EHN Editor's Note: This story is part of "Sacred Water," EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles—and successes—to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.—Two blocks south of the St. Mary’s River and passing freighters, children from JKL Bahweting tribal school poured off buses, carrying drums, dancing and chanting.
“Protect the water!” a young girl chanted. “Protect it!” her classmates answered.
The children were encouraged to raise a ruckus last week as gray clouds hung low and the last brittle, rust-colored leaves blew off trees in Michigan’s far north. They were joined by other adult members of the Sault (pronounced “Soo”) Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, various First Nation communities in nearby Canada, the Bay Mills Indian Community and other locals in protest of a pipeline that’s been sending oil through the region since shortly after World War II.
Line 5, a 645-mile pipeline owned by Enbridge, carries oil and propane from Superior, Wisc., through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula down into the Lower Peninsula and eventually into Sarnia, Canada.
It runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, the waters separating Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas about 45 minutes south of Sault Ste. Marie down Interstate I-75. These are precious waters to Michiganders, the meeting place of lakes Michigan and Huron. Might Mac (the Mackinac Bridge) spans the five miles over the Straits offering vistas of Mackinac Island, passing ships and miles upon miles of freshwater.
The pipes—Line 5 splits into two 20-inch diameter pipes as it crosses the Straits—are more than six decades old and located in an abundant fishery and area crucial for drinking water. The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. Safety protocol and inspections remain nebulous at best, stoking concern, frustration and anxiety among those on the left and right side of the political spectrum throughout the state.