"The Trees Will Last Forever": The integrity of their forest signifies the health of the Menominee people.

"The Trees Will Last Forever": The integrity of their forest signifies the health of the Menominee people

When tribal chair Glenn Miller travels, he is proud to say he is Menominee and points to the tribe's forest, which will likely look the same in 500 years as it does now. Not only that, adds David Grignon, a tribal planner. "The forest today is what it was 200 years ago when the Old Ones looked at it. Sometimes I go to just sit there and look around and I know that."

Forty miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the 234,000-acre Menominee Forest covers 95 percent of the reservation and contracts sharply with the surrounding farms. When it was established by treaty with the U.S. government in the mid-nineteenth century, the reservation held an estimated 1.2 billion feet of timber, predominantly northern hard-woods. After 125 years of logging, it has produced 2 billion feet of timber, yet 1.5 billion feet are standing now and the quality of the trees and diversity of species is improving.

The Manominini' niwuk - Wild Rice Men - have lived on these lands between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River for Millennia. In addition to tending small gardens of corn, beans, and squash, they hunted, fished, and gathered forest products to make homes, canoes, wigwam mats, baskets, dishes, buckets, snowshoe frames, and masks. Even before trade with Europeans began, the Menominee imported catlinite for pipe bowls from the Dakota to the west and copper from Algonquians on Lake Superior. According to The Handbook of the North American Indians, they exported wood and stone manufactures to the Winnebago and traded with other Algonquians and Iroquoians further east.

The French and the English didn't interfere with Menominee dominion over their own resources, but with the consolidation of U.S. control over the land between the Mississippi and the Atlantic in the early 1800s, non-Indians settlers moved to both contain and remove indigenous peoples. The Menominee were more fortunate than some tribes, even though they ceded land in 1831, 1832, 1836, 1848, 1854, and 1856. In 1854, the 2,002 Menominee settled on their current 234,000 acres, most of which was thickly forested. About 4,000 Menominee inhabit that land today.

Tribal leaders have recognized the value of forests as both a source of tradition and the means to live in a changing world. Recitations of Menominee oral history always include a charter and a charge, as it were, that is today the spiritual basis for sustained yield management. Quoted in Dreamers Without Power by George Spindler and Louise Spindler, it is said to have been given by nineteenth-century chiefs and headmen:

Start with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, but take only the mature trees, the sick trees, and the tress that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will fast forever.


Upon adopting a relatively sedentary reservation life, the Menominee began cutting timber for homes, fuel, fence posts, and rails. Intense pressure from non-Indians who wanted access to Menominee timber engendered debates within the tribe and eventually led to a decision to encourage Indian lumbering. Thus, in 1871, the Menominee organized a lumber camp. Fifteen years later, they had a sawmill that could handle 15,000 board-feet per day, a shingle mill to finish poorer cuts, a planer, and a lathe mill. These ventures supplied both jobs and lumber for the reservation.

In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which sought to "civilize" Native Americans by dividing tribal estates into parcels owned by individual Indians, while opening the surplus to non-Indians. Menominee resistance to allotment preserved both the collective land base and the integrity of the forest. Instead, the Menominee began commercial logging in 1890 after Congress allowed them to cut 20 million board feet of green timber per year in addition to harvesting dead and downed trees. The law also provided the tribe with a $75,000 loan to tool up, which was paid back nearly in full a year later based on $230,000 in sales.

After a cyclone below down 20 to 30 million board feet of timber in 1906, Wisconsin's progressive U.S. Senator, Robert La Follette, convinced Congress to finance a new mill for the Menominee. According to The Menominee Indians by Patricia Ourada, an electrical plant it both the mill and the adjacent town, where steam from the mill's boilers heated the homes. In addition, mill proceeds supported a hospital on the reservation.

Nevertheless, after an evaluation of the mill operations, the Menominee sued the federal government in 1934, claiming that the U.S. Forest Service was violating Washington's fiduciary responsibility for the tribe. Twenty years later, the Menominee won the suit - and $8.5 million - while in the meantime the situation vastly improved. Writing in 1951, Robert Ritzenthaler noted that though non-Indians managed the mill, it employed between 350 and 550 workers, most of whom were Indian. Proceeds supported a school at Neopit and supplied most of the operating costs for the 50-bed hospital. The mill paid the salaries of two doctors, eight nurses, and an orthdodonist, as well as those of four policemen, six night watchmen, a truant officer, a game warden, and a welfare administrator. And it supported a tribal loan fund of nearly $500,000 and paid a yearly stumpage dividend of $30 to $50 to each of 2,900 tribal members. All the while, the forest was managed on a sustained-yield basis.

