Opponents of the new Line 3 oil pipeline being built across northern Minnesota have argued for years that it endangers dwindling stands of wild rice, a plant sacred to many Indigenous people.

Now, the wild rice is speaking up for itself.

The water-dwelling plant is the lead plaintiff in a novel lawsuit by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The legal action comes during a summer of intense protest and demonstration as the pipeline nears completion.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in White Earth Nation Tribal Court, advances a paradigm-shifting legal theory that nature itself has rights to exist and flourish and is not simply human property.

Some might call the argument extreme, others might call it ancient.

It's the first "rights of nature" case brought in a tribal court in the U.S., according to Frank Bibeau, a lawyer for the White Earth tribe, and the second such case to be filed in any court in the U.S. In April, what is considered the first case of its kind was filed in Florida.

Plaintiffs include manoomin (the Ojibwe word for wild rice that translates to "good berry"), several White Earth tribal members and Indian and non-Indian Water Protectors who have demonstrated along the 340-mile Line 3 construction route in Minnesota.

They accuse the DNR of failing to protect the state's fresh water by allowing Calgary-based Enbridge to pump up to 5 billion gallons of groundwater from construction trenches during a devastating drought. Further, they assert the regulator has violated the rights of manoomin along with multiple treaty rights for tribal members to hunt, fish and gather wild rice outside reservations.

They want the state to stop the extreme water pumping and for authorities to stop arresting people for trying to defend codified rights.

"We're not protesting, we're defending," Bibeau said. "It's 2021 now and a bunch of us have been to law school. We're not going to let this happen to us. We know what our rights are."

To date, more than 700 people have been charged in demonstrations along the Line 3 construction route, according to Bibeau. Some have chained themselves to equipment or taken other actions to disrupt construction. There have been claims of police brutality.

Most of the charges are for trespassing, but some people have been charged with other crimes, such as creating a nuisance, unlawful assembly or harassment, Bibeau said. The cases are working their way through district courts in several counties, including Aitkin, Clearwater and Hubbard.

DNR spokeswoman Gail Nosek said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and has "no further comment at this time."

Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little said the company has shown "ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty." It routed the pipelines outside Upper Rice and Lower Rice lakes and their watershed because of tribal concerns, she said.

"Line 3 construction permits include conditions that specifically protect wild rice waters," Little said. "As a matter of fact, Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota's most sacred and productive wild rice stands for over seven decades."

As for the DNR, Bibeau said he suspects the agency will say it is not interfering with or violating treaty rights. But, he added, wild rice will have its day in court. The tribe will still hold a court hearing, Bibeau said, get a default judgment and likely take the matter to federal court.

The lawsuit is not the only legal challenge to the pipeline, which will carry tar sands oil from Canada to Superior, Wis., and is now more than 80% complete.

For example, a lawsuit filed by pipeline opponents over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permit for Line 3 is pending in federal court in Washington, D.C. While opponents of the project continue to call on President Joe Biden to stop Line 3 construction, the Biden administration supported the permits in June court filings.

Meanwhile, Ojibwe bands and environmental groups have petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court to consider overturning an Appeals Court decision that backed state utility regulators in their approval of the Line 3 project. The Supreme Court is expected to decide next month whether to hear the case.

Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683