Greetings from the Pacific Northwest! We'd like to send our greetings and love to our dear friends
gathered at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Crandon mine purchase, and to the Sokaogon
Chippewa Community that is hosting the event.
We've been living in Olympia, Washington, for the past eight years, but in Wisconsin we were active in
the Midwest Treaty Network, a Native/non-Native alliance for treaty rights and sovereignty. After the
Network was founded in 1989, we helped to organized Witnesses for Nonviolence to monitor anti-
Indian harassment and violence during the Ojibwe spearfishing war. Around that time, mining companies began
coming back into ceded territory, thinking the tribes and sportfishers were so divided that no one would
notice. But they did notice….
At a 1993 conference in Ashland, Mole Lake and Menominee officials asked the Midwest Treaty
Network to get involved in building an alliance against Exxon's proposed Crandon mine. With the
spearing conflict so fresh in people's minds, it was difficult for the tribes to be visibly out in front.
Menominee Tribal Judge Louis Hawpetoss asked us to take on political organizing around the 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 Wolf River
communities downstream from the mine site next to Mole Lake. In the meantime, Mole Lake,
Menominee, Forest County Potawatomi and Stockbridge-Munsee came together as the four Niiwin
tribes to stop the mine. In 1994, with the Indigenous Environmental Network, we planned the Protecting
Mother Earth gathering at Mole Lake.
In 1996, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project began a series of speaking tours along the Wolf and
Wisconsin rivers, to organize communities against the mine. At the 22 towns visited in the first speaking
tour, representatives of tribes, environmental groups, and sportfishing groups spoke, drawing about
1,100 people. Instead of sending the speakers only to speak separately to their own constituencies, we
decided to show all three parts of the alliance at each of the communities, to model our cooperation.
Some of the sportfishermen in the audience heard a Native person speak for the first time in their lives.
The tour culminated with a rally at the mining company's local headquarters in Rhinelander, attended by
1,000 people, including many of you. The series of speaking tours for four years resulted in small
grassroots anti-mine groups being formed along the rivers (in towns like Shawano) and around the state.
The speakers on the speaking tours included Fred Ackley, Fran Van Zile, and Sylvester Poler from Mole
Lake, and Ken Fish from Menominee, who talked about the importance of the water, and gave our
alliance its depth and direction. Speakers also included sportfishermen and their families, like Herb and
Genie Buettner, Bob and Millie Schmitz, George and Marilyn Rock, Tom and Helen Ward, and others.
Bob and Millie were Green Bay communications worker union leaders, and George was a mining
engineer, and they were all great organizers. Herb was a resort owner and chair of the Langlade County
Republican Party, who was so disgusted by pro-mining Governor Thompson that he once removed
Tommy's campaign literature from the Party table at the county fair, and replaced it with anti-mining
brochures. Inspired by founders of the anti-mine movement, Roscoe and Evelyn Churchill in Ladysmith,
Sparky Waukau at Menominee, and Professor Al Gedicks at UW-LaCrosse, they all built the bridges
between the Native and non-Native communities along the Wolf.
We were also joined by younger people concerned about the growth of corporate power, especially UW-Stevens
Point and UW-LaCrosse students, such as Dana Churness, Deanna Erickson, and Omar Poler.
Some of them attended anti-globalization protests around the country, but returned to Wisconsin to help
the local "people power" movement in their own backyard. At our meetings, they listened as the elders
stood to talk about the environment and democracy. We were joined by rank-and-file labor leaders like
Milwaukee Steelworker Gerry Gunderson, who convinced many union locals and federations (including
workers building the mining equipment) that the companies didn't care about worker health and safety,
or their favorite fishing spots. We were also joined by environmentalists Al Gedicks, Dave Blouin and Claire
Schmidt, who respected the people living on the front lines, and Milwaukee health care workers Linda
Sturnot and Bonnie Mayer.
Many, many other people joined the circle. Probably the most important reason for our success was that
our Wolf Watershed Educational Project meetings were held every month for nine years, at different
reservations and border towns. The meetings brought together people from different communities
around the state in one circle. We made decisions in a democratic way, rather than letting a few leaders,
experts, or lawyers decide. We often brought cakes for each other's birthdays, and passed around cards
for those who were ill, and even sympathy cards for the newest mining company crew brought in to sell
the mine. Herb would tell us at the meetings that he felt closer to this group "than to people I attend
church with on Sundays." That's how strong the respect was, like soldiers in a nonviolent war.
