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I am writing a film review of sorts, although I couldn’t tell you the last time before this that I had entered a theater and paid to see a movie. But I went to see Bad River two weeks ago. I went back the next day to see it again.

You should see this film. Not because it’s entertaining and not because it’s beautiful (though it is). You should see this film because it’s vital. Its showing in a limited release in several Midwestern cities, hopefully available soon from streaming services.

Bad River is a documentary that’s superficially about the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s experience with a sleazy oil company with money to burn (Enbridge Energy) and their sleazy attempts to bully the Bad River band into continuing to host their train wreck of an aging and exposed petroleum pipeline on their reservation. This, despite expired easements and a judge’s order. I’ve written previously about this battle and the way the pipeline threatens the peerless Lake Superior and the waters that feed it. More deeply, it’s a story of loving something so much that you simply and stubbornly decide to defend it because there is no principled alternative.

Bad River starts with an essential history lesson on the abuse, fraud, and exploitation imposed on native peoples as refracted through experiences of the Bad River band and that story morphs into a recent history of battling soulless, exploitive corporations (Enbridge primarily, though not exclusively) told through layers of often painful personal stories shared by tribal members.

Elders’ stories are vessels of cultural wisdom and I have been instructed that it’s rude to simply ask for those stories absent a respectful relationship and a posture of reciprocity (full disclosure: I am collaborating with a tribal agency on a research project). To know this is to better appreciate the gravity of watching tribal leaders give their stories of roles in the fight or their love for land and family or their burden of curating the cultural trauma that my WASPy ancestors blithely put theirs through.

For the Bad River people, the struggle with Enbridge is only the latest manifestation in a seamless history of racism, of a piece with the walleye wars of ’80s (a conflict over their exercise of treaty rights), the boarding schools and government resettlement programs that sought to remove them from their ancestral culture, and the coercive and paternalistic treaties of cessation that they entered without a full understanding of the western view of exclusionary ownership of land. Except for the treaty negotiations of the mid-1800s, tribal elders share living memories of these abuses.

One of the woman elders wonders why, after they have taken so much from us, do they need to threaten our tiny reservation with an oil pipeline? The “they” in this question is more than Enbridge and points to a wider North American worldview that draws its decrepit moral footing, at least in part, from a still-broken Christianity.

That these Bad River folks gave their stories while sometimes with emotions betrayed by trembling voices, a catch in the throat, or a tear (but sometimes a laugh too) is a testament to the magnanimous gift that it is, a gift given of bravery and deep deep love for the land and the people.

The power of hearing the native voices is the whole point of the documentary and they should prompt any contemporary Christian who purports to “care for creation” to introspection over the intersection of environmental justice and legacies of racism that are alive still. Even so, there are two non-native voices that I keep contemplating.

The first, is a representative of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration expressing lament for “administering a Native American boarding school during the era of assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-American culture” and admitting that their methods were rooted in latent white supremacy. The drone footage of St. Mary’s pristinely white church sitting awash in the flood-stage red water of the Bad River in 2016, emerging isolated and anomalous among the summer-green northern forest was an enduring image, rich with (maybe unintended) symbolism for the story which has climate-chaos significance.

The second voice was that of the Enbridge spokesman. In the context of an interview discussion of the Bad River denying Enbridge access to a remote section where the pipeline was exposed, he implied that any potential damages would be the fault of the tribe, saying that there was nothing that Enbrige could do. Off camera, the interview pointed out that, “You could shut it down.”

“No you can’t!” he said with a look of utter incredulity.

This, despite a judge’s order that the pipeline would need to shut down and be removed from the Bad River Reservation. It illustrates the insane sense of entitlement that permeates Enbridge’s whole posture. The oil must flow and everything else – prior legal agreements that the tribe understood to be binding, threats to the Great Lakes, cultural significance to the Bad River people, common good, contributions to a climate emergency, common sense – has to bow to that reality (and the shareholder profits therein). Despite their relentless marketing of themselves as a responsible corporate citizen, Enbridge’s history demonstrates that they are no longer worthy of any good faith presumption.

