GreenBiz Reads

To halt mining, a tribe and a logging community weave together

FlickrWisconsin Department of Natural Resources
The fight to keep the Wolf River in Menominee County, Wisconsin, pristine brought local loggers and tribespeople together.

The following is an edited excerpt from "Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands" by Zoltán Grossman (University of Washington Press, 2017).

When Chuck Sleeter first fished on Pickerel Lake in Northeastern Wisconsin in 1983, he fell in love with the stillness of the lake, with the cry of the loons in the distance, and with his success in catching walleyes by hook and line. Sleeter had no inkling that the same natural beauty and abundance that he sought would spark two intense civil conflicts in the area, over spearfishing and mining. Nor did he conceive that he would find himself at the center of both battles in Wisconsin history — from fighting over the fish to uniting for the fish.

During the Ojibwe spearfishing conflict, Sleeter was one of hundreds of riot-clad sheriff’s deputies from around the state who were deployed to northern boat landings to prevent further violence. "These were not pleasant duties," he remembered, describing the long dark hours and the snow piling on deputies’ shoulders. Like some other police officers, he became concerned by the racial epithets he heard and "noticed that the bigger the news coverage, the bigger the problem."

The sheriff’s deputy from Wood County, in central Wisconsin, decided to return to fish in Pickerel Lake every spring and eventually decided to spend the rest of his life there in the Forest County town of Nashville, which includes the Mole Lake Reservation. The area, about 100 miles northwest of Green Bay, is covered with pine and birch forests, lakes, streams and wetlands. It is common to spot bald eagles circling overhead and see the bright green stands of manoomin (wild rice) in the lakes. Most residents make a living from either logging or tourism.

Nashville had an unusual geography for Wisconsin townships, as it was divided into two separate 36-square-mile blocs. The small area, at the headwaters of the 223-mile-long Wolf River, was called home by three distinct groups of residents. Upper Nashville, or the "north end," was inhabited by Sokaogon Ojibwe tribal members at Mole Lake and by descendants of Kentuckians who had moved to the area to log in the early 20th century. The Sokaogon Ojibwe gained a tiny 1,700-acre reservation in 1934, including huge wild rice beds. They would harvest the "food that grows on the water" by knocking the ripe kernels into their canoes. The most prominent feature on the flat landscape is Spirit Hill, where many Ojibwe warriors were buried after an 1806 battle with the Dakota over the wild rice beds.

The north-end "Kentuck" family logging firms in the late 1970s sold many of their properties (including Spirit Hill) to the Exxon mining company, which bought up an area larger than the reservation in preparation for opening a zinc and copper sulfide mine. The proposed mine site was divided between the townships of Nashville and Lincoln, and Mole Lake was 1 mile downstream. Yet the mining company named its Crandon mine proposal after the predominantly white village 8 miles to the north. Its plans would create "one of the country’s fiercest grass-roots environmental face-offs." 

Despite its tiny size, the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Community came in second place among Ojibwe bands in the number of speared fish. The tribe opposed the mine because it could contaminate its wild rice beds and fish with sulfuric acid wastes and reduce groundwater levels that feed its community wells. Tribal members were galvanized when an Exxon biologist referred to their treasured wild rice as "lake weeds." Tributaries of the Wolf River (a Class I trout stream) flowed south away from the mine site toward Mole Lake and lower Nashville, not toward Crandon, upper Nashville and Lincoln.

Lower Nashville, or the "south end," was dominated by lakefront property owners, many of them pension retirees, from around the Midwest. They tended to join Mole Lakers in opposing the mine as a threat to natural beauty and social stability. In 1983, the same year that Sleeter first fished on Pickerel Lake, 41 percent of Nashville voters had voted for a moratorium on the mine, but they were defeated by a 49 percent pro-mine vote, mainly from white north-end voters. Exxon dropped its mine permit application three years later, citing low metal prices. During Exxon’s absence in the late 1980s, the treaty rights conflict over spearfishing divided Native from white residents.

