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Red Lake Tribal Council votes against Enbridge land deal

Enbridge oil pipeline markers dot the land near Leonard, Minn., on Red Lake Reservation land. Forum News Service

RED LAKE, Minn.—The Red Lake Tribal Council voted Tuesday, Jan 9, to rescind a resolution accepting a land swap agreement with Enbridge Energy.

The tribal council voted 5 to 3 to rescind the resolution that, in December 2015, accepted $18.5 million in exchange for a parcel of land about 16 miles south of the reservation.

The land, located near West Four Legged Lake and Leonard, Minn., is home to Enbridge-owned oil pipelines that were installed by Lakehead Pipeline Co. Inc. before the reservation realized it owned the land.

After Red Lake realized it was the rightful owner of the parcel and Enbridge absorbed Lakehead and took over the pipelines, the company began talks with the band in 2007 about what should happen to the land and the lines.

Resolution 281-15 seemed to answer that question. A news release posted on the tribal council's Facebook page shortly after the resolution was passed called the land deal "a complete and total win that Red Lake could not have gotten in any court." The release went on to say the only other option would have been a "long and costly" court battle that would end in a shared property line.

But during the Jan. 9 meeting, band member and anti-pipeline activist Marty Cobenais, acting as a concerned citizen, addressed the tribal council and described the land deal as unconstitutional.

In a video of the meeting posted to Facebook, Cobenais argued that the 2015 resolution is not a land exchange, but a land sale. He read a portion of the resolution: "The proposed settlement provides a payment to the band totaling $18.5 million, including funds to buy land for the band."

"We shouldn't be selling our land. That is against our constitution, and by you guys voting on it, it does violate our constitution," Cobenais told the council. "I think we as the people should have the right to be able to say if we should do that or not."

Council member Robert Smith said different people interpret the 2015 resolution in different ways. Some, like Cobenais, see it as the sale of land. Others see the agreement as a land swap because the resolution stated that at least a portion of the $18.5 million would be used to buy land.

"(Part) of that money was supposed to be used by the tribe to buy land, then, for a swap," said Smith, who opposed the 2015 deal. "In some people's eyes, that's seen as a land sale if you're giving up land for money. And like I said, some people are arguing the point that it's a swap, just because, yes, you are swapping land."

Red Lake Chairman Darrell Seki told the Pioneer that he believed the deal was a land swap, and that Enbridge was paying the tribe $18.5 million because of past trespassing by the company. He called the 2015 deal "difficult," and said he was not upset about Tuesday's vote.

"I don't have any problem with it," Seki said. "What happened happened, and we need to move on and try and be more creative about our economic development."

Seki also said the tribe had not received any money from Enbridge.

After Cobenais and other band members had spoken, Smith made a motion to rescind the agreement, which was seconded by Roman Stately, Jr. Five council members voted to back out of the land deal, while three were opposed. One member abstained from the vote and one was absent.

Cobenais told the Pioneer that more information about the vote and the resolution will be released next week.

Enbridge's Communications Supervisor Shannon Gustafson said the Red Lake Tribal Council had not formally notified Enbridge of an intention to rescind the agreement.

She added that she believes an agreement between Enbridge and the tribe, signed in January 2016, is legally binding, but she would not say whether any money had changed hands before Tuesday.

"We believe that it's a legally binding document in place," Gustafson said. "We expect that the band would stay true to our agreement."

Gustafson said she could not talk in detail about the agreement.

Cobenais said he is grateful that the tribal council took back the resolution, and he hopes to see the pipelines removed from the reservation.

"I'd like to thank the tribal council for voting the way they did, and I would encourage all Red Lakers to get in contact with their representatives and their officers to say thank you," Cobenais said.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796