Defending a Common Home: Native/non-Native Alliances Against Mining Corporations in Wisconsin

April 2010

By Al Gedicks & Zoltán Grossman

Al Gedicks is an environmental and Indigenous rights activist and scholar. In 1977 he founded the Center for Alternative Mining Development Policy to assist Indian tribes and rural communities in the upper midwestern US in resisting ecologically destructive mining projects. He teaches at the Department of Sociology in the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.

Zoltán Grossman is Assistant Professor of Geography and American Indian Studies, University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He has been a long-term organizer for Native American rights and environmental protection. His Ph.D. dissertation (2002) focuses on treaty conflicts and environmental cooperation between Native American and rural White communities.

Native resistance to multinational mining corporations in northern Wisconsin has been growing for over two decades. It started in 1975 when Exxon discovered the large Crandon zinc/copper sulphite deposit in Forest County, one mile upstream of the wild rice beds of the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation, five miles downwind of the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation, and 40 miles (via the Wolf River) upstream of the Menominee Nation. A quarter-century later, after a series of five mining companies were involved in the project, the proposed mine has been defeated and the mine site is owned by two neighbouring tribes.

The site lies on territory sold by the Chippewa (Ojibwe) Nation to the United States in 1842, and directly on a 12-square-mile tract of land promised to the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa in 1855 (Danziger 1978: 153). Treaties guaranteed Chippewa access to wild rice, fish and some wild game on ceded lands. But the economic, cultural and spiritual centre of the Mole Lake Chippewa is their wild rice lake. The rice, called manomin, or ‘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 Crandon/Mole Lake mine would have extracted approximately 55 million tons of sulphite ore during the thirty-year life of the project. Over its lifetime, the mine would generate 44 million tons of wastes–the equivalent of eight Great Pyramids of Egypt (WDNR 1986: ii; World Book 1987: 810a). When metallic sulphite wastes have contact with water and air, the potential result is sulphuric acid, plus high levels of poisonous heavy metals such as mercury, lead, zinc, arsenic, copper and cadmium. The mine would also 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’. 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’ (personal interview 1994).

The construction of the largest toxic mine waste dump in state history at the headwaters of the pristine Wolf River poses an unacceptable economic and environmental risk to the downstream tourist industry on this Class I trout stream. As local opposition increased, Exxon withdrew from the project in 1986, citing low metal prices. But in 1993, Exxon returned, this time with a new partner, the Canadian-based Rio Algom.

Much had changed since Exxon had first proposed the mine. The Mole Lake Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi and Mohican (Stockbridge–Munsee) had opened casinos, generating income that enabled them to fight mining companies more effectively in the courts and in the arena of public opinion. The four tribes formed the NiiWin Intertribal Council (NiiWin is Chippewa for ‘four’). NiiWin immediately began hiring lawyers and technical experts to challenge Exxon/Rio Algom’s mine permit application. They also purchased a NiiWin house on a seven-acre parcel across the road from the proposed mine site, to monitor all activities at the site. The Oneida Nation, which is downstream from the mine near Green Bay, also joined the opposition.

To protect tribal resources and assert tribal sovereignty, the Mole Lake Chippewa developed a multifaceted strategy that includes: (1) building national and international support by networking with Native rights groups, and challenging Exxon through shareholder resolutions; (2) developing a state-wide alliance to educate the non-Indian public about mining, and pass a mining moratorium law; (3) joining in local alliances with their non-Indian neighbours in the town of Nashville to oppose the mine and develop economic alternatives to mining jobs; and (4) developing tribal regulatory authority under the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.