The movement against metallic sulfide mining drew from four strands in Wisconsin history. It represented the
history of progressive populism, which mistrusts Big Business. It was inspired by the environmental
ethics of John Muir and Aldo Leopold. It tapped into the historic resentment of northern residents
against state government agencies in Madison (like the DNR). It also relied on the historic perseverance
of Native nations to protect their treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. The combination of all these
histories, which are not easily found together elsewhere in the country, helped bring about our victory.
Our statewide alliance not only drew together Native Americans and sportfishers, but grassroots
environmentalists with labor unions, and rural residents with urban students. The companies were able
to portray mainstream, white urban environmental activists as yuppies or hippies who do not care about
rural jobs. The companies trying to open the Crandon mine tried to pit Native Americans against white
residents, environmentalists against union members, and rural northerners against urban residents. 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, multiracial, middle-class and working-class, and made up of many youth and
elderly people. We never met during deer hunting season, because nearly all of our families hunted. Our
movement did not just address a corporation's environmental threats, but also their threats to rural
cultures and democratic institutions, and their "boom-and-bust" economic disruptions. In 1997, a diverse
range of groups around the state came together to pass the Sulfide Mining Moratorium Bill, forcing
companies to "Prove It First" by showing examples of sulfide mines that had operated and been
reclaimed without violating environmental laws. But the mining companies kept coming.
After Nashville Township voters in 1998 voted out a pro-mine council and elected an anti-mine council
(with Chuck Sleeter and Robert Van Zile), and Nashville and several other townships supported Mole
Lake's application to the EPA to strengthen tribal environmental standards under the federal Clean
Water Act. This "Treatment-As-State status" used tribal authority to protect upstream waters for Native
and non-Native residents alike. At least one Wisconsin poll showed that non-Indians would prefer tribal
regulations if they safeguarded the environment more than state laws. Another major reason for the
success of our anti-mine movement was that we always had more than one strategy going, on parallel
tracks, using the powers of local, state, tribal, and federal governments to stop the mine. Even if some of
these efforts were set back, and we began losing in one area, the movement was always moving forward.
We never put all our eggs in one basket, whether it was legal or legislative, and never electoral.
Our grassroots movement made a strong an impression on the global mining industry. One industry
journal identified the state as one of four battlegrounds for the global mining industry. Toronto's North
American Mining journal claimed in 1998 that "The increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by
environmental special interest groups has made permitting a mine in Wisconsin an impossibility" The
London industry journal Mining Environmental Management stated in 2000 that "The Wolf Watershed
Educational Project, a U.S.-based alliance of environmental groups, Native American nations, local
residents, unions and students...is just one example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global
mining industry: global environmental activism." And for many years, the Vancouver-based Fraser
Institute rated Wisconsin at or near the bottom of its annual "mining investment attractiveness score"
because of the state's "well-publicized aversion to mining."
A 2001 poll showed that 57 percent of northeastern Wisconsinites opposed new metallic sulfide mines
in the state, roughly even with the statewide figure of 55 percent. The same poll showed that 65 percent
of northeast residents favored a ban on cyanide in mining, compared to 58 percent statewide. A bill to
ban the use of cyanide (to separate metals from the rock) passed the State Senate that year, but was
blocked in the State Assembly. Nevertheless, the campaign connected the Crandon mine with cyanide in
people's minds, and so helped to build the opposition.
The newest mining company BHP Billiton even began to face protests against the Crandon mine around
the world. The National Mining Association complained that Wisconsin environmentalist websites run
by "barbarians at the gates of cyberspace," were spreading anti-mine strategies around the world. At its
shareholder meeting in Melbourne, Australia, shareholders had to walk through a gauntlet of
environmentalist signs urging a withdrawal from Wisconsin as a "risky investment." Mole Lake was
also represented at the 2002 Sustainability Summit in South Africa.
The resistance was so strong that in March 2003, BHP Billiton sold the Nicolet Minerals Company to
the Northern Wisconsin Resource Group, owned by the Connor logging family that had originally sold
much of the mine site to Exxon in the 1970s. The company searched worldwide for a corporate partner
with mining experience, but could find no takers.
On October 28, 2003, the 28-year fight to stop the proposed Crandon mine came to a sudden and
dramatic end. Ten years ago, Tribal members and their allies flooded into the Nicolet Minerals
Information Center to celebrate. We had not only defeated the controversial zinc-copper project, but the
Mole Lake and Forest County Potawatomi tribes gained ownership and control of the 6,000-acre mine
site. The tribes bought the site at a "rummage sale" price partly because the grassroots movement had
driven away potential corporate partners for the Nicolet Minerals Company, and therefore had caused
the sale price to drop by tens of millions of dollars. The two tribes divided the Crandon mine site
between themselves, to ensure that a toxic mine could never threaten them in the future.
