Once-Ignored Promises to Tribes Could Change Environmental Landscape

“Last month, Michigan officials announced plans to shut down a controversial oil pipeline that runs below the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats, cited several reasons for the decision, including one that got the attention of tribal leaders in Michigan who have been fighting the pipeline for years.

In the shutdown order, Whitmer referenced an 1836 treaty in which tribal nations ceded more than a third of the territory that would become Michigan in exchange for the right to hunt and fish on the land in perpetuity. An oil spill from the pipeline would destroy the state’s ability to honor that right, Whitmer said.

Federal and state officials signed nearly 400 treaties with tribal nations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Threatened by genocidal violence, the tribes signed away much of their land. But they secured promises that they could continue to hunt, fish and gather wild food on the territory they were giving up. Many treaties also include cash payments, mineral rights and promises of health care and education.

For the most part, the U.S. has ignored its obligations. Game wardens have targeted and arrested tribal members seeking to exercise their hunting and fishing rights. Governments and private interests have logged and developed on hunting grounds, blocked and polluted waterways with dams and destroyed vast beds of wild rice.

If Native treaty rights had been honored, the natural landscape of the U.S. might look very different today. “

Alex Brown reports for Stateline December 1, 2020.