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Wisconsin Endangers a Sacred Tradition

A story about the state of Wisconsin endangering a sacred Native American tradition.

Opinakii, the place where the wild potatoes grow, lies just south of the Bad River Reservation on land ceded to the United States by the Ojibwe in 1842. Remote and beautiful, Opinakii is more commonly known as the Penokee Hills, a range of mountains that ride the Northern Continental Divide and is currently ground zero for a battle that stems from a cultural chasm between two worldviews. One vision measures the earth’s resources in terms of jobs and money; the other emphasizes stewardship of the land and water, and a sacred responsibility to preserve both for future generations. This battle will have a drastic impact on tribal sovereignty, economics, political and environmental responsibility and the very survival of a people and their culture.

Facing a possible recall election this year and eager to make good on a campaign promise to create more than 250,000 jobs for Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is supporting the construction of a 4.5-mile-long, open-pit iron-ore mine in the pristine Penokee range, home to the immense Bad River watershed. Remarkably, the many streams and rivers flowing through this watershed flow north into Lake Superior, where numerous towns and cities get their drinking water. The water also feeds into the Bad River slough, the home of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe’s legendary wild-rice beds, where manoomin, the sacred seed, has grown and nourished the people as long as anyone can remember.

Tribal members and many other local residents are concerned that a large open-pit iron-ore mine would pose serious environmental threats to the water, wildlife and quality of life in this pristine woodland. Supporters point to the more than 700 jobs promised by the mining company in counties where the average income is 20 to 30 percent below the state’s average, and the unemployment rate is about 11 percent. Wisconsin’s overall unemployment rate is around 7.3 percent. While not overtly in favor of mining, local State Senator Bob Jauch points to the pressure from world market demands for minerals and the inevitability of mining as a reason to get on board with changing the current laws rather than opposing the mine.

Cyrus Hester, environmental specialist for the Bad River tribe, has a succinct rebuttal: “That’s the viewpoint that supported Manifest Destiny.”

The state’s Republican leadership is counting on indifference by most voters as they cleverly fold streamlined permitting processes and environmental deregulation for mining into a series of job-related bills. In the current uncertain economic climate, this fear-based strategy seems to be working. Many citizens and tribes, however, are complaining that laws are being written covertly with far too little input from regular people, and far too much input from mining lobbyists for Gogebic Taconite LLC (GTAC), the mining company that is proposing to build the mine in the Penokees.

The tribe is fortifying itself with sharp leadership, alliances with mainstream environmental groups and a big stick in the form of their own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules that give them the authority to define their water-quality standards. The tribe received approval for this from the federal EPA in October.

Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr., his fellow council members and tribal citizens have been speaking to citizen groups, legislators, media and anyone who will listen about the importance of maintaining the air and water quality of the area. They speak passionately about the tribe’s connection to the land and the water, which governs the quality of the manoomin, the emblem of Ojibwe life. 

Unfortunately, their passion and eloquence is often met with bewilderment from business and political leaders. During a recent Ashland County board meeting, a member stopped Hester’s presentation about the impact of mining on the environment and wild rice. “What exactly is the economic contribution of wild rice to the county?” he asked.

Ned Blackhawk and Mary Kathryn Nagle (first row, far left) are pictured with undergraduates and graduate and professional students from the Yale Group for the Study of Native America at a reading of "Sliver of a Full Moon" at the Yale Law School.

Ned Blackhawk and Mary Kathryn Nagle (first row, far left) are pictured with undergraduates and graduate and professional students from the Yale Group for the Study of Native America at a reading of "Sliver of a Full Moon" at the Yale Law School.

Economics, Hester responded, are one metric, not a value system in and of themselves; the ecological and cultural value of wild rice far outweigh the economic value.

The exchange seemed to sum up the issue for tribal members. Ojibwe elder Joe Rose said later, “All the white man thinks about is money.”

