Mining 1: Proposed Mine Troubles Tribal Neighbors

Feb 13, 2013

Controversy continues churning in Wisconsin over a potential mining operation in the far north.Advocates say the venture promises much-needed jobs; opponents fear irreparable damage to pristine waterways and wetlands.Last month, Republican lawmakers pushed a strongly debated bill through the Assembly. A Senate Select Committee could unveil its version as early as today.

A Wintery Bad River

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited people who live and work in the earmarked region.

Today she takes us to the home of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians

Its water-rich reservation is situated downstream from the proposed mine.

Shafts of sunlight cut through a labyrinth of roads that wind through the Bad River Band’s tribal home.

Some reveal newer construction and a snazzy center where elders gather to share meals.

Others twist around weather-beaten houses.

Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins says, there’s no sugar-coating the fact that

“Our tribe is poor. We don’t generate much money from enterprises or gaming; there’s high rates of unemployment;.that’s nothing new,” Wiggins says.

What the tribe does have is 125,000-acres of resource rich land.

Spanning the generations, its wildlife, fish and wild rice sustained the Chippewa, and Wiggins says the tribe maintains its centuries-old tradition of protecting those gifts.

So despite being stretched thin, the Bad River Band employs a lean team of specialists to monitor the reservation’s land, air and water.

“We’ve got some really good professional people in our natural resources department. We got a small grant to study and really get into the recharge characteristics of our ground water aquifers. You know our water quality standards are set,” Wiggins says.

Wiggins says to achieve the greatest protections, the tribe wanted to manage its own water quality standards.

So it took on an arduous process of applying for permission from the EPA and ultimately won approval.

Wiggins hopes the Band’s federally credentialed water standards help ward off the proposed mining operation.

The tribal chief is adamant - if mining crews break ground, not only will his people bear the environmental burden, so too will the region.

“We sit here doing our darnedest to ready and try to protect our tribe’s homeland and the health and welfare of our people. As a result of that we’ll end up protecting Lake Superior and the Kakagon Sloughs that filters and enriches and cleans billions and billions of gallons of water every day for Lake Superior. We’ll end up protecting all of the citizens and local municipalities around us,” Wiggins says.

The day I met with Wiggins, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced an investigation.

The federal agency will determine if crafters of the Assembly’s mining legislation trampled treaty rights by not consulting with tribal governments.

“There’s also unifying that’s taking place; tribes are coming together to talk about things that matter, to pray about things that matter. Social media has been incredible; thousands and thousands of people sharing information regarding what's going on. For me, it’s realizing people are awake and paying attention,” Wiggins says.

And the second term tribal chair says plans to halt damage are in the works.

“There is definitely strategy and we’ll leave it at that,” Wiggins says.

One floor above Wiggins’ office, Latisha McRoy is immersed in her work for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

McRoy grew up on the reservation, but admits, when she was young, she knew nothing of the nearby iron stash, nor did she care about the significance of hunting and fishing to her culture.

“At the time, I really wasn’t interested in it,” McRoy says.

McRoy says her attitude changed when studied Native American history in college.

She learned about the treaties the U.S. government and tribes struck in the 19th century.

They gave up territory.

In return, the U.S. guaranteed Native Americans parcels of land and the right to hunt, forage and fish on and off the reservation.

In her studies, McRoy discovered in modern times, hostile episodes erupted in Wisconsin at boat landings – when citizens protested tribal spear fishing.

“An elder was talking about people yelling at him and throwing rocks at him, but he didn’t retaliate; and to have such resilience and faith in treaty rights is amazing,” McRoy says.

The diminutive 25 year old now fishes and hunts, and intends to help keep Native American culture and treaty rights alive.

She’s watching the mining debate with concern.

“It might harm some of those plants that we do harvest; it might harm fish in the river,” McRoy says..

McRoy hopes all sides of the issue are considered.

"Not biased towards Native Americans or pro-mining people that all of the straight facts are out there, so then people can make an informed decision. I want to be able to say that tribal people and the people of Wisconsin were able to do this responsibly enough so that seven generations from now it won’t be poisonous in any way,” McRoy says.

Senator Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn says he is committed to doing the job right.

He heads the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs.

Kedzie says he’s working to arrange a meeting with Bad River Band leaders.

In a letter to Chairman Mike Wiggins, Kedzie expressed a desire to discuss tribal concerns, “through an open and honest dialogue.”