The attitudes of neighbouring non-Indian communities had also changed since the Chippewa treaty rights controversy of the late 1980s. After a federal court decision recognized Chippewa treaty-rights in 1983, White sportsmen had held sometimes violent protests against Chippewa off-reservation spearfishing. Anti-treaty groups had accused the Chippewa of destroying the fish and local tourism economy, even though the tribes never took more than 3 per cent of the fish (Strickland 1990: 24). Although tribal members themselves tended to frame their identities around their tribal ethnicity, the protesters grouped all Indians together as a single ‘race’ that was afforded ‘special treatment’. Riot police from around the state were deployed at northern lakes during the spring spearfishing seasons, while anti-treaty mobs attacked Chippewa spearers and their families with rocks, bottles, boat and vehicle assaults, sniper fire and pipe bombs. The anti-treaty groups were practising ‘geographies of exclusion’, which portrayed the Chippewa as ‘out of place’ outside the boundaries of their reservations. This attitude was summed up in the ironic White protesters’ chant of ‘Indians Go Home’.

The Chippewa received support from Witnesses for Nonviolence, who monitored the anti-Indian harassment and violence with cameras and recorders. By 1992, increased cultural education, a federal court injunction against anti-Indian harassment, and the deterrent effect of the Witnesses’ presence lessened the violence at the boat landings. The spearfishing conflict had ironically overcome the ‘invisibility’ of Native Americans in Wisconsin, and educated the non-Indian majority about the legal powers of Native sovereignty on the reservations, treaty rights outside the reservation, and the continuing vitality of Indigenous cultures. Prejudice against Native Americans continued, but the organized anti-Indian groups went into a decline.

The spearfishing and mining conflicts in Wisconsin tell a story of racial/ ethnic confrontation turning into environmental cooperation, of distinct boundaries between reservations and non-Indian towns blurring with common watersheds, and of places of fear turning into places of opportunity. These changes took place in the 1990s in areas of the state where they were least expected–where tension between Native Americans and non-Natives had been the most intense. In the process, two communities that had viewed each other as ‘outsiders’ began to redefine each other as ‘insiders’ in a common place, under siege by new and more threatening ‘outsiders’: multinational mining corporations.

Treaties as Obstacles to Mining

When Exxon, Noranda, Rio Tinto and other companies renewed their interest in metallic minerals in Chippewa-ceded territory around 1992, the same treaties became a factor in the mining controversy. The treaties 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 took a position against treaty rights as a potential legal obstacle to development of a mining district in the lands ceded by Chippewa treaties. State administration secretary (and former Exxon lobbyist) James Klauser had in 1990 unsuccessfully pressured the Mole Lake and Lac du Flambeau Chippewa to ‘lease’ their treaty rights in exchange for money. The Wisconsin Counties Association, viewing the treaties as a potential legal obstacle both to county timber income and to mining, took the lead in organizing county governments around the USA to oppose treaty rights. Yet on the question of mining, the perspective of most environmentally minded sportfishers was closer to the tribes. When the tribes asked anti-treaty groups to take a stand against mining’s potential environmental threat to the fishery, the groups either refused to take a stand or sided with the mining companies.

Because anti-treaty groups refused to oppose the mining companies, they began to lose their ‘environmentalist’ image in the eyes of many of their followers, and the tribes saw new opportunities to build bridges to certain sportfishing groups. Even at the height of the spearing clashes, the late Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walter Bresette had predicted that non-Indian northerners would realize that environmental and economic problems are ‘more of a threat to their lifestyle than Indians who go out and spearfish . . . we have more in common with the anti-Indian people than we do with the state of Wisconsin’ (Midwest Treaty Network 1991: 1).

The irony of the treaty rights conflict in northern Wisconsin had been that Chippewa spearfishers and anti-treaty protesters shared certain basic values. Fishing has long been a central cultural icon for both groups, and the northwoods region was a strong source of territorial identity. The difference between the groups involved how the fishing would be exercised, and especially where it would take place (Silvern 1995: 269–73). The two groups constructed ‘place’ identities in different ways, with the Chippewa expanding the view of their territory into the treaty-ceded lands where they had been excluded for decades, and the sportfishing protesters (with backing from state regulatory authorities) seeing the Chippewa ‘in their place’ only within the boundaries of the reservation. Both groups, however, portrayed their fishing method or ethic as best suiting the long-term conservation of the fishery.

