At the start of the second week of April 2014, more than a foot of fresh snow blanketed the Bad River Chippewa Reservation of northern Wisconsin. I had arrived home to my mother’s place of birth two days before the blizzard because Bad River was deeply entrenched in fighting one of the largest mining corporations in the world.
Gogebic Taconite had secured the go-ahead from the state, not the tribe, to begin exploratory low-grade iron ore mining in the Penokee Hills, which sit at the edge of the reservation. I was brought in as the communications director to help respond to Gogebic’s public relations machine that mostly promised new jobs to one of the state’s poorest regions. As I spun the wheels of my oversized van that snow-filled morning, struggling just to get out of the driveway, I wondered if the impoverished Bad River tribe had even a chance to fend off this storm of big money mining.
What was happening at Bad River was nothing new. The history of stealing millions of acres from tribes and forcing Indians onto reservations was never enough for this country. There was always the gluttony for even more Indian land and natural resources. Whether it be copper or coal mines, storing nuclear waste, or pumping crude oil from the ground, tribal lands have consistently been targeted for resource extraction, and almost always with the federal government’s consent.
Gogebic’s proposed mine, promising to be one of the world’s largest open-pit iron ore operations, stirred deep resentment within the Bad River community and nearby nonnative communities. My reservation is situated in a watershed on the southern shores of Lake Superior, an area often referred to as the Everglades of the North. Rain flowing from the hills feeds the precious sloughs.
For many, many generations, the tribe has lived in balance with the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs—carving out a sustainable life of wild rice harvesting, fishing, maple syrup gathering, and hunting. When winter snows would melt, and water rose above the edges of the sloughs, tribal members moved to higher ground. There was no damming, no rerouting of the waterways. Out of respect for that which sustained the tribe for hundreds of years, the community lived in concert with the flow of the water.
The Gogebic mine, it was feared, would release asbestos-like toxins from the exposed rocks of the Penokee Hills into the air and water, disrupting or even destroying a fragile ecosystem.
These sloughs were recognized in 2012 as a Wetland of International Importance, or Ramsar site. John F. Kennedy visited the Bad River region in 1963, calling for the protection of the sloughs and our natural resources. As I settled into my new position, spending most of my days visiting with community members, it became clear to me that this story was more than an environmental racism headline.
It was a human story that burned in the hearts of a people who did not have the thousands of dollars it would take to hire lawyers to take on Gogebic. All they had were the support of environmentally concerned activists and the prayers of their ancestors. Very quickly, the mining issue began to burn in my heart as well.
Each morning, I would sit at the dining room table sharing coffee with my host, Delphine, an elder who was born and raised on the Bad River Reservation. Conversations about memories of my mother and her family always turned to the mining issue and our tribal chairman, Mike Wiggins Jr.
Delphine was no fan of Wiggins. (Disgruntlement with tribal council leaders is not uncommon in Indian Country.) But as much as Delphine faulted Wiggins for what she and others believed were failures in budget and other management decisions, she believed the chairman was the tribe’s best weapon in the war to stop a mine.
Wiggins took advantage of every opportunity to voice opposition to the mine—to the news media, through social media, and directly to the public throughout Wisconsin. He was most effective in convincing nontribal people that the mine was a threat to all communities. It all came down to water. If multinational corporations could convince the state government to let them destroy a community in one area of the state by polluting their water, they could do this in other communities. And Gogebic was poised to establish this precedent at Bad River.
To facilitate the Gogebic mine, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature pushed through a bill to revamp the state’s mining laws. It eventually came to light that the company helped write this legislation while secretly giving money to assist Walker and others fighting recall attempts.
I’ve often wondered why Gogebic never tried to buy off Bad River tribal members. Other poor tribes have caved when oil companies wanting access to their land and resources dropped piles of money on the table. The Bad River Chippewa Reservation is small, with a modest casino, and always on the verge of going bankrupt. But as I deepened my relationships with the people there, it became apparent to me that the protection of their homelands could never be for sale.
We created and disseminated educational materials about the negative impact of the proposed mine. We got community members to speak out, all over the state. But after a few months, I came to the conclusion that we had to up the stakes. We had to take on Gogebic Taconite by going after their parent corporation’s leader, Chris Cline.
Cline was the owner of the Cline Group, which made millions overseeing mines in Illinois and in the Appalachian Mountains. He has cultivated a high profile. He even dated Tiger Woods’s ex-wife. My idea was to invite him to visit the Bad River watershed, to meet the elders and children, to see all that would be lost should the Penokee Hills mine go into full development.
But Wiggins did not like this idea, and Cline was not invited. Wiggins was committed to the idea that an honest appeal to people across the state and beyond would win out over Gogebic. More importantly, he believed Bad River, as a tribal nation, had the treaty-based right to enter into direct negotiations with the U.S. government.
With the support of five other Chippewa tribes in the Great Lakes region, letters were drafted and sent to President Obama and the U.S. Department of the Interior, asking for intervention. The tribes also sought a meeting with Susan Hedman, regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency, asking her agency to deny Gogebic’s mining permits. (Earlier this year, Hedman resigned after coming under fire for failing to address the crisis of lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan.)
Our approach to the EPA infuriated Governor Walker, but the EPA never had a chance to act. In the spring of 2015, facing falling taconite prices around the world and exploratory mining efforts that revealed another watershed in the Penokee Hills, Gogebic pulled the plug on the proposed mine. Many, including me, believed Gogebic was afraid the EPA would intervene on behalf of the tribe.
My work with the tribe came to an end just as the snows of winter began to melt. But the threat of another mining company buying the rights to explore mining from Gogebic remains.
As I scan the news each day, seeing the fights taken up by the Standing Rock Sioux and others, I am encouraged. People all over the country are becoming fed up with corporate exploitation of the land and natural resources. Tribes like mine at Bad River no longer have to protest global corporations alone. The concern for safe water clearly is flowing beyond Indian Country.
Mark Anthony Rolo is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and the author of the memoir My Mother Is Now Earth.