In 1992, Sleeter retired on a tract of land next to Pickerel Lake he purchased from longtime friends Ward and Dorothy Tyra. As a former nurse, Dorothy Tyra had come to know tribal members at Mole Lake and the nearby Forest County Potawatomi Community and found a bond with the tribal members through their families, observing that "they have strong family ties" and "it’s in love" with the Tyras’ Illinois friend Joanne Tacopina, who had summered on the lake since she was 2.

Also in 1992, Exxon returned to reapply for a permit to open the Crandon metallic sulfide mine. When Sleeter asked Exxon representative Don Moe if the company could guarantee that Nashville’s water would not be contaminated, Moe replied no, and Sleeter accused the company of "depriving" residents of "the right to live secure."

The mine site at Mole Lake was also 5 miles upwind of the Forest County Potawatomi community and 40 miles upstream (via the sacred Wolf River) of the Menominee Nation. Those tribes joined with the Stockbridge-Munsee (Mohican) Community to form the Niiwin Tribes (using the Ojibwe word for "four") in opposing the Crandon mine. At a 1993 anti-mining conference in Ashland, Mole Lake and Menominee officials asked the Midwest Treaty Network to take on political organizing around the Crandon mine, while the tribes would do the legal, technical and spiritual work necessary to protect the water. The network formed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project as a campaign to organize Native and non-Native communities downstream from the proposed mine site. The new alliance organized a 1994 anti-mine rally at the state capitol in Madison.

Although they began to oppose the mining proposal, only a few local whites actually attended Native events opposed to the mine, including a 1994 national gathering sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Midwest Treaty Network, which drew 1,000 people to Mole Lake. Menominee elder Hilary "Sparky" Waukau said after a march to the mine site, "If the white man’s society would listen to some of the things we are saying, this would be a lot better society for everyone."

Because the schisms of [a recent] spearfishing war were still too fresh, non-Natives were not listening to the tribes. Native and non-Native mine opponents, therefore, tended to work separately. That reticence began to change the following year, partly as a result of public relations blunders on the part of Exxon and its Rio Algom partner. Their Crandon Mining Company subsidiary proposed a 38-mile pipeline from the mine to the Wisconsin River to dispose of treated liquid mine wastes, in effect admitting that it could not meet the state Outstanding Resource Water standards for the Wolf River. Bob Schmitz asserted that the pipeline plan could be seen as an attempt to "split us up," by assuring Wolf River sport fishers that their trout stream would be safe, while leaving Mole Lake to face the localized impacts of the solid mine tailings alone.

Al Gedicks agreed that the company intended the pipeline to disrupt the "fragile marriage of convenience" between tribes and sportfishers and to “evaporate white opposition” to the mine. If the pipeline plan was indeed a "shell game" to shift the burdens of waste disposal away from white opponents, the strategy did not work. Wolf River mine opponents kept their central focus on the issues of groundwater drawdown and solid mine wastes and strengthened their relationship with the tribes. Meanwhile, dozens of townships along the Wisconsin River passed resolutions against the pipeline and the mine, for more than 200 miles along its course.

The anti-mine movement epitomized Wisconsin’s history of progressive populism and of rural conservation ethics (represented by John Muir and Aldo Leopold). It harnessed northern resentment of state agencies in Madison, usually a conservative strategy. It also drew from historic resilience and perseverance of Native nations. In poor logging communities such as Forest County, resource companies had been able to portray mainstream urban-based white environmental activists as yuppies or hippies who do not care about rural jobs. Mining companies attempted to pit white residents against Native people, environmentalists against union members building mining equipment, and rural northerners against urban residents and students. But they failed each time to divide Wisconsinites by race, by class or by region.

What mining companies faced along the Wolf River was something new — an environmental movement that was rural-based, middle-class and working-class, intergenerational and multiracial. The Wolf Watershed Educational Project never met during deer hunting season, because nearly all of its members’ families hunted. This movement addressed not just a corporation’s environmental threats but also its threats to rural cultures, local economies and democratic institutions, and drew in former followers of the anti-treaty movement.