The most pejorative term used throughout both the spearing and mining conflicts was the label ‘outsider’. Anti-treaty protesters used the label against both the Chippewa and the non-Native treaty supporters. Mining companies deployed the label, often successfully, against urban-based environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Local environmentalists and tribal members, however, quickly labelled the multinational companies ‘outsiders’, and in so doing increasingly won the support of their former local White adversaries. In so doing, they began to use ‘geographies of inclusion’ to redefine parts of northern Wisconsin as a common home for both Native and non-Native residents. Instead of continuing the conflict over allocation of the fishery, both groups began to cooperate to protect the fishery against a common outside threat.

In 1993, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott company opened the Ladysmith mine, 100 miles to the west of the Crandon deposit in northwestern Wisconsin, and 30 miles south of the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa reservation. The mine opened despite a successful court challenge by the tribe and the Sierra Club, charging that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) had failed to conduct endangered resource surveys in the Flambeau River as required by law. The court issued an injunction against mine construction until a supplemental environmental assessment of endangered species was completed. The tribe and the Sierra Club accused the WDNR of conducting a whitewash study but were unable to pursue the case because of a lack of funds (Gedicks 1993: 159). The mine closed after four years.

Native and non-Native opponents, however, stopped Noranda’s plans to open the Lynne mine in Oneida County, 30 miles south of the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa reservation. The area was one of the hotbeds of militancy against spearfishing, but local environmentalists nevertheless built a working relationship with Lac du Flambeau after Noranda announced its plans in 1990. Sportsmen also joined the opposition, to protect the rich fishing and hunting grounds around the Willow Flowage. The unexpectedly strong opposition, combined with questions about the mine’s potential damage to wetlands, convinced Noranda to withdraw by 1993.

This multiracial alliance of tribes, environmentalists and sportfishers was strengthened by renewed opposition to the Crandon mine along the Wolf River. In a series of meetings and gatherings in 1992–95, different grassroots groups met to coordinate opposition to the mine. As tribes won their treaty rights and opened new casinos in the early 1990s, their legal and financial ability to protect the off-reservation environment was improved, to the advantage of Native and non-Native communities alike.

Building National and International Support

The mining battle in northern Wisconsin received increased attention in 1994, when the Indigenous Environmental Network and Midwest Treaty Network co-sponsored a gathering at Mole Lake that drew a thousand participants from around North America. As part of the gathering, a citizen-initiated Wisconsin Review Commission on the Track Records of Exxon and Rio Algom heard testimony by native people from Colombia, Alaska, New Mexico and Ontario about the environmental, cultural and economic practices of the two companies then planning the Crandon mine. Although the commission had no official standing, its findings were reported in statewide media. The International Indian Treaty Council also helped bring Mole Lake’s concerns about the Crandon mine to the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, held at the United Nations in Geneva.

The Mole Lake Chippewa have also developed ties with various church groups that held stock in several mining companies and who were willing to raise issues of social and corporate responsibility through shareholder resolutions. Shortly after Exxon announced its intention to seek mining permits at Crandon/Mole Lake, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters of Wisconsin, along with six other religious congregations, filed a shareholder resolution on behalf of the Mole Lake Chippewa and the other Native communities affected by Exxon’s proposed mining operations. The resolution specifically asked Exxon to provide a report to shareholders on the impact of the proposed mine on Indigenous peoples and on any sacred sites within Indigenous communities. The resolution also called on Exxon to disclose ‘the nature of and reason(s) for any public opposition to our Company’s mining operations wherever they may occur’ (Exxon 1994: 16).

After an unsuccessful attempt to omit the Sinsinawa resolution from their 1994 proxy statement, Exxon’s board of directors had to face the Chippewa on the company’s home turf. Tribal judge Fred Ackley and Frances Van Zile spoke to the resolution and explained to shareholders that the very existence of their culture was at stake in the proposed mine. The resolution received 6 per cent of the vote, representing 49 million shares. Most shareholder resolutions of this type receive less than 3 per cent of the vote. While the resolution was defeated, the Chippewa won enough votes to reintroduce it at the 1995 shareholders’ meeting and remain a thorn in Exxon’s side.

