Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Sacred Water,” EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles — and successes — to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.
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Menominee Reservation, Wisconsin — Probe the right forest, gorge, river or lake in the Northern Midwest and you find a well-kept secret: Concealed beauty.
This is “Small Sky” country — the antithesis of the West’s “Big Sky” moniker — where you’re hemmed in by century-old stands of pine, oaks, aspens and maples, dappling brooks, cascading falls. These dense thickets offer constant reminder of the freshwater abundance throughout the Great Lakes states.
The Menominee Reservation is one of these secrets.
“I just went out to Oregon, hiked a lot, and it was beautiful,” says Menominee member Guy Reiter trekking around the reservation in early summer. “But I did think about these forests.”
Reiter walks on a rocky trail near the reservation’s Wolf River Dells, where the river gushes through narrow rock walls. The trail opens up to a lake, and peering over the edge brings back memories for Reiter. “I used to jump off this,” he says looking down the 30 feet to the water. “I’d never do that now. I have kids, man.”
This healthy northern ecosystem is no accident. It’s the result of pioneering forestry practices by the tribe and a reverence for the rivers and lakes crisscrossing the reservation. The reverence doesn’t stop at the reservation boundary: The falls at Wolf River Dells flow to other, off-reservation waters, which meander and connect with one another — directly or via Lake Michigan — and ultimately tell the story of the Menominee.
This story begins at the mouth of the Menominee River, which forms the Michigan-Wisconsin border. The Menominee’s creation story starts where the Menominee River empties into Lake Michigan, but the mouth’s health disappeared long ago, sullied as industry — a foundry, an herbicide manufacturer, gas plant, chemical companies — set up factories and plants to process the region’s wealth of resources.
Today about the first 3.5 miles — from the mouth upstream — of the Menominee River is a Superfund cleanup area. But follow the river inland and signs still exist of the Menominee people, who would travel throughout the area, hunting, gathering, fishing and farming.
About 25 miles upstream, Menominee ancestors lay buried next to what could soon become a giant open-pit mine. Canada-based Aquila Resources Inc. awaits permitting for a proposed 83-acre mine site — dubbed the Back Forty Project — that would pull gold, zinc, copper and silver out of the ground along the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
In addition to protecting Menominee burial grounds near the mine, the tribe fears the mine waste and potential for acid mine drainage, both of which could pollute the river and the groundwater that feeds it.
The reservation is an hour’s drive from the river mouth and even farther from the proposed mine site. A series of treaties signed between 1817 and 1856 squeezed the Menominee onto 354 square miles in central Wisconsin, roughly a third the size of Yosemite National Park. “The river is farther from us now, but we still view it as shared,” says Doug Cox, the environmental program coordinator for the tribe.
As with many tribes, Menominee history is rife with injustice — including land grabs, a termination attempt and contamination at the center of their creation story site. The mine represents the latest obstacle for the tribe trying to maintain a connection to the water that sustained them physically, socially and spiritually.
“I have to go to these meetings and try to explain what the river means to me,” Reiter says. “The river is me.”
Interrupting “Cultural Reproduction”
The potential mine adds insult to a tribe already afflicted with a disproportionate amount of physical, social and economic woes. Less than half of the tribe’s 8,550 members live on the reservation, which makes up 99 percent of Menominee County, the least healthy county in the state, according to University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute data. Smoking, obesity and inactivity plague the county.
In addition, about 30 percent of people in Menominee County live in poverty — more than double the state’s rate. Almost 44 percent of the county’s children live in poverty, compared to just 18 percent statewide. And more than half of the reservation’s children — 62 percent — live in single parent households. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent.
Reasons for such social ills abound. But researchers have increasingly tied the erosion of Native American cultural and environmental resources to declines in tribal health.
In one example, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York for years lost healthy food habits because fish are full of contaminants. More than healthy omega-3s are at risk: culture suffered. Fishing is a teaching tool, with children learning knots and how to tie net. And these activities bring elders and children together, buoying traditional language use and cross-generation connections.
