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'Under new management' in Wisconsin

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The news is a couple of weeks old but we still catch up with awe at the happenings in Crandon, Wis., where two tribes long engaged in environmental struggles against mining concerns have now resolved the issue by buying out the mines.

It cost the Sokaogon Mole Lake Chippewa and the Forest County Potawatomi $16.5 million, but the tribes have now put to rest fears that mineral contamination from the proposed zinc and copper mine - particularly sulfuric acid and the copper - will ruin precious wild rice beds and the drinking water of thousands of people. The deal calls for the most recent owner, Nicolet Hardwood, to keep the timber rights to the site, but the tribes will own the mineral rights. From all reports, the Potawatomi put up most of the funds, and in doing so backed up a long-standing and heartfelt struggle by a neighboring Native nation, the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa, who have fought long and hard to save their precious wild rice beds from their potential worst fate of suffering destructive contamination under the proposed mine.

Media observers commented on the integrity of the Native perspective and action on this case about tribal values and practices and how they can run counter to developments that contaminate environments. Regional journalists were impressed with the long and sustained contention by the tribe that the mining proposal was way out of line if the rice beds would survive.

This is one long-term Indian struggle that started way before Wisconsin tribes had ever heard of gaming as any kind of economic option. The fight was over environmental quality and the potential destruction of the water tables in this pristine part of Wisconsin. Beyond the rice beds, the headwaters of the sacred Wolf River, one of the most natural bodies of water left in Wisconsin, were at stake. Stated then-Menominee Tribal Chairman John Teller: "The Wolf River is the life-line of the Menominee people, and central to our existence. We will let no harm come to the river. Water quality and tremendous ecological diversity are imperiled, including bald eagle, wild rice, lake sturgeon and trout habitat." The Sokaogon Chippewa felt the same way about their ricing beds. The 550-acre mine was particularly threatening to the Sokaogon's abundant but fragile wild rice beds. These "gifts from the Creator" are revered, treasured. Much tribal activity and tradition follows the ricing year. "Our people stand to lose our very existence," said Arlyn Ackley, Sokaogon Chippewa chairwoman.

The proposed Crandon mine, owned most recently by Nicolet Minerals Co., itself a subsidiary of Northern Wisconsin Resources Group, has been a strong issue for the northern Wisconsin tribes since the early 1970s. Exxon first discovered the huge ore deposit in 1975 and various companies have vied to possess it ever since.

The Sokaogon Chippewa immediately rallied around the survival of their most appreciated food gift. Monomin, the "food of the Indian people," according to tribal elders was too precious a subsistence basis of food security, as well as a revered connection to the land and the natural world. As the tribes organized to fight back, many groups ranging from environmentalists to independent conservatives joined them. Many rallies and marches, year by year, plus intense legal action, slowed the proposed development to a crawl. The kind of mining proposed, which its likely 44 million tons of sulfide ore tailings, to be left in lagoons and in runoffs, met significant resistance among a citizenry wary of extractive mega-projects. The tribal resistance over their core issue of protecting natural bounties became the core expression of the overall issue. The case of the Mole Lake/Crandon mine and how the local tribal people stuck to their cultural strength and demanded a hearing, and ultimately won a struggle, has its heroic proportion.

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While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was still processing the mining company's permit application and working on a draft environmental impact statement for the mine, the two Wisconsin Indian tribes went ahead and bought the mineral rights to the mine they have fought for a quarter century.

The "sold" sign draped across the Nicolet Minerals office building was clear, while news stories reported that tribal drums "echoed through the streets of Crandon." At corporate headquarters, an attorney announced to callers that the company was "under new management."

"Under new management" has a nice ring, as we see American Indian tribes gain the capacity to make serious and long-lasting tribal acquisitions and directly exhibit their cultural values. We salute this particular use of tribal assets as an intelligent and profoundly well-placed decision to use financial gains to further long-held traditional teachings. It displays an example of nation building at its best.

The changes among Wisconsin tribes in the past two decades are "too deep and too profound to be credited only to more money," stated one local observer. The gaming revolution has helped and of course this is obvious from the result of a tribe having serious finances. But it is clear that it simply applies economic strength to back up a resolve that was already there and was gaining ground throughout the quarter century of the fight against the Crandon Mine and the very intense fight to protect tribal fishing rights. These mobilizations by Native activists and tribal governments, allied with a good range of other publics, reaffirmed something very intense for the Wisconsin tribes.

Probably the breakthrough in the sense of actual accomplishment and pride in identity came during the fishing struggles of the 1980s, when racial hatred spewed against Indians generally and the tribes organized successfully across the state. "Spear an Indian, not a fish," read one popular sign, nevertheless, night after night Native spearfishers braved rocks and racist insults to defend their right to fish under tribal laws, and won. We salute such great warrior activists as Ingrid Washinawatok and Walter Bressette as early leaders on these essential tribal ecology struggles. They kept the Indian issues at the forefront and won a serious public respect doing so. Among the most important allies is a brilliant local professor, Al Gedicks, whose recent book "Resource Rebels," contains an account of the 27-year movement to stop the Crandon mine.

These days, there is money in some tribal coffers and such tribes are gaining a range of clout seldom imagined in American society. Among those showing great class, the Sokaogon and their beneficent partner nation, the Forest County Potawatomi, have both exhibited excellent leadership, regionally and nationally. Just a few years ago, the mining companies negotiated with local townships and would totally ignore the tribal representations. Now, tribal representatives are buying out whole mining operations. Tribal identities are profoundly American but Native tribal peoples often still think outside the big, square, American box. Creativity flows from this extra perspective. Add a good ethical base and controls to the strategic use of financial assets and the mix can bring positive results, for tribes and for many others. We've said it before: Indian sovereignty is good for America.