Building Statewide Coalitions

By 1996, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project (a campaign of 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. A spring 1996 speaking tour along the Wolf and Wisconsin rivers educated twenty-two communities about the Crandon mine, and the company’s proposed 38-mile liquid waste pipeline from the mine to the Wisconsin River. The tour culminated with a rally of a thousand people in Rhinelander, at the company headquarters and the pipeline’s proposed outlet.

Fishing organizations and sportsmen’s clubs began strongly and publicly to oppose the Crandon mine and the metallic mining district proposed by pro-mine interests. The tourism industry–the Wolf River watershed’s economic lifeblood–also began to realize that urban tourists may not be drawn to the area’s clean lakes and rivers if mines were allowed to open. Mining companies had perhaps felt that sportfishing groups would never join hands with the tribes, yet some slowly realized that if metallic sulphite mines were allowed to contaminate rivers with sulphuric acid, there might not be edible fish left to argue about. The American Rivers group had already identified the Wolf River as the fifth most endangered river in the USA, and the Federation of Fly Fishers would later warn that the river is the most threatened in the country.

Sentiment against metallic sulphite mining spread throughout the state in 1996. A blockade by Bad River Chippewa prevented trains from supplying sulphuric acid to a mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Chippewa were concerned that a spill from tankers would poison their reservation water. But they were equally concerned about the mining company’s proposal to inject sulphuric acid into old mine shafts and pump the solution out of the mine and recover the minerals that the acid dissolved. The blockade received so much non-Indian public support that the mine operation was closed. A spokesman for the Crandon Mining Co. told a reporter they were viewing the conflict ‘with a little more heightened tension’ (Imrie 1996). The blockade convinced mining opponents and proponents alike that the tribes and their allies will never back down even if a Crandon permit is ever granted.

Sinking Roots in Local Alliances

In the same year of 1996, the Mole Lake Chippewa joined with their non-Indian neighbours in Nashville (which covers half 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 objections of a majority of township residents. The former 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 the company, 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’ (Seely 1999). To raise funds to defend itself, the town set up its own website to explain how people can donate money for a legal defence fund in what the town calls a ‘David and Goliath’ showdown. In January 2002 a state appeals court upheld the 1996 local agreement.

Cooperative relations between the town and the Mole Lake tribe were further strengthened when they received a US$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 Mole Lake formed the Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community (NiiJii being the Chippewa word for ‘friends’). 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 US$7 to 10 million to these communities over the next decade. This effort, combined with 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 some tribes to finance legal and public relations fights against the mining companies. One of these fights used federally recognized tribal sovereignty to enhance environmental protection of reservation lands.

Tribal Water and Air Regulatory Authority

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 same standing as states to enforce environmental standards. In 1995 the Mole Lake Chippewa became the first Wisconsin tribe granted independent authority by the US 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 would affect 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 to let Indian tribes make their own water pollution laws. A petition urging Doyle to drop the lawsuit was signed by twenty-six environmental groups, two neighbouring townships, and 454 people in 121 communities around the state. In April 1999, the US 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 appealed this decision. Four townships downstream from the proposed mine signed on as ‘friends of the court’ on the side of the EPA and the tribe. In June 2002, the US Supreme Court let stand the lower court decision.

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 I air quality designation from the EPA. This allows the tribe to designate their 11,000 acres as Class I, the highest air designation possible. No new facilities that release more than 250 tons of particulate per year would 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 should be violated by the proposed mine, the tribes can deny air or water quality permits necessary for mine approval.

The Mining Moratorium Campaign

Besides building local alliances between the tribes, environmental and sportfishing groups, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project’s speaking tours in 1996–97 built public support for legislative passage of a sulphite mining moratorium bill that would prohibit the opening of a new mine in a sulphite ore body until a similar mine had been operated for ten years elsewhere and closed for ten years without pollution from acid mine drainage. The movement for a sulphite mine ban originally developed out of the Rusk County Citizens Action Group in Ladysmith (site of Rio Tinto’s Flambeau mine) and was developed into a piece of legislation at the initiative of the Menominee Nation’s Mining Impacts and Treaty Rights office and with the assistance of State Representative Spencer Black (D–Madison). The legislation became a rallying point for the Native American, environmental and sportfishing group coalition as well as for the powerful pro-mine lobby in the state.

