This article is from the February 2014 edition of The Progressive magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today and get one full year of the magazine for as little as $10.
In the year 2000, a spiritual elder of the Ojibwe tribe in northern Wisconsin warned of massive water pollution and shortages of clean water in the years to come.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asked Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe grandmother.
Mandamin could not get the question out of her head.
In Ojibwe spiritual teachings, women are responsible for water. Their special relationship to water spirits is related to their ability to carry and generate life.
So, in April 2003 Mandamin decided to organize a water walk. She and other Ojibwe and non-indigenous women and men helped carry a pail and ceremonial eagle staff on a 1,000-mile journey along the shores of Lake Superior that took thirty-six days.
Every spring since then, Mandamin has organized and participated in water walks around each of the other Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers. In the summer of 2011, one year after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, four groups of water walkers set out from the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico and converged at the mouth of the Bad River on Lake Superior, the origin of the first water walk.
But as the water walkers from the four directions arrived, a political battle that could spell doom for the area and its watershed was heating up 300 miles to the south in the state capitol building in Madison.
West Virginia coal billionaire Chris Cline had just incorporated the Gogebic Taconite (GTac) company and announced plans to build one of the largest iron mines in the world.
The twenty-two-mile long, 1,000-foot deep open pit would obliterate the Penokee Hills that form the headwaters of the Bad River watershed, leaving in their place a wasteland of 910 million tons of sulfuric acid-producing waste rock, depleted aquifers, poisoned rivers and streams, and a film of asbestos-laden dust for miles around. Cline, who made his fortune blasting off mountaintops in West Virginia for coal, now aims to bring the natural, social, and economic devastation wrought by this kind of mining to one of the most ecologically sensitive and important places in the Great Lakes region.
The Penokee Hills rise 1,800 feet above sea level and form part of the St. Lawrence continental divide that separates the Great Lakes basin from the Mississippi River basin. Called Wisconsin’s “best-kept secret” by Backpacker magazine, the Penokees are teeming with natural wonders. Class II trout streams, stupendous waterfalls and rock formations, and an astonishing density of spring wildflowers attract visitors from all over the world. They are also home to an abundance of wildlife, including endangered species such as the pine marten and the wood turtle, and threatened bird species, such as the Le Conte’s sparrow.
Since GTac’s plans were announced, people from all walks of life have come together to defend the water, land, and air against the runaway forces of destructive resource extraction. It is part of a global struggle between those who see the planet and all living things on it as potential sources from which to extract financial wealth versus those who see the planet and all living things as sacred. It’s a struggle between those whose approach to life is based on command, control, and conquest versus those who practice cooperation, co-creation, and consensus.
The sloughs around the mouth of the Bad River hold special meaning for the Ojibwe people. The location was foretold in their Seven Fires prophecy, which predicted European colonization. The prophecy also guided the ancestors of the tens of thousands of Ojibwe people who now reside around Lake Superior to settle at “the place where food grows on water.”
That place turned out to be on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior, where large stands of wild rice grow. The wild rice beds in the Kakagon and Bad River sloughs are among the largest in the world and hold deep spiritual significance.
The Ojibwe people’s rights are laid out in treaties with the U.S. government dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Those treaties ceded land ownership in what is now northern Wisconsin, northeastern Minnesota, and northern Michigan in exchange for the promise that members and descendants of the Ojibwe bands who signed the treaties could still hunt, fish, and gather on those lands to meet their spiritual, medicinal, and subsistence needs in perpetuity.
Treaty rights have not always been respected, but in recent decades federal district and appellate courts, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have reaffirmed them in cases related to tribal fishing activities. The 1983 Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Chippewa Indians vs. Lester P. Voigt, et al. case, known as the Voigt Decision, upheld the treaty rights of signatories to the 1837 and 1842 treaties, and underscored the tribes’ right to co-manage the natural resources within ceded territory with other governments that have legal jurisdiction in the region.
Since GTac’s proposed open pit mine would be located within ceded territory, the State of Wisconsin has an obligation to consult with the tribes regarding any decision the state or any of its agencies makes that would have an effect on natural resources in the area.
But this is Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where rightwing extremists control the legislature, the state supreme court has a conservative majority that is in the pocket of the Walker administration, and the Department of Natural Resources—once the envy of the nation for the quality and depth of research and programs it produced—is now run by a real estate developer who says the role of the agency is to grant permits rather than to enforce regulations.
In 2011, someone leaked a draft of a proposed mining deregulation bill sponsored by GTac, causing a public uproar. Tribal members and their attorneys objected that they had not been consulted. In an attempt to weigh in on the bill, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa released a statement containing ten principles that should be included in any new law. When the bill was introduced in December, none of the principles had been included.
