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Native Resistance to Multinational Mining Corporations in Wisconsin

Native resistance to multinational mining corporations in Wisconsin has been growing for over two decades. It started in 1975 when Exxon discovered the large Crandon zinc-copper sulfide deposit in Forest County, one mile upstream of the wild rice beds of the Mole Lake Chippewa (Ojibwe) Reservation, five miles downwind of the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream of the Menominee Nation.

As local opposition intensified in the mid-1980s, Exxon withdrew from the project, citing low metal prices. But the company returned in 1993, this time with a new partner, Canadian-based Rio Algom. Much had changed since Exxon first proposed the mine. The Mole Lake Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Mohican (Stockbridge-Munsee) had opened casinos, generating income that enabled them more effectively to fight mining companies in the courts and in the arena of public opinion. The four tribes formed the Nii Win Intertribal Council (Nii Win is Ojibwe for "four"), which immediately began hiring lawyers and technical experts to challenge Exxon/Rio Algom's mine permit application. They had also purchased a house across the road from the proposed mine site so that they might monitor all activities there. The Oneida Nation, which is downstream from the mine site near Green Bay, also joined the opposition. Today, the Crandon mine still has not opened.

The economic, cultural, and spiritual center for the Mole Lake (Sokaogon) Chippewa is their wild rice lake. The rice, called manomin (gift from the creator), is an essential part of the Chippewa diet, an important cash crop, and a sacred part of the band's religious rituals. The mine would generate sulfuric acid wastes, use toxic chemicals in ore processing (including up to 20 tons of cyanide a month), and reduce groundwater tables in the area because of the constant dewatering of the proposed underground mine. The Chippewa were not reassured when Exxon's biologist mistook their wild rice for a "bunch of lake weeds." The construction at the headwaters of the pristine Wolf River of the largest toxic mine waste dump in state history would pose an unacceptable economic and environmental risk to the downstream tourist industry on this Class 1 trout stream. Frances Van Zile, a tribal elder and leader of the opposition to mining, says, "these people [from the mining company] don't care about us. They don't care if we live or die. All they want is that copper and zinc."

To protect tribal resources and assert tribal sovereignty, the Mole Lake Chippewa have developed a multifaceted strategy that includes: (1) developing tribal water regulatory authority under the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act; (2) joining with their non-Indian neighbors in the Town of Nashville to oppose the mine and develop economic alternatives to mining jobs; and (3) developing statewide and international anti-mining alliances.

Tribal Water Regulatory Authority

A federal court decision recognized Chippewa treaty rights in 1983. When Exxon, Noranda, Rio Tinto, and other companies renewed their interest in metallic minerals in Chippewa ceded territory around 1992, these treaties became a factor in the mining controversy. They do not cover mineral rights, but Native nations interpret their guarantees to mean that any degradation of off-reservation resources would be an "environmental violation" of the treaties, giving them legal standing in federal court to challenge harmful projects. Mining proponents, such as State Administration Secretary (and former Exxon lobbyist) James Klauser, unsuccessfully pressured the Mole Lake and Lac du Flambeau Chippewa to "lease" their treaty rights in exchange for money.

Tribal lands were ignored in the original versions of many federal environmental laws of the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. To remedy this exclusion, amendments to these laws have been enacted to give tribes the authority to enforce environmental standards. In 1995 the Mole Lake Chippewa became the first Wisconsin tribe granted independent authority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate water quality on their reservation. The tribe's wild rice beds are just a mile downstream from the proposed Crandon mine. Tribal regulatory authority affects all upstream industrial and municipal facilities, including the proposed mine. Because Swamp Creek flows into the tribe's rice lake, the tribe has to give approval for any upstream discharges that might degrade their wild rice beds.

Within a week of EPA approval of Mole Lake's water quality authority, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle sued the EPA and the tribe in federal court, demanding that the federal government reverse its decision. A petition urging Doyle to drop the lawsuit was signed by 26 environmental groups, two neighboring townships, and 454 people in 121 communities around the state. In April 1999, the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee dismissed the Wisconsin lawsuit and upheld the tribe's right to establish water-quality standards to protect its wild rice beds. The state is appealing this decision. Four townships downstream from the proposed mine have signed on as friends of the court for the EPA and the tribe.

Meanwhile, after five years of opposition from the state of Wisconsin and the state's largest business lobby, the Forest County Potawatomi won approval of their Class 1 air quality designation from the EPA. This decision allows the tribe to designate their 11,000 acres as Class 1, the highest air designation possible. No new facilities that release more than 250 tons of particulate per year will be permitted. The mine is expected to emit about 247 tons of particulates into the air each year. If either tribal air or water quality standards would be violated by the proposed mine, the tribes can deny air or water quality permits necessary for mine approval.

Local Cooperation for Alternatives

After the recognition of Chippewa treaty rights in 1983, white sportsmen held sometimes violent protests against Chippewa off-reservation spearfishing. Anti-treaty groups accused the Chippewa of destroying the fish and local tourism economy, even though the tribes never took more than three percent of the fish. By 1992, increased cultural education, a federal court injunction against anti-Indian harassment, and a Witness for Nonviolence monitoring program lessened the violence.