The mining companies and pro-mining Wisconsin Association of Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) responded to the speaking tours and the moratorium campaign with newspaper ads, radio ads, a US$1 million blitz of television ads, and a US$1 million lobbying effort. Nevertheless, in March 1998, the legislature passed the moratorium bill after initially successful attempts to weaken it, and pro-mining Republican Governor Tommy Thompson was forced to sign the bill to ensure his re-election. The Crandon project appeared doomed to many when the ‘mining moratorium’ law was signed; yet the new law did not stop the mine permit process, but rather provided another hurdle at the projected end of the permit process in about 2004.

The upsurge in environmental activism around the state, however, convinced Exxon to turn the Crandon project over to its partner Rio Algom. The Canadian company put the pipeline plan on the back burner, instead proposing on-site waste treatment in perpetuity. It submitted three ‘example mines’ to meet the criteria of the moratorium law (even though two of the mines had not been both open and closed for periods of ten years). In May 2002, the WDNR rejected the only example mine that had been both open and closed for periods of ten years because it failed to demonstrate that it had operated without harm to the environment. Finally, in August 2002, the WDNR concluded that potentially polluted groundwater from the mine may travel twenty-two times faster and reach pollution levels five times higher than the company’s predictions, thus threatening local drinking water (Imrie, 2002).

A New Type of Environmental Movement

The moratorium and subsequent mining battles in Wisconsin have seen small grassroots groups using old-fashioned education and organizing to slow down the multinational mining corporations. They drew on Wisconsin’s history of environmental ethics, as the home of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and the Menominee Chief Oshkosh. They also drew on Wisconsin’s tradition of populist and progressive politics, with a dose of mistrust of corporations and their collaborators in government. The groups identified with a regional resentment by people (regardless of race) in northern Wisconsin, which has been historically poorer than the south, and neglected by the state government, while at the same time respecting Native nations’ perseverance in defending their tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.

Resource corporations are used to dealing with stereotypical environmental groups, made up largely of White, urban, upper-middle-class twenty-somethings. The companies and Wise Use groups have been able to portray such groups as hippies and yuppies who do not care about rural joblessness. Wise Use groups arose in the western United States as an environmental backlash to grassroots rural environmental victories in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the funding for this movement comes from mining, oil and timber interests in favour of opening up more federal lands for extractive resource development (Deal 1993). What the companies faced in northern Wisconsin was a rural-based multiracial, middle-class and working-class environmental movement, made up of many older people and youth. The companies slowly learned that they could not successfully use the same divide-and-conquer tactics that had worked so well elsewhere in the country.

First, they tried to split northerners by race. The treaty conflict did not, however, prevent sportfishers from joining the anti-mine alliance, or Nashville voters from electing a Mole Lake Chippewa to their new anti-mining town board in 1997. When Governor Thompson threatened the same year to close the casinos if the tribes did not back off on their treaty rights or federally backed environmental regulations, many non-Indian communities supported the tribes.

Second, the companies tried to split rural from urban people, by portraying anti-mining forces in their ads as ‘well-funded’ and based in urban groups. Yet the moratorium concept had emerged from rural groups, and rural legislators quickly learned that their constituents strongly supported it. Hundreds of signs sprouted on northern roads, and the theme of regional pride was claimed by anti-mining groups before Wise Use groups could use it, creating a lack of support for emerging pro-mine groups.

Third, the companies tried to split people by class. In one of its television ads, the mining company displayed a Milwaukee Steelworkers Union local president, who backed mining because many Wisconsin plants manufactured mining equipment. Yet Rio Algom’s uranium mines in Ontario had killed dozens of Steelworker members in the 1970s, and Wisconsin union members formed the Committee of Labor Against Sulfide Pollution (CLASP) to expose the company’s health and safety track record. Union locals and labour councils (many of whose members enjoy fishing in the north) passed resolutions against the Crandon mine.