At the first public hearing held on the bill that gutted environmental protections and removed the ability of citizens to contest mine permitting decisions, Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. tried to shift the discussion away from the mechanistic logic of short-term jobs, markets, and corporate profits. He asked Bad River member Jerome Powless to sing as part of the tribe’s testimony.
After the song ended, Wiggins said, “That is a gesture of hope. It’s a bit of a prayer for you to consider other matters aside from the notion of just creating jobs, because when you really get into this bill, it’s about water, it’s about the land, air, people.”
Later in the hearing, Red Cliff tribal vice chairman Marvin DeFoe explained what the song meant: “What he sang in that song was the voice of the birds. Because the birds can’t speak, so it’s our responsibility as stewards of this land to speak on behalf of the birds. To always be mindful of those who cannot speak. And that’s why I am here, representing the fish also that need a voice, and the trees also that need a voice.”
DeFoe elaborated on the concerns of his tribe, and he contrasted its worldview with that of the mining companies. He said this issue wasn’t just about Wisconsin, but that it was global, and he cited climate change and other environmental hazards jeopardizing the entire world.
“I am in support of humanity,” he said. “People in my community would rather have clean water than a job. That’s how my community feels.”
Right after DeFoe spoke, a lobbyist from Caterpillar testified in favor of the bill. It was as if he were from a different planet, where the increase in carbon emissions from mining and other heavy industrial activities have no effect on the atmosphere, and clean water resources are infinite.
“We’re bullish on mining,” said lobbyist Tom Walters. “Global mining is growing, with the rapid growth in population, with the emerging economies and demand for natural resources at an all time high, we’re in this because we think it’s going to grow. Wisconsin has vast natural resources, and there is a great demand for those resources globally.”
The mining bill, as written by GTac lobbyists, eventually passed in the Republican-dominated legislature, and Walker dutifully signed it.
But the issue is far from settled, and the Ojibwe may well prevail in the end.
Tribal and independent scientists conducting research on the rocks, plants, and animals around the proposed mine site have found hazardous materials, including asbestos, in the area, which may leave the company open to an environmental lawsuit. And the Ojibwe themselves are on firm legal ground to challenge the mine.
Nor did GTac help its cause when it hired machine-gun-toting guards from Arizona to prowl around the woods surrounding their sample drill sites. Scary-looking paramilitary troops in masks, full battle gear, and brandishing automatic weapons came to deter scientists and the public from visiting the site. But that plan backfired. And GTac got a black eye when it emerged that the company that dispatched the guards, Bulletproof Securities, broke the law by not getting a permit to operate in Wisconsin. When it finally got around to filing for a permit, it made some dubious assertions, misrepresenting the consultations it had with county officials.
A new community of mine opponents has come together to defend the Penokee Hills. This community understands that what people in northern Wisconsin need more than a handful of jobs in exchange for massive air and water pollution is a program for sustainable livelihoods that is based on the judicious and respectful use of natural resources.
Activists are already developing such a program. The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is sponsoring a Harvest Education Learning Project (HELP) located in the foothills of the Penokees. The encampment was established last spring and provides the base for tribal members and their guests to survey and research the flora and fauna of the area, and for tribal members to teach traditional skills and crafts to others. This spring, the tribe hopes to tap hundreds of sugar maple trees and teach people how to produce maple syrup. More than 5,000 people from around the world have visited HELP in its first nine months.
The resurrection of traditional ways of living is a goal of Bad River chairman Wiggins, as well. “Our vision transcends the most glorious economic dreams of Bill Williams [CEO of GTac] and his mining cronies and their fifteen or twenty year free-for-all profit,” Wiggins said in a recent radio interview. The tribe’s vision, he said, spans “hundreds of years of fishing, of putting our hands in the water, and sending our kids to play on the riverbanks.”
That vision harkens back to the Seven Fires prophecy, which speaks of a time when a new people will emerge to rediscover and reinvigorate old Ojibwe teachings, ceremonies, and cultural practices.
Josephine Mandamin’s water walks and HELP are part of this rediscovery. According to the prophecy, humanity will have to choose between exploiting the Earth, which will result in certain social and ecological catastrophe, or taking the more natural path, whose guideposts are: Use what you need, give what you can, respect all life.
Rebecca Kemble is a writer and political reporter for The Progressive. She is also the president of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the president of CICOPA North America. She is a member of Union Cab Cooperative and is a founding member, writer, and editor in the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.