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Tribal liaison leaves pipeline review

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An aerial view of the Enbridge pipeline under construction over the Nemadji River just south of Superior earlier this month. 

DULUTH — The story of how Danielle Oxendine Molliver went from being a tribal liaison for the state of Minnesota to out of a job five months after she started working on the review process for a proposed pipeline is transactionally simple: she resigned.

On July 24, in a letter to the commissioners of both the state departments of Commerce and Human Rights, Oxendine Molliver cited “a multitude of reasons” for walking away, including a lack of what she called “fair dealing” with the state’s Native American tribes.

The 42-year-old St. Paul resident and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina left her state office deflated, believing she had been tuned out — relegated to what she termed “greeter” status during public input meetings for Enbridge’s proposed new Line 3 pipeline. She had anticipated a more influential role.

“I felt like if I would stay on, then I would be complicit in the final product,” she said of her resignation. “I just couldn’t.”

The rest of Oxendine Molliver’s story is where things get complicated and gray. During interviews this month with the News Tribune, she explained her departure and, in doing so, revealed potential issues related to the pipeline’s approval process — including some recent tribal comments that have gone unrecorded in the official docket, and tactics by the company that include the ongoing accumulation of pipe in spots along a favored route that will not even be ruled on for potential approval until spring 2018.

But Oxendine Molliver also revealed personal biases that seemed to play a role in her ability to effectively provide ongoing consultation with the state’s tribes.

On loan from one state department to the other, Oxendine Molliver was in her third year as a tribal liaison, having been recruited from Human Rights to a job in Commerce in March to assist in the review process for the proposed Line 3 replacement project.

The new pipeline would replace Enbridge’s existing 50-year-old Line 3 that crosses northern Minnesota on its route from Alberta to Superior.

The transition excited Oxendine Molliver. She’d been frustrated in Human Rights by an inability to “close any of the gaps,” she said, and the work in Commerce held promise. She was joining a new team and optimistic she could lend its ear to the tribes, in particular the ones with official intervening status in the Line 3 project, including the local Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

But before any of 22 public meetings began, following the issuance of a much-anticipated Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Oxendine Molliver addressed the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s Tribal Executive Committee on May 31 in Mahnomen, Minn. In doing so, she seemed to compromise her own role in one fell swoop.

In a video of the address she shared with the News Tribune, she described herself in the public meeting as “an activist,” and spoke about how she believed it was important for indigenous people to “infiltrate” state systems. She called the proposed pipeline “a very controversial and difficult project.”

Most notably, Oxendine Molliver said the following as she contrasted her new position with her role as a mother: “The Line 3 replacement project is an awful project to be in the middle of as a mother who doesn’t want to be dependent on oil — as someone who believes in sovereignty rights, as someone who believes in the importance of water and spirituality and how it is not a commodity.”

From that statement, Oxendine Molliver went on in her address to advocate for Commerce’s development of the final EIS, which would draw input from the tribes and others. She also encouraged the state’s tribes to feel as if they could work together with the department. Both she and a colleague described the Draft EIS as a work in progress that could be influenced by the tribes.

But the damage to Oxendine Molliver’s credibility as an impartial liaison appeared to be done.

Following the meeting, Oxendine Molliver said, Enbridge contacted Gov. Mark Dayton’s office, which she said, in turn, contacted Commerce. She alleges the scope of her role changed from that point forward until her resignation. Suddenly, she said, it was a lot more “stay at your desk and copy edit.”

“It was to get them from point A to point B with as little resistance as possible,” she said.

Commerce communications director Ross Corson denied the agency would advocate for “a particular position,” and said in a statement it is acting as “impartial fact-finders … which also extends to the role of the tribal liaison staff person.”

When asked about the impact of her public comments, Oxendine Molliver said the News Tribune “may be missing the point.”

“Enbridge should wield no power over (the) Governor’s Office,” she wrote in an email.

Neither Enbridge nor the state would confirm any such call took place, but both alluded to the likelihood that it occurred.

“We’re committed to following the regulatory process for the Line 3 Replacement Project and only ask that it be a fair and equitable process for everyone involved,” Enbridge spokeswoman Shannon Gustafson said.

Commerce spokesperson Julia Miller was more expository, stating, “the administration receives regular correspondence from stakeholders on any number of high-profile issues.”

She added that Commerce “takes seriously any complaints expressed about potential bias in what must be an impartial fact-finding EIS process.”

Tribal liaisons in Minnesota

To understand Oxendine Molliver’s dilemma, it’s worth understanding the history and role of the tribal liaison. In the state of Minnesota, tribal liaisons can be viewed as both a relatively new phenomenon and tried-and-true intermediary.

The departments of Human Services and Education, for instance, have had offices related to tribal affairs for decades. More recently, in 2013, Dayton used an executive order to affirm a government-to-government relationship between the state and tribal nations, requiring cabinet-level agencies to work in consultation with the tribes. It was an important development, said Joseph Bauerkemper, associate professor of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who explained that existing treaties were agreements between tribes and the federal government — not the states.

“States aren’t direct participants in that relationship,” he said. “States historically have been seen as enemies to tribes.”

