Indigenous governments and activists in the Great Lakes have been leaders in the movement to shut down the twin oil pipelines that run under the Mackinac Straits.
Now, one of the most visible people in that movement has left his tribal government job and set up his own consulting firm. One of his clients? The pipelines’ owner, Enbridge Energy.
This sudden change has upset indigenous communities in the region, and some worry it’s a “divide-and-conquer” tactic.
An unexpected turn
Up until this spring, Desmond Berry directed the Natural Resources Department for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. His tribe has treaty rights in Lakes Michigan and Huron, in and around the Straits of Mackinac.
He’s been a fixture at rallies opposing Line 5. At an event in the Straits of Mackinac in 2017, he spoke about the Grand Traverse Band’s interest in shutting down the pipeline:
“The twin oil pipeline threatens both our ability to exist as Anishinaabek, and it threatens our ability to harvest fish,” he said then.
So, Andrea Pierce was surprised when he quit his job, started a consulting business with a colleague, and picked up Enbridge as a client.
“You know, I felt betrayed, hurt, all of the normal things,” said Pierce.
Pierce is a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. She collaborated with Berry on Line 5 protest events for years. She also co-chaired the Anishinaabek Caucus for Michigan’s Democratic Party with him. He has since resigned from the caucus.
Pierce said his decision was a shock, and created a lot of distrust.
She said some people have even been suspicious of her, because of how close she was to Berry. So, she’s adamant about putting it on record that she would never support or work for Enbridge.
“We're gonna second-guess a lot of people and a lot of things that happened, but that's what they want and we have to move past that,” said Pierce.
Oldest trick in the book
Berry declined a recorded interview for this story. But, he said his new role gives the tribes a chance to have meaningful dialogue with Enbridge.
Enbridge has an official Indigenous People’s Policy that says it engages in “forthright and sincere consultation.” In an email, a spokesman said the company believes “indigenous engagement is very important.”
But, Bryan Newland thinks Enbridge’s move to hire an indigenous-owned consulting firm is a public relations ploy, with the added benefit of causing divisions among its critics.
“That's the oldest trick in the book,” he said. “Get the Indians fighting amongst themselves, and then they're too busy doing that to fight us.”
Newland is the chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community. He said his tribe has already tried to talk to Enbridge, and it didn’t go well.
Bay Mills hosted a meeting with Enbridge on its reservation. The tribe was trying to secure access to information about the condition of Line 5 – the same information that the state of Michigan gets.
Newland said the response was a very patronizing “no.” Enbridge questioned the tribe’s ability to understand the data, and would only hand over what the company decided was relevant.
“We have a lot of highly educated, highly trained staff here at Bay Mills, and several other tribes, and we didn't take kindly to that,” he said.
Newland doesn’t know if Berry’s firm could get the tribe the information it wants, but said they’re not interested in sitting down with Enbridge right now.
“They don't have an interest in actually working with us and treating us like sovereign governments with legal authority and legally protected rights,” said Newland. “They would prefer to say ‘We’ve been talking to the Indians, we’re trying to make the Indians happy.’ And we're a prop.”
Bay Mills Indian Community remains committed to decommissioning Line 5. Newland doesn’t think that’s a bridgeable gap.
“We're gonna do what we have to do, and hiring our friends isn't gonna stop us from doing that.”
A critical moment
There’s widespread public opposition to Line 5, and Michigan’s Democratic governor and attorney general want it shut down. Both Enbridge and the state of Michigan have pursued legal action.
So, this new attempt at dialogue with the tribes comes at what could be a critical time for Enbridge.
Kyle Whyte is a professor of philosophy and community sustainability at Michigan State University. He’s also a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
Whyte said he’s seeing a trend of corporations revamping their tribal relations strategies.
“We've seen more companies relating to oil and gas and other extractive industries trying to create their own engagement processes with indigenous people, which includes things like hiring indigenous consultants,” he said.
He thinks the consultants often want to do the right thing, and he has ideas for how it can be done responsibly.
“The role of the consultant perhaps at best is to constantly emphasize that companies or governments needs to be working with our leaders,” said Whyte.
But, he worries the companies are more interested in undercutting resistance to their projects than actually empowering native communities.
“They want to bring somebody on just to create more perception of legitimacy,” he said. They want somebody to give them insights into how to better persuade or convince native people.”
He says even when tribes are at the table and make deals with these companies, there’s a power imbalance that can’t be ignored.
“Just because I engage somebody in a consultation process, that doesn’t mean that we’re on equal footing,” said Whyte.
Sometimes tribes decide to allow industry to site projects on their reservations, because at least then they’ll get oversight, or monetary compensation. The alternative, having projects located just outside the reservation, means they may still face impacts to their treaty resources and ceded territory, but without any control or benefits.
“That continues divisions within tribal communities, where those who are charged with decision-making roles are put in positions where almost no decision is a good one,” Whyte said.
A line in the sand
Berry’s firm sent letters requesting a meeting on behalf of Enbridge to each of the 12 tribes in Michigan.
The letter says the firm’s role is “not to drive an agenda but to facilitate in the spirit of neutrality.”
But tribes near the Straits of Mackinac aren’t neutral. They just want Line 5 shut down, as soon as possible.
Editors' note: Enbridge Energy is one of Michigan Radio's many corporate sponsors.