Wisconsin’s heated debate over mining iron ore continues to flare. We visit the harvest camp the Lac Courte Oreilles band has set up on the edge of the proposed mine.
Organizers say its purpose is two-fold – to peacefully flex their “off-reservation” right to hunt, fish and gather food and to prevent mining.
I arrived as campers were preparing the evening meal. The fragrance of simmering pheasant and wild rice filled the air.
Mel Gasper cradled a guitar under his arm, while a 16-month old boy sat fascinated at the man’s knees. The Lac Courte Oreilles elder gently shook off the toddler.
Gasper says his tribe asked him to set up the camp on five acres of forest land.
“So I did. I came up here for three days and looked it over and stood there and figured out exactly what I wanted here and that’s what we have here,” Gasper says.
Pots and pans float from tree limbs. An assortment of tools – from branch loppers to shovels stand “at the ready” on a felled-log, and Gasper has sprinkled more than 20 tents around the camp’s densely-forested perimeter.
He’s been here since the beginning – last March.
He says visitors flow in and out – sometimes just a handful, other times – up to 30. Today, I count about a dozen.
“People come in from morning to evening, come in and want to talk. It’s a place for everybody to come and talk about the issues that are going on. Our neighbors were just here today. When we first came here, they weren’t even sure they wanted us here. They were skeptical about us. Now we have their total support; they’re even speaking out on our behalf," Gasper says.
Gasper plans to stay indefinitely.
“We have a one-year lease, but we’re working on that yet too. I’ll be staying here as long as they say we’re good to go, so I’ll be here all winter if I have to be,” Gasper says.
He says he finds strength in the children around him.
“Every time I look at that little boy up there, his future, the future of his grandchildren, because I’m getting up in age now - I probably don’t have more than 20 years to live, but I want to look at the future of the little ones. This is one of the last mountainous regions of Wisconsin, the last, so once it’s gone, that’s it – there are no more mountains in Wisconsin. You know, this is also a buffer zone, this big mountain. It separates the different storms that come through, the different weather that comes through. It would be just like a barren wasteland if they took down this mountain; the snows would be like (in) the Arctic and the summers would be overheated," Gasper says.
Gasper says he didn’t learn about his native culture until he was 18 years old.
“I grew up in the woods, but I never grew up with the native culture. Before that, I was in foster homes, all my life. So at 18, I met a gentleman who said he knew my family. It was just amazing, within a half-hour of talking with him, I met my mother, whom I never knew I had. So it was quite a shock to me. My uncle, who has passed on now, when I first came home from foster homes, he gave me a celebration for being a lost one and he told me I’d be going through the tribulations of life real bad, but he said some day you’re going to be a leader of my people. And here I am today, representing not only the Lac Courte Oreilles but the whole Ojibwe nation. The 13 tribes have come together now, so I’m basically representing everyone by being here and I feel very proud of it," Gasper says.
Gasper checks the simmering pot, then grabs his guitar. He shakes his head – his graying ponytail tucked beneath a baseball cap, and recalls his plans before tribal leaders asked him to take on this “mission”. He had intended to explore the country and sell his art. Those plans are on indefinite hold.