We remember the victory day so well, and how it brought a sense of peace after a quarter century of
struggle. As Dennis Shepherd hung a giant "SOLD" sign on the building, he exclaimed, "We rocked the
boat. Now we own the boat." On that victory day, Jerry Burnett brought out an American flag he had
long carried upside down, as a symbol of distress, and turned it upright. Jerry told the gathered crowd, "I
fought in Vietnam. When I came back, I swore I would not fight another war except in defense of my
country. And then I had to fight the mining company to defend my own soil. We have won this war.
Now the war is over."
Nicolet's former director, Gordon Connor, Jr., complained that Wisconsin's "anti-corporate culture"
defeated the mine, adding, "We have engaged every significant mining interest in the world. The
message is clear. They don't want to do business in the state of Wisconsin." Former Nicolet Minerals
President Dale Alberts said that the Crandon mine "is dead and gone forever. I think it is essentially the
end of mining in the state. It is a bitter pill." Alberts later testified before Congress that Mole Lake's
"Treatment-As-State" water quality standards "established a very difficult hurdle for the mining
project," admitting that tribal sovereignty was the key element in blocking the mine.
We remember our celebration meeting at Mole Lake, when Roscoe Churchill cut a victory cake together
with Mole Lake's environmental director Tina Van Zile, who had played a pivotal role in environmental
research and the site purchase. We also remember the victory powwow later in Green Bay, drawing
hundreds of dancers and 11 drums (representing each Wisconsin Indian tribal nation). The Native and
non-Native community leaders were honored with blankets, and we'll never forget the thanks from the
Sokaogon Chippewa Community and the other Niiwin tribes.
In many ways, the Crandon struggle was a precursor to the anti-corporate rebellion in 2011, which
didn't come out of nowhere, but from years of grassroots organizing. Now the mining companies have
returned again, like they did in 1992, this time to mine taconite in the Penokee Hills near Bad River.
Like at Mole Lake, the neighboring tribe has taken a strong leadership role in the movement for clean
water. The Penokee mine site is geographically split between different jurisdictions (Ashland and Iron
counties) with differing attitudes toward the mine, much like the Crandon site was split between
Nashville and Lincoln townships. Now Gov. Walker's DNR has "fast-tracked" the Penokee mine plan,
much it had had tried at Crandon, only to see the project constantly delayed on multiple fronts.
Exploratory drilling in the Penokees has started, like it did at Crandon, but the opponents say that they
are also in it for the long haul, just as we were. We never said "when the mine is built," we said, "if the
mine would be built, which it won't be." We never said that we will win, but that we had to win.
The historic defeat of the Crandon mine was more than a victory of "people power" against corporate
power. During the treaty rights conflict, Native Americans and sportfishing groups fought over the fish,
but during the Crandon fight they united to protect the fish, and began to heal some of their divisions.
The Crandon victory repeated the success of other "unlikely alliances" between Native and white
communities (in Washington, Oregon, South Dakota, Montana, and other states) that had previously
battled over natural resources. The treaty conflicts educated the white neighbors about tribal cultures and
legal powers, and strengthened the commitment of both communities to value the resources.
We're now living in Olympia, Washington, a beautiful place next to Puget Sound and two mountain ranges.
Debi has graduated from the Tribal Master of Public Administration program at The Evergreen State College,
the first of its kind in the country. We're getting involved in helping to stop coal and oil trains and fracking
shipments at Northwest ports, and joined thousands of opponents at hearings. Zoltan is teaching
Geography and Native Studies at Evergreen, which has an amazing Longhouse, and
he's taken a class to New Zealand with fellow professor Kristina Ackley. At Evergreen last year we
published a book on tribal responses to climate change, Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim
Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis.
We miss our friends and family in Wisconsin, and treasure the time we spent together and all that we
learned from you that we are still using today. As we mentioned, Wisconsin has a unique history that is
hard to find elsewhere in the country, so we can't just carry the experience of the Crandon mine and
replicate it elsewhere. It was the special individuals and families that got involved, and especially the
respectful ways they worked together in a circle, that provided the magic ingredients for our victory. By
honoring the water, our ancestors, and our leaders who had passed on, we were kept us from making
huge mistakes, and we were kept together on the right path.
-- Debi McNutt and Zoltan Grossman
For more background, see the Midwest Treaty Network archives at