Success was the Menominee's undoing. Recommitted to the idea of assimilating individuals rather than negotiations between sovereign nations, Congress targeted the Menominee for "termination" as a "domestic dependent nation" after World War II. To Congress, the Menominee were clearly not dependent on the federal government. Gordon Dickie, who has been involved in tribal politics for 50 years, says that Arthur Watkins, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, visited the reservation in 1953 and told the Menominee that if they wanted the money from the lawsuit, they would have to agree to termination, though what that meant wasn't spelled out.

Within three years, Congress did in fact terminate the Menominee. Seven years later, in 1961, their territory was the poorest county in the state. While the force of law supported the Menominee commitment to sustained-yield management of the forest, economic necessity, including the need to pay state property taxes, threatened this commitment.

The "Cowboy Years" followed, characterized by big roads, bid equipment, and lots of cutting - and not only of trees. The tribal estate was transferred to Menominee Enterprises Incorporated, which was run by a trust of three tribal members and four non-Indians. MEI divested itself of the hospital and the utilities. It also went into partnership with a developer who created Legend Lake and sold 1,568 vacation-home lots to non-indians.

Fear and anger over the alienation of tribal lands motivated a grassroots movement known as DRUMS - Determination of Rights and Unity of Menominee Shareholders, DRUMS initiated a campaign to end the land sales, leading to the restoration of the Menominee to the status of a federally recognized tribe in 1973.


Through these informations, the Menominee nurtured the spirit of the chiefs who had articulated the basis of sustained yield forestry. At the same time, indigenous belief that each life form is a "person' to be respected for its knowledge and power pervades the pursuit of the material conditions of life. These values are realized daily in the practice of Menominee forestry.

Since restoration to tribal status in 1973, Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the "business wing of the tribe," has run the forests and logging operations. The task of managing the different timber types on the reservation falls to the "Menominee team" made up of MTE foresters, Bureau of Indian Affairs foresters, and liaison foresters from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The tribal legislature has the final authority over all land-use decisions.

Running MTE is an elected board of directors of men and women, mill workers and managers, employees and non-employees, catholics and traditionals. MTE employs just over 105 hourly and 20 salaried workers. The president receives $45,000, or just over three times as much as the lowest-paid employee. Long tenure in the mill is the rule, although people move from one position to another with some regularity - 95 percent of tribal members in the mill have never worked anywhere else. There are management families, logging families, mill families, even kiln families in a pattern that may be viewed as a contemporary version of traditional clan relations.

About once every 15 years since 1945, the Menominee have compiled a Forest Management Plan using detailed cutting records that date back to the 1890s. The plan is a blueprint for action, encompassing inventory data, procedures for calculating and controlling the cut on various species, and policies governing forest development, protection, and logging. In general, it lays out how to manage the forest under a sustained-yield mandate in the Menominee Constitution, which was adopted in 1976.

The heart of Menominee forest management are the Continuous Forest Inventory and Operational Stand Exams, which together measure changes in the forest and organize management policy. Each inventory, conducted in 1963, 1970, 1979 and 1989, has shown more standing timber than in the previous assessment, while the forest has yielded 600 million board feet over those 26 years.

The plan divides the forest into 14 cover types, each defined by its mix of tree species. For example, beech, maple, and hemlock grow together and constitute one type. Each type has its own prescription for cultivating a forest, which is the harvest management scheme for maximizing quality and volume. Only the growth of fully stocked stands of trees determines the annual allowable cut - that it, siliviculture determines how much wood is cut, not market forces. (The growth of understocked areas isn't included, leading some state and private foresters to consider the Menominee overly conservative.)

About 6,000 acres of woodland are marked for harvest each year and opened to 20 or so Indian and non-Indian independent logging contractors who bid competitively to cut between 250,000 and 3 million board feet each. Logging goes on in dry weather between June and the spring thaw, with about 50 crews in the forest at any one time. Menominee logging engineers visit the crews twice a week to insure they are practicing low-impact harvesting methods. These techniques, taught at a compulsory training session during the spring shutdown, not only help account for the vitality of all species but also help maintain species that are declining throughout the region, including Canada yew, white cedar, hemlock, and red oak.

While the forest management is admired, the sawmill operation has not followed the same progressive pattern. "We were sawing logs in 1908, and we are sawing logs in 1992," says Dickey. "We should be diversified." Instead, in the mid-1970s. MTE decided to follow conventional wisdom and modernize the mill at Neopit to improve the production of processing finished products. This decision appears to be part of the conservatism that works well in managing the forest, but it is less successful at responding to changing marketing needs in the world economy.

Until recently, the need to run the mill as a kind of employment agency prevented MTE from making any significant changes. Any tribal member could work at the mill. Now, however, the success of gambling on the reservation has alleviated pressure on the mill, and MTE plans a number of changes. A top priority is installing a smaller bandsaw so that the mill can make smaller logs into lumber instead of processing them into chips for paper pulp.

MTE is also looking into streamlining its planning operation to produce more and different types of siding. The Menominee would also like to dry more wood and install wood-burning steam turbines to generate their own electrical power again.