Bad River is my mother’s reservation, and I have visited my relatives here many times. Before entering the reservation, I usually pause at the top of Birch Hill near the Penokee Hills to take in the view of the little town of Odanah, the Bad River, the Kakagon slough and finally the distant, mirage-like presence of Gichigami, Lake Superior.

Although dubbed the “Bad River” by French explorers vexed by how difficult the river was to navigate, the Ojibwe call this place Mashkiki Ziibi, Medicine River, because of the vast store of medicinal plants growing along its banks.

As I gazed over Mashkiki Ziibi earlier this fall, I thought of all that is at stake for this people and this land. Manoomin, spoken of in our prophecies as the driving force behind our migration here, is so much more than nutrition for our bodies; it is the ineffable nourishment for our spirits and hearts. It is what make us Anishinaabe, reminding us we are forever joined to this earth and this place.

This great swath of land that sweeps down to the lake touched me with its generosity—it purifies the many streams and rivers that pass through it on their journeys to Lake Superior. The power of its silent underground workings seemed almost palpable as I stood there.

I am reminded that like these mountains, Ojibwe women are believed to be the ones who care for the water. I realize that this story is about more than jobs versus environmental protection; it is about life and death not only for the Ojibwe but for all of us. All humans—Indian or not—need clean water to survive.

I wait for Wiggins to make his way to his office. It’s a short distance but he must navigate through the many requests for his attention from tribal members along the way, so it takes several minutes. Born and raised on the Bad River reservation, he looks as though he’d prefer to be out deer hunting with relatives, but I note he is a skillful administrator and politician as he deftly multitasks media inquiries and tribal business.

“The mine is a life-or-death issue for us,” he says after finally sitting at his desk. “We rely on subsistence hunting, fishing and ricing to feed our families.”

He says that studies in Minnesota, which has allowed open-pit iron-ore mining, have shown that sulfate pollution caused by mining has had negative impacts on wild-rice plants. Although GTAC claims that open-pit iron-ore mining doesn’t affect sulfides, which occur naturally in rock, Wiggins points out that sulfate is present in the geologic composition of taconite. “Sulfides generate sulfuric acid when exposed to water and air,” he notes.

There is serious potential for acid rock drainage to reduce water quality and leach toxic metals from mining waste rock; pyrite (iron disulfide) is known to occur in the overburden of the Penokee site. The overburden would be dumped into huge piles and could generate acid-rock drainage directly into the Bad River watershed. Sedimentation-filling and hydrological disruption of streams and wetlands in the immediate vicinity of the mine may have indirect effects on wild rice and fish. The massive dewatering process associated with open-pit mining could lower the water table around the mine, seriously impacting the fragile wild rice beds of the Bad River slough.

Similar mining operations in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range have created high levels of mercury and sulfate levels downstream in the St. Louis River and resulted in fish-consumption advisories. “We have shouldered the sacrifices that come with protecting our lands and waters, chosen not to develop our lakefront and have kept our miles of river pristine. This is a real and tangible example of our value system that involves responsible stewardship of our land and water,” Wiggins says.

The Bad River reservation provides an incredibly valuable purification process with its pristine wetland that ensures good water for Lake Superior. “This is something we’re proud of,” he says.

Wiggins points out that although the tribe stands to be directly affected by the environmental fallout of the mining project, they have been excluded from crafting of new mining legislation or meaningful discussion about what the mine would mean for the land, the water and the people who stand to economically benefit the least. “What’s ethical, what’s moral? As a brown people, our voice has been minimized [in the legislative process].”

In describing the series of bills included in Walker’s complex job package, he says, “This is essentially environmental deregulation under the guise of creating jobs. Some of the special-session bills are backdoor efforts to weaken environmental protection.”

According to Wiggins, the negative impacts from polluted ground water and air will manifest themselves in the Bad River people eating and drinking near the GTAC project for the next 50 to 100 years. “There is no amount of reclamation that could offset that scenario,” he says.