The reason for thoughtful Christians to see this film is to get a sense for a Native American worldview put into practice. Calvin University professors Gail Gunst Heffner and David Warners have just published a wonderful new book (Reconciliation in a Michigan Watershed: Restoring Ken-O-Sha, Michigan State University Press) where they devote a chapter to contrasting the worldviews of Great Lakes Native peoples with that of the Eurocentric American culture that is the water we swim in.

In short, Eurocentric Americans see humans (predominantly white European humans) as “the preeminent species” whose “association with nonhuman nature was to be largely proprietary, one of mastery and subjugation” whereas the native view is more relational, with humanity as node in a web of other beings, connected by important relationships. The former is an Enlightenment shackle on modern western Christianity while the latter is probably closer to how the authors of the Bible would have understood themselves – and more scientifically correct.

In a world racing past 1.5C of warming, any faith-based movement to “care for creation” needs to examine how its imagination is shackled by its worldview.

Finally, I only wish the film would have done more to point out that Endbrige’s line 5 crossing the Bad River reservation is the same line 5 pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac in two aging and damaged segments lying exposed on the lake bed. This segment too is operating outside of its engineering specs and despite an expired easement and despite efforts by Michigan’s governor and attorney general to have it removed. Here too, the Bad River band has allies among their native kin. All 30 federally recognized tribes in Michigan oppose line 5.

I agree with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’ recent sentiment that “stopping line 5 could never happen fast enough….” And I hope that her remarks signal some help from the Biden administration. Reconciliation demands it.

See also: FLOW For Love of Water

Photo Credits
Bad River Flag: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Ohanah Wisconsin: Wikimedia Commons
The Kakagon Sloughs: Copyright Richard Schultz 2022. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
Bad River Poster: Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you once again.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    The movie has been on my radar to see. Our son has been arrested twice protesting against Enbridge in Minnesota. Thank you for your review and for bringing these issues to our attention.

  • Edward Wierenga says:

    Thanks for alerting us to this film. In addition to your description of the issues the movie deals with, readers might like to read the InternetDataBase list of the many talented and distinguished people involved in its production at

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you. And UGH… Our house stays warm, our water hot and our food cooked because Enbridge sells us natural (??) gas. Now what–asked again and again re Enbridge. We’ll be looking for the film.

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Thanks for this review. As a downstate Michigander, Line 5 has been an important item to try to stay abreast of, though the legal quagmire seems to be never ending. Sharing this (likely) little known song about false rivers. Hoping some will appreciate its message and artistry.

  • Don T says:

    Thanks Tim. Similarly here in the SW efforts are being made to close open uranium mine shafts. The Biden administration has recently approved a significant amount of money to do that thanks also to the work of Deb Haaland and others locally. T

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Every time I read your invaluable essays I feel the constant sorrow in your heart.
    “To fight aloud is very brave
    But braver still . . .”
    But braver still is Tim

    Abundant gratitude and lamentation,

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Potent poetic truth-telling. Thank you for your writing witness, Tim.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for continuing to bring these important things to my radar.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thank you for this, Tim. May this film enrage people so that they storm their reps and the White House demanding enforcement of Gov. Whitmer’s order to shut the d*@# thing down. Interested readers can read more at Note that 90-95% of the oil going through the pipeline goes from Canada (tar sands, no less) right back to Canada. The US states it crosses as a shortcut, including Michigan, carry all the risk and very little of the “benefit.” Enbridge’s arrogant defiance of safety measures, laws, and truth display truly scummy corporate behavior that none of us should tolerate.

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you Tim. It should be noted that participants in the RCA retirement plans who are invested in the Fidelity Freedom Funds are helping to fund Enbridge. Most, if not all, of the Fidelity Freedom Funds have holdings in the Fidelity Series Canada Fund which as of Feb. 29, 2024, owned $107,626,876 in Enbridge stock. We are not caring for creation when we fund our retirement by investing in companies like Enbridge whose “arrogant defiance of safety measures, laws, and truth display truly scummy corporate behavior that none of us should tolerate.” There are alternatives, but it requires opting out of the Fidelity Freedom Funds and investing in some of the ESG funds instead. (And they are not perfect either).

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