The mining corporations have not been able to divide Wisconsin residents by race, region or class; the longer the Crandon project was delayed the more the global mining industry expressed frustration. The industry journal North American Mining in 1998 discussed Wisconsin as one of the industry’s four main global battlegrounds, where ‘increasingly sophisticated political manoeuvring by environmental special interest groups have made permitting a mine . . . an impossibility’ (1998: 3). The journal of the National Mining Association earlier complained that Wisconsin ‘barbarians in cyberspace’ were spreading anti-corporate tactics around the world through the Internet (Webster 1998). 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’ (Khanna 2000: 19).

A Broader Anti-Corporate Movement

The movement against the Crandon mine has linked up with other environmental issues in northern Wisconsin, partly due to other vulnerabilities of the project. The Crandon mine would need enormous amounts of electrical power to process the ores, but it does not have adequate access to electricity. 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 (LaDuke 2000). The transmission lines are under heavy criticism from a new rural alliance called Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL), in the process casting a shadow over the Crandon mine’s future electrical needs. In recent public hearings on the lines project conducted by Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission (PSC), virtually all the testimony has been critical of the project, prompting one official to comment that in his sixteen years at the PSC, ‘no other project has met such strong and organized opposition from protesters’ (Kamp 2000).

The alliance against the transmission lines closely resembles the grassroots Native/non-Native alliance against the Crandon mine, and successful concurrent opposition by central Wisconsin farmers and the Ho-Chunk (formerly Winnebago) Nation to a groundwater pumping plant proposed by the Perrier corporation. The three rural anti-corporate alliances have cooperated closely, holding a large rally in April 2000 at the state capitol, and organizing high-school and college students to join the growing state-wide movement, in the spirit of anti-corporate protests that emerged in Seattle and globally in 1999–2000.

In 2000, Rio Algom was purchased by the London-based South African company Billiton, which merged the following year with Australian mining giant BHP to form the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton. Company spokesman Marc Gonsalves soon reported that the company had received an ‘endless stream of emails’ from Crandon mine opponents around the world (Kallio 2000). Mine opponents proposed a ban on cyanide use in Wisconsin mines to prevent the kind of mine-spill disaster that struck in Romania in 2000. They also proposed a bill to end ‘special treatment’ for the mining industry in state environmental laws. Meanwhile, anti-corporate organizers convened a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ in spring 2001 to bring together rural and urban grassroots groups with common concerns of protecting local governments and economies from corporate control and promoting environmental and cultural sustainability.

Beginning in December 2000, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project had demanded that BHP Billiton withdraw applications for mining permits and open a dialogue to negotiate the sale of the site. An alliance of environmental, conservation, local and tribal governments released a detailed proposal calling for the purchase of the Crandon mine site (more than 5,000 acres of land and mineral rights) as a conservation area devoted to sustainable land-management practices, tribal cultural values and tourism suitable to this environmentally sensitive area. The main goal of the purchase would be to end permanently the controversy over permitting the Crandon mine by taking the land out of the hands of mining companies.

‘Our proposal will support low-impact sustainable development instead of destructive mining at the headwaters of the Wolf River’, said Chuck Sleeter, board chairman of the town of Nashville. ‘We want to protect natural and cultural resources and grow our economy wisely, instead of endangering it with risky, short-term mining’ (Sleeter 2002). Less than a year after the mine opponents’ proposal, BHP Billiton sold the Nicolet Minerals Company to the former site owners, a local logging company. The company unsuccessfully attempted to search worldwide for a multinational mining firm that would serve as a partner.

On 28 October 2003, Mole Lake and Potawatomi leaders announced that the two neighbouring tribes had jointly purchased and divided the 5,939- acre Crandon mine property for US$16.5 million. Mole Lake acquired the Nicolet Minerals Company, and quickly dropped mine permit applications. The bombshell announcement not only brought the 28-year battle to a dramatic end. It demonstrated that tribal gaming revenue could be used for the benefit of northern Wisconsin’s environment and economy. It also showed the power of the tribes’ cultural renaissance, and their work in alliance with non-Indian neighbours. The alliance had driven down the site price by tens of millions of dollars, by driving away potential mining company partners.

