Michelle Holnan (left) introduces Frank Bibeau to the crowd before he began his speech. Bibeau, an attorney who is part of the Ojibwe Native American tribe from Minnesota, works on national environmental causes surrounding native land and pushes for the federal government to uphold treaties with native tribes. (Ben Nguyen // The Torch)

The Community Rights Lane County organization invited tribal attorney and activist Frank Bibeau to speak about the rights of nature on March 8. The speech was delivered in a long hall to more than 50 people at the Eugene Garden Club. Bibeau spoke on the path he took fighting the Minnesota state government to stop the building of a new pipeline and the struggles that the indigenous people overcame over the last 200 years.

Bibeau was a key player in stopping the Sandpiper pipeline. The pipeline was going to tear through the Ojibwe’s wild rice fields. His work with Honor The Earth secured the Ojibwe rights to the wild rice.  The state already used the Ojibwe’s territory for an oil pipeline they wanted to replace, but Bibeau wouldn’t allow. Harming the quality of the rice is now something the state will have to consider before building anymore pipelines.

“What it really does, it makes a protection standard of nature to use against the state,” Bibeaua said. “The state doesn’t understand the significance and the importance culturally and traditionally of wild rice to us [Ojibwe].”

Wild rice, or more specifically manoomin, is a key indicator species for the environment of the Great Lake region. Manoomin is not technically a rice but an aquatic grain that relies on pristine water conditions. For these reasons, Bibeau fought against energy company Enbridge’s installation of a new Sandpiper oil pipeline that would cut through Ojibwe lands and threaten the wildlife. Enbridge wanted to decommission a pipeline built in 1968 and build a new one.

Bibeau felt this new pipeline would be unnecessary, and deconstructing the old system would have led to oil leaks and other messes harming the Ojibwe territories.

The water quality of the Great Lakes is one of the most pressing issues in Bibeau’s mind. He expressed he’s not against pipelines, but against oil pipelines specifically.

“Build infrastructure; there’s things that need to be fixed,” he said. Building water pipelines would be better suited for the needs of the area from Bibeau’s point of view.

[The Ojibwe] are the wildlife I need to protect, and by protecting us I think I’ll be protecting nature.”

– Frank Bibeau

His speech had a large focus on the history of the Ojibwe and adversities they faced making treaties and preserving their rights from encroachment by the U.S. government. A large part of his speech was on the activism it took to get past levels of oppression in hopes that the youth of would take notes on how to protest in the most informed way possible.

Community Rights Lane County’s mission is to keep corporations in check so decisions are made by the residents. Stopping corporate greed from rigging laws in their favor with no regard to the locals is their primary objective. They brought Bibeau in because they knew of his history of fighting large corporations, like Enbridge Inc.

Using a slideshow presentation, he educated the listeners on the treaties the tribes have with the state. Bibeau uses these federal treaties to defend the tribes against state overreach. He displayed a map of the territory that demonstrated where the rice no longer grows along the current pipeline. The audience groaned when he pointed out the divide the pipeline created.

“Now they want to go through our prime territory again, and they don’t even know how to fix what they’ve done in some ways already,” he said.

Bibeau doesn’t take credit for all the work done on these issues. Winona LaDuke, who is also an attorney, is the executive director for Honor The Earth. LaDuke is a co-founder of the organization whose goal is to raise awareness and money for the struggles of indigenous peoples. She had a brief political career running as Ralph Nader’s vice-president in 1996 and 2000.

“We’re fighters, we’ve been fighting for a long time,” Bibeau said. Stating that he will always have his tribes interest in mind, he will protect the Ojibwe rights. “We’re [the Ojibwe] are the wildlife I need to protect, and by protecting us I think I’ll be protecting nature.”