“We better wake up! We’re losing our freedoms!” exhorted Joe Rose, Associate Professor of Native American Studies at Northland College and elder of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe at a press conference held in the Capitol Thursday.
Joe was accompanying other tribal members on the 250 mile journey from their home on the shores of Lake Superior as they raised their voices in opposition to AB 426, a mining bill that guts environmental protections and fast-tracks permitting process for iron mining. As expected, the Assembly passed the bill on a party line vote Thursday evening.
Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr. said in a press conference, “This bill represents corporate interests over the rights of citizens and over the interests of clean air and water.” When asked by reporters what the tribe’s next step would be in seeking recourse to a proposal that would destroy the watershed in which the largest beds of sacred manoomin (wild rice) grow, he said, “Our fight has just begun. We are just like that Penokee Mountain. We're not going anywhere. We will use every tool in our war chest to defend our water and air.”
As the Assembly met to debate and vote on the bill, there was a parallel democratic process going on just around the corner in the hearing room. Dozens of people testified at a People’s Mining Tribunal that was livestreamed by www.indiancountrytv.com. The footage will be archived and available for later viewing.
The Tribunal was organized because people did not feel that their voices were heard in the official hearing and legislative process. In particular, the central value of clean water and healthy manoomin beds to Anishinaabe social, cultural and spiritual life did not seem to be understood by the Committee on Jobs, Small Business and Economy. Even small fluctuations in water levels and sulfides in the water can kill off the plant around which their society revolves. The massive deregulation facilitated by AB 426 all but dooms the headwaters of the Bad River and therefore the entire watershed.
As Assembly Republicans entered the chambers for floor session, Anishinaabe people lined the halls. Grandmothers looked them in the eye and asked them, “Are you going to kill me?”
During the regular noontime Solidarity Sing A-Long in the Capitol rotunda, the Picture Rock Drum and singers from Bad River performed two ceremonial prayer songs. Here is a video of the ceremony. Near the end of the Sing A-Long, Sam Morris, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, brought his drum into the circle to play and pray, but he wasn’t allowed to finish. Police evicted him from the rotunda and issued him a citation for disorderly conduct for drumming after he was told he could not. Check out the video of the eviction and his response here.
This is exactly the kind of thing Joe Rose was referring to when he said we are losing our freedoms. “We've lost more freedom in this country in the past four decades than in the whole rest of American history, especially as it relates to the first and fourth amendments. Look at the Patriot Act. All they have to do is call a Code Orange and you have no more rights. The next thing will be martial law.”
This is what worries protesters in and around the Capitol who have challenged recent Department of Administration permitting rules for protests. During the debate on the mining bill, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer ordered State Troopers to remove all members of the public due to outbursts and the dropping of a banner that said, “Bury the Bill.”
Citizens of Wisconsin are being backed into a corner in which the only recourse they have to meaningfully affect the legislative process is becoming criminalized. When dozens of hours of public hearings on bills that generate overwhelming testimony against them have no effect on the outcome, people are forced to express themselves more directly.
In the case of AB 426, in the twelve hours of the last public hearing, only three people testified as supporting the bill without any reservations. Those people were State Treasurer Kurt Schuller, a representative from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Scott Manley, and a representative from the newly established Wisconsin Mining Association. The more than four hundred other people registering and testifying at the hearing all had reservations to a greater or lesser degree.
Democrats criticized the bill as a corporate giveaway to Gogebic Taconite, a subsidiary of the Cline Group that purchased the mineral rights to the Penokee Hills from the LaPointe Mining Company. Representative Fred Clark said, “How did you get suckered so badly by a company that hasn’t done anything to lift a finger to do anything but extort the people of Wisconsin?”
He was referring to the fact that Gogebic Taconite was awarded permits for sample core drilling early last summer but has yet to move forward with the process. The company’s CEO Bill Williams and engineer Tim Myers have spent most of their time lobbying legislators and helping to draft the bill. They had the audacity to sit in the offices of the Republican leadership during floor debate, and tried to sneak out unnoticed after the bill passed but before the session adjourned.
Joe Rose talked about Anishinaabe prophecy and cosmology that teaches that we are in a time of a profound change of values. “We have to start thinking a new way—not about economic activity but about things that are priceless. We must challenge and eliminate corporate greed
The outrageous overreach of Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers’ regime in Wisconsin make Joe Rose’s thoughts more poignant and immediate. He explains, “We are undergoing a paradigm shift from values based on money and political power to the new times where wealth is measured in clean water, fresh air and pristine wilderness. Anishinaabe have been given the responsibility to share the knowledge of how to live in harmony with creation."
We would do well to learn.
For more information about how you can support Bad River and other efforts to stop the mine, check out the Mining Impact Coalition of Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills Education Project.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.