Bauerkemper used the example of ceded territory to explain the confusion which has often resulted because of the dynamic between sovereign tribes and the states. Indigenous people hold treaty rights that go beyond reservation boundaries and apply to what are termed “ceded territories.” Those rights can diverge from the rights of state residents, notably when it comes to indigenous people’s broader hunting and fishing rights.

By mandating state relationships with tribes, Dayton was attempting to fill a long-time gap that even today is only partially bridged. Sources for this story say the Minnesota Highway 23 construction project that disrupted a Ojibwe burial ground in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood this summer is indicative of the tension that still exists despite progress in relationships between the state and tribes.

“The goal is to make sure there’s mutually beneficial outcomes for tribal nations and state agencies in terms of whatever project or policy is being proposed,” said Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Executive Director Dennis Olson, whose own state agency is itself a type of liaison.

Within Minnesota government, the liaison role now comes in different forms — entire agencies and offices, dedicated positions within departments and even as a job duty tacked onto a person’s broader job description. Not all people who serve in liaison roles are indigenous people.

Such is not the case with Ed Fairbanks, who identified himself at a member of the Pillagers of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. A Minnesota Department of Transportation tribal liaison for the past three years, Fairbanks spent 24 years as a tribal liaison for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

He called Dayton’s executive order 13-10 “unequivocally a success” for the way it has made state government more accessible to the dual state-and-tribal-nation citizens of Indian Country.

Talking with the News Tribune, Fairbanks avoided use of the word “impartial” and instead described the role of liaison as one of being a “bonafide official messenger.”

Said Fairbanks, “A liaison should be one thing and one thing only: the unfiltered voice of your commissioner to the leadership of the tribes and vice versa, taking words of the tribal council and chief directly to your commissioner.”

‘What side she’s on’

Since resigning, Oxendine Molliver said she has taken the bar exam in an effort to capitalize on her law degree. She also has taken her story on a media tour, pressing what she said are the deficiencies of a review process she believes will result in a rubber stamp of Line 3 through the state of Minnesota and its ceded territories.

“It became very apparent that, despite opposition concern, it’s a done deal,” she said. “The state is designed to help enable that.”

In addition to the 22 scheduled public meetings, which ended June 13, Oxendine Molliver said she pushed Commerce to add a meeting on June 27 with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa at its Tribal Center outside Cloquet. The tribe had requested it, she said, with the intent to reach band members who hadn’t been able to make it off reservation to any of the other meetings.

Oxendine Molliver said she felt pushback within Commerce, but insisted to the team, “I said, ‘We kind of promised we could do it.’”

Comments from the resulting meeting were filed into the online EIS docket Aug. 18.

Also in the weeks since her resignation, Oxendine Molliver has become somewhat of a polarizing figure within tribal communities.

Sheila Lamb is the associate director of the All Nations Indigenous Center in Duluth and a pipe carrier charged with the responsibility to lead prayer. She came to know Oxendine Molliver through multiple interactions during the public meeting process and grew to trust her Native perspective.

“I was impressed with her integrity,” Lamb said. “She’s showing us what’s broken.”

Throughout 2016, Lamb led supply runs to the Standing Rock Sioux resistance camps in North Dakota during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. She has since established one of two far smaller camps in Minnesota along the proposed favored route of the new Enbridge Line 3 — one on the White Earth Reservation and Lamb’s camp in Carlton County.

It was Lamb who alerted Oxendine Molliver to the pipes being trucked in and accumulating in a remote storage yard south of Cromwell. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency stormwater permits for the yard and three other storage yards along the preferred route date back to 2015 and can be found by doing a search on the MPCA website. Oxendine Molliver had been telling tribes throughout the process that no permits existed for the project and said “my heart just sank to my stomach” when she found out about the legal storage buildup.

“They’re using militarized tactics and psychological warfare,” Lamb said of Enbridge. “Imagine lying in bed at night hearing those trains and knowing it’s more of those pipes coming in — what that does to you, especially if you were at Standing Rock and saw what happened to people out there.”

Oxendine Molliver looks to be embracing her new role in the resistance. She appeared with Lamb and a group of people from the local camp last week to address the Cloquet City Council.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, presided over by Kevin DuPuis of the Fond du Lac Band, did not respond to the News Tribune’s request to discuss the situation. Others, such as Mysti Babineau — who has her tribal roots in Wisconsin, and has been engaging in the review process from St. Paul — are concerned that Oxendine Molliver is an agitator and not who she says she is. Babineau said she believed silence from leadership is telling of a non-endorsement, and equated Oxendine Molliver to the environmentalist Winona LaDuke — someone who “does not speak for all of the Ojibwe,” Babineau said.

“I don’t know what side she’s on right now,” Babineau said of Oxendine Molliver, before conjuring the historic distrust between tribes and states. “I’m seriously thinking she may still be working for the department, trying to infiltrate our camps and our support system.”

Babineau fears for the state’s Chippewa tribes, worrying that agitation may yield violence if the pipeline gains approval and proceeds to encounter tribal camps along the route.

“I believe in the prayer way, and the way I see my community responding to this, I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t want to see people get shot.”

For its part, the state balked at the Oxendine Molliver narrative of Line 3 being a “done deal.”

“The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission directed the Commerce Department, in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency, to prepare the required environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed Line 3 project,” Corson said. “This environmental review is an impartial information-gathering process designed to inform the Commission’s decisionmaking.”


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