Similarly the Anishinaabe from Canada’s Aamjiwnaang reservation in southwest Ontario forego traditional medicine gathering because the plants are contaminated with metals such as cadmium. They’ve also reduced fishing because fish are polluted with PCBs. In the region, on the shores of the Saint Claire River across from Port Huron, Michigan, and dubbed “Chemical Valley,” women and children in the tribe have elevated levels of both cadmium and PCB chemicals. Both are linked to reproductive problems, including a tendency to have more girls than boys. The tribe, while trying to field community baseball teams two decades ago, fielded three girls’ teams to one boys’.
A heath study in 2005 confirmed fears that pollutants might be interfering with sex ratios. “The Aamjiwnaang community has had multiple chemical exposures over the years that may be contributing to the overall picture of a reduced sex ratio,” the authors wrote.
The Crow Nation in southern Montana has had to forego using water from Chief Plenty Coups spring or risk illness. The spring’s water, found to be contaminated with feces, is collected and used at sun dances for prayer and to drink after days of dancing and fasting. Elsewhere on the reservation, metals such as uranium and manganese taint private drinking wells and coincide with elevated diabetes rates.
Across the country, Native foods, water, medicines, language, ceremonies, farming techniques, hunting and fishing have been jeopardized by contaminants and development, highlighting what Elizabeth Hoover, a Brown University assistant professor, calls the interruption of “cultural reproduction.”
Hoover, who researches environmental health and justice in Native communities, has studied the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, which includes the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation in New York and their Canadian counterparts. Initial fish advisories may have kept people from eating too much chemical-laden fish, but such attempts didn’t address the true costs: Family relations were built around the culture of fishing, such as interactions with grandfather, tying nets, learning the ways of the water, and the language — a rich Native tongue full of specific colors and textures.
In this case, measures taken to protect community health — fish advisories aimed at preventing harmful exposure — inadvertently eroded the “language, culture, and social connections attached to fishing,” Hoover wrote in a 2013 study.
But the tribe has tried to turn the tide. Over the past decade, the Mohawk tribe encouraged its members to get science degrees. It bolstered its Environment Division, expanding it from one employee to a 27-person department. That investment paid off: Tribal experts helped rewrite the fish guidelines, which now offer nuanced advice that accounts for traditions.
In Washington State, Coast Salish tribes have developed a sophisticated agency — the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission — along with individual tribal environmental departments. That expertise has given them an equal partnership with the state in management decisions about salmon and other fisheries in the Puget Sound and the many bays and rivers in the region.
“Federal and state agencies and fisheries departments that controlled these resources very intentionally in the past limited Native access and involvement,” says Julia Cantzler, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.
“Part of the process of achieving real environmental justice is to dismantle all of those regimes that marginalized tribes for so long.”
Lingering Effects of a Termination Attempt
The Menominee’s fight is not a uniquely tribal injustice: Mining is seldom without controversy. We all, as a modern society, need these metals — for our cell phones, tablets, TVs, cars, within our walls and in our medical equipment, to enable many modern conveniences.
Too often, though, Native Americans pay the cost. Aquila can’t be blamed for this, Reiter says. “They think they’re doing a good thing, providing resources for our consumer-driven culture.”
But modern living shouldn’t come at the cost of honoring the deceased, he says.
David Grignon, director of the Menominee’s Historic Preservation Department, says tribal members still visit the burial mounds near the proposed mine to make sure they’re being preserved and protected. There are three confirmed sites — the White Rapids Mound group, Backlund Mound Group, and an unnamed group at the southern end of the Back Forty project site.
Grignon says they’ve had several meetings with Aquila but there’s a clear impasse. “There’s no mitigation plan, ” he says. “They say they’ll protect them, but there’s no way.”
The burial sites won’t be removed but will have a quarter-mile-wide pit next to them. Interspersed in the area along with the burial mounds are former Menominee raised garden beds — considered a true farming feat by those who study them.
“The largest, maybe only, remaining portion of raised agricultural fields in the state of Michigan are in the proposed footprint of the Back Forty,” says David Overstreet, a consulting archaeologist at the College of Menominee Nation. The fields date back more than 1,000 years.
“We don’t know how it was these folks utilized typically poor agricultural soils to modify them and ultimately being able to practice maize agriculture at its northern limits,” Overstreet says. “There are lessons to be learned for all of us.”
The farming wasn’t the Menominee’s only feat — their reservation’s forests have long been a model of sustainable forestry. Miles of rural dairy pastures surrounding the tribe stop abruptly at their reservation, where there’s a wall of trees — towering white pines, hemlocks, oaks, sugar maples, aspens. The dense forest is so out of place in this region that NASA astronauts report seeing it from space.
“All of our neighbors cut everything down,” Cox says. “We wanted this place and landscape to be like other places we occupied, even while everyone was slashing out timber on all sides of us.”
This impressive environmental management led to one of the ugliest blemishes on the U.S. government’s tribal record. In the late 1940s an idea, led by Republican Sen. Arthur Watkins from Utah, gripped Congress to “free” tribes from federal supervision. Land held in federal trust for tribes would be transferred to Indian corporations, federal services like health care and education would end, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be dismantled. Tribes would be terminated.
The Menominee were identified as one of two tribes in the nation to test this hypothesis. Government officials saw the tribe’s abundance of timber and thought forestry could sustain them economically. The tribe at the time had just won a lawsuit for about $8.5 million from the BIA for the mismanagement of some of their forests.
“To get that money, Watkins told them they had to agree to termination,” says Nick Peroff, a professor of public administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who wrote a book on the termination attempt of the Menominee.
The result was disaster.
The termination, official in 1961, ended federal support, as well as tribal hunting and fishing rights, self-governance and rights to land.
The Menominee reservation became Menominee County, which instantly became the poorest county in Wisconsin (and still is). There was a low population, no tax base, and basic services — such as schools, utilities and the reservation hospital, which had relied on federal funds — closed. Lumber was simply not enough.
The toll to the tribe’s functioning, culture and finances was considerable. The only other tribal termination test case, Oregon’s Klamath, suffered a dip into poverty and social disorder, too.
“It was just a really bad idea,” Peroff says. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that the tribe could retain hunting and fishing rights. The Menominee regained full federal recognition as a tribe in 1973 under President Richard Nixon’s Menominee Restoration Act. But the tribe, in many ways, is still dealing with the aftershocks.
“There’s always kind of been an assumption they’d [tribes] assimilate or disappear,” Peroff says. “Very frankly, in some cases that’s still primarily the assumption about Indians.”
Pollution Potential Piles on Cultural Concerns
Rather than disappearing, the Menominee are standing up and getting louder. The river is inseparable from their voice, which is amplifying after many years of being beaten down.
On Sept. 2, Michigan officials announced their intent to approve the mine. The Menominee doubled down on their opposition.
We’re “sickened” and “will continue to fight to protect any land within our ancestral territory that contains the remains of our ancestors and our cultural resources,” tribal chairwoman Joan Delabreau said in a statement.
Extracting metals from sulfide ores can make a mess. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. The acid can then release harmful metals and drain into nearby rivers, lakes and ground water sources — called acid mine drainage.
“It’s an open pit metallic sulfide mine. A vast majority of the rock will end up as acidic waste,” says Al Gedicks, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, whose focus is on mining and Native American communities.
Waste will leach into streams and ground water, he says, adding, “that’s what sulfide waste materials do.”
Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, also worries about the “easy runoff distance” between ore processing and river. “Any mistake — or even a heavy rain storm — puts silt and contaminated waste, metals, sulfides into the Menominee River.”
Cliff Nelson, vice president of U.S. operations at Aquila, says the tailings and waste rock would be held in geomembrane-lined pits. A 1,300-foot cement-clay wall between the waste and the river would keep polluted waste and water on the mining site. The liners — a commonly used barrier in agriculture, landfills and manufacturing to prevent fluids from migrating elsewhere — have been used in mining since the 1970s. It’s not clear what their failure rates are in such uses, but a study reported they are vulnerable to damage when in mining uses because of the large, angular ore and rocks.
Aquila estimates the Back Forty will generate 53 million tons of waste rock and 11 million tons of tailing waste over the mine’s eight-year life.
Water, prior to treatment, would be held in lined pits as well. There are no private drinking wells in the mine’s footprint; the region is on municipal water drawn from Green Bay in Lake Michigan. But the river flows out to the lake.
Locals worry, too: the river is one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the Midwest, Caneff says, and is the spawning ground for roughly half of Lake Michigan’s sturgeon. And angling is a big part of both economy and lifestyle in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin.
Lake sturgeon are a rarity these days in the Great Lakes. The long-living prehistoric looking fish had their populations plummet a century ago due to overfishing, dams and pollution. In recent years there’s been a large push — and millions of dollars spent — to protect and bolster the threatened sturgeon population in Lake Michigan.
“If there was a catastrophe at that mine, it would wipe out a multi-million dollar sturgeon rehab effort in a night,” Caneff says.
Joe Maki, head of the mining division of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, says that there aren’t any mine examples he could use to inspire confidence. “Since the mid-90’s there haven’t been a lot of new mines opening in this region,” he says.
Both Maki and Aquila cite the now shuttered Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin as a model of successful reclamation. The 32-acre open-pit mine in Rusk County, Wisconsin, started operating in 1991. Reclamation began in 1997 and was done two years later, with the site backfilled and replanted with various cover crops, grasses, wildflowers and trees.
Since Flambeau closed a little less than 20 years ago, state officials have reported elevated levels of copper and zinc in nearby waters, which can harm fish. In 2012, a trial court ruled Flambeau violated the Clean Water Act by discharging too much pollution into the Flambeau River and tributaries. An appeals court overturned the ruling, excusing the company because the Wisconsin DNR had failed to place pollution limits for the stream.
Aside from Flambeau’s pollution history, there are other important differences from Aquila’s proposal, Gedicks says. Flambeau processed its ore offsite, not near the river. Back Forty is also roughly 10 times as large as Flambeau.
“Flambeau,” Gedicks adds, “should not inspire any confidence for the Back Forty reclamation. To suggest the Flambeau Mine is a successful reference point is not only misleading but an outright falsification of record.”
Maki admits that he’ll “never be the one to say industrial facilities won’t have any environmental problem.”
“It’s going to happen, that’s the nature of industry,” he says.
The mine is not yet a done deal: Aquila still needs the Michigan DEQ to sign off on its wetland permit and the state will accept public comments on the mine decision, as well as the individual air and surface water permits, for the next two months. The department is required to make a final decision by Dec. 1. There’s also a 2011 ordinance in the township, Lake Township, Michigan, where the mine is located that raises red flags, namely multiple zoning permits that Aquila has not yet attained.
“We’re attempting to work with Lake Township to resolve their issues,” Nelson says. “Certain people just don’t want the mine.”
“I Just Love My Culture”
Lawrence Roberts, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, calls the EPA’s renewed focus on working with tribes to address environmental injustice a big step forward. In 2014 the EPA laid out a set of guidelines to address these inequities.
But there’s still a long way to go. Emma Norman, chair of the Science Department and Native Environmental Science Program at Northwest Indian College in Washington state, says tribes that merge science and tradition and unify with other tribes around shared resources are showing the power of the Native voice.
And she says Native American youth will play a big role in resource protection. “This is the first generation, kids turning into teenagers that are a bit removed from some of the historical trauma,” she says. “They’re being educated within not only their culture but mainstream education, which is a tool.”
The tribe, and others in opposition, will walk in a peaceful protest along the river to the mine site this week. The walk will start at the river’s polluted mouth in Marinette, Wisconsin.
With the water walk, the Menominee hope to tap that cross-generational power. Reiter says he has no problem with Maki and the Aquila folks. “They’re not bad people. I just love my culture.”