Because anti-treaty groups refused to oppose the mining companies, they began to lose their environmental image. The tribes saw this development as an opportunity to build bridges with certain sportfishing groups. Even at the height of the spearing clashes, late Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walter Bresette predicted a realization by non-Indian northerners that environmental and economic problems are more of a threat to their lifestyle than Indians who go out and spear fish. He said, "we have more in common with the anti-Indian people than we do with the state of Wisconsin." In 1993, Rio Tinto's Kennecott company opened the Ladysmith mine in Rusk County (which operated for four years), but Native and non-Native op- ponents stopped Noranda's mining plans south of Lac du Flambeau.

By 1996, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project (founded by the Midwest Treaty Network) began to coordinate a series of anti-mine speaking tours around the state, bringing tribal representatives to communities that had never heard a Native American speak publicly. Fishing organizations and sportsmen's clubs began strongly to oppose the Crandon mine and the metallic mining district proposed by pro-mine interests. Mining companies had perhaps felt that sportfishing groups would never join hands with the tribes, yet the "inconceivable" came to pass: sportfishers realized that if metallic sulfide mines were allowed to contaminate rivers with sulfuric acid, there might be nothing left to argue about.

The same year, the Mole Lake Chippewa joined with their non-Indian neighbors in the Town of Nashville (which covers half of the mine site and includes the reservation), not only to fight the mine proposal, but to chart economic alternatives to mining development. In December, 1996 the Nashville town board signed a local mining agreement with Exxon/Rio Algom after a number of illegally closed meetings and despite the objection of a majority of township residents. The town board was replaced in the April, 1997 election by an anti-mining board that included a Mole Lake tribal member. In September, 1998 the new town board rescinded the local agreement. Without this agreement from the town, the state cannot grant a mining permit. The mining company has sued the town for violation of contract. The township countersued, charging that the local agreement "resulted from a conspiracy by the mining company and the town's former attorneys to defraud the town of its zoning authority over the proposed mining operations." To raise funds for its defense, the town has set up its own Web site ( to explain how people can donate money to a legal defense fund in what the town calls a "David and Goliath" showdown. The case is due for a decision in late February 2001.

Cooperative relations between the town and the Mole Lake tribe were further strengthened when they received a $2.5 million grant from the federal government to promote long term sustainable jobs in this impoverished community. Together with surrounding townships, the Menominee Nation, the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, and the Mole Lake Chippewa formed the Northwoods Niijii (the Chippewa word for "friends") Enterprise Community. Now Indians and non-Indians are working together to provide a clear alternative to the unstable boom and bust cycle that mining would bring to their communities. If successful, the unique project could bring in an additional $7- 10 million to these communities over the next decade. This effort, combined with the casinos that have made the tribes the largest employers in Forest County, has dampened the appeal of mining jobs for many local residents. Indian gaming, while not providing an economic panacea for many tribes, has enabled them to finance legal and public relations fights against mining companies.

Statewide and International Alliances

The Crandon project appeared doomed in 1998 when the state legislature passed a "mining moratorium" law requiring mining companies to show single example of a "safe" metallic sulfide mine elsewhere i North America, but the law was subsequently undermined by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The concurrent upsurge in environmental activism around the state, however, convinced Exxon to turn the Crandon project over to its partner, Rio Algom, which in October, 2000 was purchased by the London-based South African company, Billiton. Company spokesman Marc Gonsalves soon reported that i had received an "endless stream of e-mails" from Wisconsin mining opponents.

The Crandon mine permit process moves forward in the DNR and federal agencies. Mine opponents have proposed a ban on cyanide use in Wisconsin nines and have challenged groundwater models used by the company. A second strategy involves opposition to proposed power lines. The new mine would require electrical power to process the ores. Proposed transmission lines from Duluth, Minnesota would take power from hydroelectric dams that flood Manitoba Cree lands, transmit it on high-voltage lines that threaten northwestern Wisconsin farmers and the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa Reservation, and use it to power the Crandon mine at Mole Lake. A new rural alliance has grown up against the transmission lines that closely resembles the grassroots Native/non-Native alliance against the mine, and the two alliances have cooperated closely.

The longer the Crandon project is delayed, the more the global mining industry expresses frustration. The international industry journal North American Mining in 1998 discussed Wisconsin as one of the industry's main global battlegrounds, where "the increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental special interest groups [has] made permitting a impossibility." The journal of the National Mining Association had earlier complained that Wisconsin "barbarians in cyberspace" were dis g anti-corporate tactics around the world through the Internet. The Mining Environmental Management Journal in 2000 portrayed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project as an "example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global mining industry."


What mining companies are confronting in northern Wisconsin is an environmental movement they have not yet experienced -- a broad, multiracial, rural-based, grassroots alliance. The alliance has brought together Native American nations and sportfishing groups, environmentalists and unionists, and retired local residents and t ban students. The movement does not simply address endangered species, but endangered Native cultures and endangered rural economies as well. It also recognizes that treaties and sovereign status offer Native nations unique legal powers to protect the local environment and economy for Indians and non-Indians alike.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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