He believes that if the general public could be made aware of what the Bad River watershed does in terms of cleansing water for the environment and Lake Superior, they would agree that this is an area that should never be mined.

Tribal member Annie Maday agrees. “Why do they have to take every ounce of minerals from the land?” she asks.

She admits that making a living in the area is hard for Indians and non-Indians alike but notes that most people choose to remain in the area because of the beauty and love of the land. Maday is home on Birch Hill caring for her grandchildren; her grandson stomps through the living room as we visit, wearing a diaper and a pair of Sesame Street Elmo boots. She looks at him fondly as she says, “We are taught to make our decisions while keeping the next seven generations in mind.”

She helped organize the Bad River Watershed Association, a local citizens group concerned with protecting the area. She also participated in the Mother Earth Water Walk this past spring, helping to carry ocean water from the four directions of the United States to Lake Superior to call attention to the need to protect the health of the earth’s water. “I don’t want my grandkids to look back and wonder why I didn’t take a stand to help protect this way of life for them,” she says.

Edith Leoso’s cozy trailer stands near the mouth of the Kakagon River, so close that she can smell the wild-rice plants when they first emerge in the spring. The smell, she says, is the smell of new life, like that of a newborn baby’s head. Although the ricing season is long over and we stand shivering in the brisk winter air, she smiles and closes her eyes with pleasure at the memory.

This place is Leoso’s family homestead; she points to an area across the road where her great grandmother lived in a lean-to long ago. As we stand near the river, she recalls how her grandmother taught her to respect the water.

Leoso explains that water is a natural part of the body; babies are surrounded in the womb by water.

Each spring, she and other women perform a water ceremony here at the entryway to the great Bad River-Kakagon sloughs, the home of the tribe’s precious rice beds. According to Leoso, some people may see the water as a separate entity but pointing to the river, she says, “That’s our life right there.” Such ceremonies are affirmations of connection to the water, the land and the manoomin, sacred seed that sustains body and spirit.

She says she feels sorry for those who are without such a connection: “They don’t know what home is.”

According to tribal members, the condition of the fragile manoomin is a valuable barometer for the health of the environment and the water. Myron Burns, known as Burnsie to everyone on the reservation, agrees. He has been ricing for about 60 years. Former Bad River tribal council member and member of the Wild Rice Committee, he has observed many changes in the rice over the years and is convinced that human intervention has a big impact upon its health. He noted that during dredging of a nearby river during the 1990s the water levels in the sloughs were so low that they had to be shut down; for the first time in memory, no rice was harvested that year.

Today, the Burns home is alive with activity; the kitchen table and counters are covered with layers of a wedding cake in various stages of production. Burnsie offers stern decorating suggestions to his wife Judy, who mostly ignores him as she expertly works frosting into delicate roses. Between suggestions, he offers opinions about the proposed mine in a similar tone. “That mine may bring in some money for a few years but in the end, we’ll be left with the garbage,” he says. “I’ll die by that statement!”

He gives me a tour of his home and his many projects, including the new rice thrasher as well as the deck he built with lumber bought on the way home from the hospital after he had a stroke. Burnsie is an old-time Ojibwe, the quintessential problem-solver; scrappy and shrewd, he prides himself on “making do.”

He notes that GTAC is constructing a new building in nearby Ashland for its offices. “They must be pretty sure of themselves,” he says.

Although he states he never finished high school, he listened carefully to what the old-timers told him about caring for the rice and the land. “We’re going to lose what we have here if we don’t take ahold,” he cautions.

“Once its gone, we can’t get it back.”

I recall Wiggins’s words: “We are home and have been home for a thousand years, where the prophecies directed us to be. It may be difficult for others to understand, but this is our ancestral homeland. “In Bad River, we are going to do what we can to protect ourselves for future generations of ourselves and other Wisconsinites.”

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