Ironically, one obstacle comes from the commitment to forestry stewardship, which constrains the ability to respond to short-term market changes because only forest growth determines how much of each species the mill will get. Nevertheless, the forest delivers a fairly constant flow of species, and since forest and mill are permanently related, the mill's ability to accurately know both the volume and grades of wood it will receive is a great marketing advantage. As a result, 90 percent of MTE's processed lumber goes to long-standing U.S. customers who pay 10 to 20 percent over the market price to get the high-quality wood the mill consistently delivers.

When MTE turns a profit, the directors divide it into two shares. One is reinvested, the other goes to the tribe, which decides whether to distribute it to tribal members, operations, or both. Unfortunately, its forestry enterprises have cost the Menominee $3.5 million since 1978. The dissolution of the trust fund during termination undermined the financial stability of the forestry program. That, along with debt incurred in the 1970s modernization, has contributed to MTE's precarious situation.


Despite the current difficulties, during most of its history - especially before the tribe was terminated in 1954 - the Menominee forest and mill were consistently financially stable and profitable. Not only was the mill the main employer but it supported various social services and contributed $2 million to the tribe's trust fund.

Today, although 350 to 400 Menominees work in the gambling operation and for the tribe, and although the tribe receive money from state and federal sources, this remains a forest-based economy. Without the forest and the mill, there would be no distinct economy at Menominee. "MTE is something to be proud of," notes Edward Teller, who teaches the Menominee language and cultural studies at the high school. "It represents self-sufficiency."

There are occasional tussles over non-timber uses of the forest as some traditionalist criticize tribal control of the land base. Menominee people retain rights to the forest to hunt, fish, make maple sugar, and gather berries, medicines, ginseng, and firewood. Each year, a few people tap 100 to 150 trees for maple syrup. Tribal members have the right to gather as much firewood as they need, although they may need a permit to do so. Conflicts between timber and non-timber users of the forest are infrequent, but when they arise they are dealt with via the ancient and effective informal methods that kinship-based communities use to hold members accountable to shared values.

For the Menominee, these values underlie the commitment to the forest and the philosophy and practice of sustained yield management. While legal constraints ensure that the forest and mill are well managed, such guarantees arise from Menominee culture and history. This land is the center of the Menominee world, and the forest creates the possibility of being, becoming, and remaining Menominee.

In other words, the integrity of the forest signifies the health of the Menominee people. It was the sale of tribal land and the cutting of trees for the benefit of non-Menominees that precipitated the revolution that restored it as a federal tribe. And it is the continuing stewardship of the forest that defines the Menominee as a people and provides continuity between the past and future.


Steve Heckman, Menominee Forestry Grows, Menominee Tribal Enterprises, 1989.

Robert Ritzenthaler, "The Menominee Indian Sawmill: A Successful Community Project," Wisconsin Archeologist, 1951.


In March 1992, Menominee Tribal Enterprises became the first U.S. - based indigenous forestry venture to receive approval from Scientific Certification Systems (Green Cross). Any product derived from the MTE can now bear a consumer label stating that it comes from a sustainably managed timber operation. With this endorsement, the Menominee hope to improve their access to wood markets that place a high value on proper forest stewardship. Certification could draw even more attention to the Menominee as leaders in the forest industry in the Great Lakes region.

The idea of promoting "good wood" by applying consumer labels to wood products is a growing trend. This raises several issues. For example, how will certification programs affect indigenous people? And how can indigenous people help shape these programs? To answer these questions, a new international organization is reaching out to indigenous organizations around the world. Established to encourage good stewardship of forests, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has given itself an ambitious goal: to set a global standard for good forest management.

The council intends to champion environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world's forests. Its main strategy for achieving this is based on gaining wide recognition and respect for "Principals of Good Forest Management." The council hopes to spearhead the application of these Principles through an accreditation program for claims that forests products come from well-managed forests.

One highlight of a set of "Draft Principles and Criteria" outlined by an FSC Founding Group is the importance of social criteria in assessing the long-term health of forests. According to the FSC, sustainability of forest resources and social benefits for forest people and the wider society are inextricably linked. People with strong ties to and traditional interests in the forest have a powerful incentive to sustain their resources and adhere to long-term management plans.

The founders are currently soliciting input on the Draft Principles, evaluating the feasibility of accreditation and certification, and discussing an structure of the FSC. They are reaching out to a wide variety of interest groups, both by targeting people that would be affected by its activities and by conducting assessments in selected in Switzerland and Peru and planned for New Guinea, Sweden, Malaysia, Great Britain, Ghana, Brazil, and the Pacific Northwest of North America. The First FSC General Assembly will be held in September in Toronto, Canada.

For further information or to contribute to this process, contact Jamie Ervin, R.R. 1, Box 188, Richmond. VT 05477 (802)434-3101; fax; (802)434-3171; e-mail; jervine@igc.org.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: