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 states 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...