As he tacked up a giant ‘SOLD’ sign on the company, Potawatomi mine opponent Dennis Shepherd exclaimed, ‘We rocked the boat. Now we own the boat.’ The tribes held a large celebration powwow, where they honoured Natives and non-Natives who had opposed the mine. The less wealthy of the two tribes, Mole Lake, inherited a ‘mortgage’ from the company, and set up a Wolf River Protection Fund to help pay for its half of the purchase.

By 2003 the political landscape of northern Wisconsin had become very different, compared to the tensions before 1993. The relationship between Native and non-Native communities before 1993 had been framed in terms of ‘exclusion’. Native Americans who left the reservations to spearfish were viewed as ‘outsiders’ by White residents, who tried to exclude the Chippewa (and later the Menominee) from treaty-ceded territories. Conversely, the Native nations enhanced their sense of non-Indians as ‘outsiders’ who did not understand their cultural ways or the environment of northern Wisconsin.

Also by 2003, the intense conflict over natural resources had been replaced by cooperation to protect natural resources. The relationship between Native and non-Native communities was increasingly framed in terms of ‘geographies of inclusion’. The tribes and their White neighbours had begun to include each other as ‘insiders’ within a common place, such as the Willow Flowage or Wolf River watershed. This was not simply because the spearing conflict had been put behind them, but because their sense of ‘exclusion’ had been largely redirected away from each other and towards ‘outsider’ mining companies and state agencies. Furthermore, this shift to a ‘place identity’ was not limited to environmental cooperation, but had signs of being expanded to increase local economic cooperation and greater cultural understanding. Large gaps remained between the communities, and individuals’ racial prejudice obviously continued, but the tribes and white ‘border towns’ were clearly moving away from mass confrontation and towards substantial cooperation.

These shifts in thinking not only happened despite the treaty rights tensions of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but occurred at least partly because of the tensions. The area between Mole Lake and Lac du Flambeau that had seen the greatest conflict during the fishing ‘war’ developed levels of environmental cooperation higher than those of other northern areas that had been spared conflict. The conflict had educated the non-Native community and strengthened the territorial identity of both groups and their commitment to protect the fishery and the relatively clean environment of northern Wisconsin.

The environmental cooperation began to redefine the Native and non-Native concepts of ‘home’. Before 1993, most Natives and non-Natives possessed a meaning of ‘home’ that stopped at reservation boundaries. But by 2003, the Native American ‘home’ and the white majority’s ‘home’ had begun to encompass both tribal and non-tribal lands in a common home. Mole Lake tribal member Frances Van Zile describes this shift in consciousness when she says that many local white residents now ‘accept Mole Lake as part of home. It’s not just my community. It’s everybody’s home.’ She concludes:

This is my home; when it’s your home you try to take as good care of it as you can, including all the people in it. . . . We have to take care of this place, including everybody in it. I mean everybody that shares these resources should take care of it. It’s not just my responsibility . . . everyone in the community takes care of home. (Personal interview, 1994)

What mining companies are confronting in northern Wisconsin is an environmental movement that they have not yet experienced, at least in North America–a broad multiracial, rural-based grassroots alliance. This kind of movement, where livelihoods rather than environmental consciousness are at the forefront of environmental movements, is not new in the Third World (Taylor 1995). The alliance has brought together not only Native American nations and sportfishing groups, but environmentalists with unionists and retired local residents with urban students. The movement does not just address endangered species, but also endangered Native cultures and endangered rural economies. The tribal purchase of the Crandon mine site has brought the intercultural relationship full circle from conflict to cooperation and marks a small roll-back in the history of Native land dispossession.

The growing movement 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, strengthening intercultural cooperation based on a territorial attachment to a common place. By connecting its seemingly local issues to a state-wide and global anti-corporate movement, the alliance is helping to create a broader vision of a democratic and sustainable society.

For more information, visit the Midwest Treaty Network,; Wisconsin Resources Protection Council,; and Wolf River Protection Fund,


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