agreed to remove the old pipe, Leech Lake didn't oppose the new pipeline when it was approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The other four tribes — Red Lake, Fond du Lac, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe — fought hard against the pipeline. They saw it as a desecrater of lakes, rivers and wild rice fields, a crop the Ojibwe hold sacred.
"We really believe in the reciprocity of our people and the nature around us," Strong said. "Financial compensation might benefit us, but if this pipeline burst and there is a catastrophic event, would we be complicit?"
Calgary-based Enbridge says the pipeline is needed to improve safety and to restore full oil flow.
White Earth, the state's largest Ojibwe band, and Red Lake continue battling Line 3 in both federal court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Mille Lacs Band also is part of the state appeal, which aims to rescind the PUC's approval of Line 3.
Fond du Lac, after its deal with Enbridge, dropped out of the court fight and Leech Lake never joined it.
In October, before Enbridge got its final environmental permits for the project, the company offered Red Lake a bundle of economic incentives, according to documents obtained by the Star Tribune.
The proposal included earmarking $30 million in Line 3 labor and contracting to Red Lake citizens and businesses.
Enbridge also offered to arrange a $25 million solar energy project that would be partly owned by Red Lake. And the company proposed more than $1 million for community projects, including $500,000 to rebuild the tribe's Ponemah Pow Wow Grounds.
In return, Red Lake would withdraw from the Minnesota Court of Appeals action and "publicly communicate" its opposition to "unlawful" protests and resistance against Line 3, the documents said.
Red Lake rejected the offer, as it has a longstanding resolution opposing Line 3, Strong said. Still, he acknowledged that Enbridge's offer caused some dissent within the tribe.
"Our tribe and other tribes have immense budget conflicts because we rely on casino gaming, and with the pandemic, our funding has been greatly diminished," he said.
Enbridge's Eberth declined to comment on the Red Lake proposal but said: "We are going to continue to seek solutions with tribes litigating the project."
Enbridge says it has invested $180 million — $80 million more than it had committed to in front of the PUC — in Indian-owned businesses or other entities working directly or indirectly on Line 3. That includes $18.5 million in wages to Indigenous workers.
As of Dec. 30, about 390 of 4,642 workers on the Line 3 construction project, or 8.4%, identify as Native Americans, according to Enbridge.
Rob Abramowski, a contractor on the project, said Line 3 has given younger tribal members a good opportunity to enter the building trades.
"Not just on pipelines but construction in general," he said. "People say the jobs are temporary, but the experience isn't. It's a foot in the door."
Abramowski, a Fond du Lac band member, said his experience with Enbridge "has been nothing but good. The way they run their business, it's all to a higher standard than anywhere else I've worked."
Fond du Lac's 2018 deal with Enbridge has had lasting repercussions, as a recent incident at a Line 3 protest attests.
On Feb. 19, a half-mile rural area near Cloquet was evacuated for several hours following reports of a package being thrown onto a pipeline work site as protesters were dispersing. A bomb squad was called in; no explosives were found.
The protesters, who call themselves water protectors, included Fond du Lac members and other Native Americans. The Fond du Lac Band's Reservation Business Committee took a hard line.
"Although we as FDL people have a long tradition of extending hospitality to respectful visitors, family and friends, last week's incident was a betrayal of our openness and has forced us to remind FDL Band members and nonmembers, alike, that FDL leadership will not tolerate violence or threats of violence within our community," Chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. said in a news release last week.
Abramowski said the bomb scare has caused more Fond du Lac band members to become critical of the protests. A Facebook group, FDL Truth Protect Our Rez, surfaced recently featuring their comments.
But the band's actions didn't sit well with tribal members who are confronting Line 3, including Taysha Martineau of the Camp Migizi group that organized the Feb. 19 protest.
"This overstepping of constitutional rights is terrifying," said Martineau, a Fond du Lac member. "They want to fight for a form of assimilation that was forced upon us."
Dupuis did not respond to requests for comment. Last Monday, Fond du Lac's business committee posted comments on the incident on the band's website, referencing its Line 3 agreement: "The Reservation Business Committee, as the governing body of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, recognizes that not everybody agrees with its decision to enter into a right-of-way agreement with Enbridge for 13.2 miles within the borders of Fond du Lac." The decision "was carefully considered."
When the PUC first approved the new pipeline in June 2018, it made a small alteration to Enbridge's new route, moving Line 3 farther from Big Sandy Lake, a cultural landmark for the Ojibwe.
But the change involved running a stretch of new pipeline even closer to the Fond du Lac reservation. So the band and Enbridge cut the deal to allow the new Line 3 to go through part of the reservation if it removed the old Line 3 and compensated the band.
Neither Fond du Lac nor Enbridge will release financial details of the agreement.
But in 2017, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa agreed to a new long-term easement for two Enbridge pipelines that run through its reservation in northwestern Wisconsin and are receiving annual payments of about $60 million.
Enbridge money appears to have helped Fond du Lac make payments usually associated with tribal casino revenue. In January, the band sent a letter to members saying this year's $400 monthly per-capita payments would be made "using Enbridge funds."
Winona LaDuke, a White Earth band member and head of the Indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth, said she understands the Fond du Lac band's conundrum.
"But there is bitterness and disappointment against Fond du Lac," she said.