Cultural Aspects of Exxon's Proposed Crandon Mine
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Cultural Aspects of
Exxon's Proposed Crandon Mine
from the Wolf Watershed Educational Project
The Crandon mine is proposed not only in an environmentally rich area, but in one of the most culturally rich areas in Wisconsin. The site is only a mile upstream from the tiny Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation, which is famous for its wild rice. The Wolf River also flows through the Menominee Reservation, and is considered sacred by the tribe. Only five miles downwind from the mine site is the Potawatomi Reservation. These three reservations, along with the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and recently Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), are opposing the mine. In the distant and recent past, these tribes have survived relocation, termination, and assimilation, against overwhelming odds. They now see the mine as one more threat to their cultures and their future generations. All across the continent, from Montana to Ontario, from Arizona to Saskatchewan, Native peoples have joined environmentalists to fight 'environmental racism' by mining companies. (Gail Small, "The search for environmental justice in Indian County", News From Indian Country, 3/94)
Mole Lake Wild Rice
The Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa fear that the mine would threaten their wild rice beds in Rice Lake. The DNR recognizes that wild rice is 'at the center of their identity as a people.' (Final EIS, 11/86, p. 108) One Exxon biologist, on the other hand, dismissed the rice as 'those lake weeds.' (Al Gedicks, The New Resource Wars, South End Press, 1993, p. 61) Swamp Creek flows directly from the mine site into Rice Lake, and any acidic contaminants would devastate the fragile rice crop. The tribe also foresees water drawdown from the mine operation as affecting the rice, which grows in beds in the water along the lakeshore. In fact, the tribe believes that Exxon's groundwater discharges and pump tests have already affected Rice Lake's water flow and chemistry, even before the mine has been permitted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the mine 'may have a substantial and unacceptable impact on aquatic resources of national importance.' (Janet Smith comments to ACE , U.S. Department of Interior, 11/94, p. 3)
Mole Lake Subsistence
Other environmental threats from the mine could impact the ancient subsistence harvest practices of the Mole Lake Chippewa. Because traditional Native American families rely heavily on fish and game, they are already more susceptible to toxins like mercury and PCBs. (USEPA, "Tribes at Risk: The Wisconsin Tribes Comparative Risk Project," Wash. DC, 10/92, p. ix) Mole Lake is vulnerable to pollution because of its very small land base, and its delicate balance of local forests and wetlands. If fish and wildlife are affected by pollution, driven away by mine operations, or overharvested by a large population of newcomers, it will be impossible to compensate the tribe. The ancient traditional way of life at Mole Lake would have ceased to exist.
Mole Lake Cultural Sites
Mole Lake is also rich in cultural sites and burial grounds. Because of the wild rice, the mine area has been an important village site for centuries. Tribal leaders suspect that some burials have already disappeared. Spirit Hill - an important place for prayer - is now on Exxon property. The mine site itself is within a 12-square mile area that tribal leaders were promised as reservation land in 1855. (Edmund Jefferson Danziger, The Chippewas of Lake Superior [Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma, 1978], p. 153) Because of their strong spiritual link to the area, tribal members have nowhere else they can call home.
Menominee Clean Water
The Menominee stand to be negatively impacted. They have lived in the Wolf River area for about 8000 years, and their name translates as 'Wild Rice People.' The tribal timber industry is also famous around the world for preserving its trees; the outline of the forested reservation can be seen by satellites from Earth orbit. (Dave Bubser, "Menominee Sustainable Forestry," Cultural Survival Quarterly, Fall 1992) The Menominee see the Wolf River as a sacred 'lifeline' to be passed on to future generations; it is designated as a federal Wild and Scenic River in the northern part of the reservation. The tribe is especially concerned about the future of the wild rice, eagles, trout, and sturgeon in the Wolf River Watershed. Like Mole Lake, the tribe is applying for enhanced federal authority to regulate reservation waters.
Potawatomi Clean Air
The Forest County Potawatomi are trying to protect their air quality with Class I redesignation under the Clean Air Act. That means that the air quality could not deteriorate significantly over the reservation. While this will not affect existing or projected industries in the counties around the reservation, it could affect airborne pollutants from a large source as close as the Crandon mine. (J. Mayers & N. Seppa, "Thompson vexed by tribes' move," Wisconsin State Journal, 12/13/94). Because the federal government has a trust relationship with the tribes, the EPA is compelled to protect tribal interests in the environmental area. In Montana and Michigan, tribes have successfully used their legal standing to curb polluting projects by mining companies. (National Indian Policy Center, Survey of Tribal Actions to Protect Water Quality and the Implementation of the Clean Water Act , Albuquerque, 9/94). Governor Thompson is now suing the EPA for backing up the tribes on redesignation. The redesignation efforts by Potawatomi, Mole Lake, Oneida and other tribes, can become a way to keep the environment as clean as it is now, for Indians and non-Indians alike.
Mining may affect the treaty rights of the Chippewa and Menominee and, in turn, the treaty rights may affect the plans for mining. While the treaties do not cover mineral rights, they do guarantee tribal access to the land they sold, for the purpose of harvesting fish, game, wild rice, and other resources. If a mine contaminated those resources, it could be considered in federal court as an environmental violation of the treaty rights. DNR Secretary George Meyer admits that the tribes 'may have a case' in using the treaties to legally protect the environment off the reservation. Ironically, though Indians and sportfishers have been at odds over fishing rights, the outside threat from mining companies has helped to bring them together in defense of the same fish. If there is a mine waste accident, there wouldn't be many fish left to argue about. The new alliance of Native Americans, sportfishers, and environmentalists against the Crandon mine can also help build future dialogue and understanding between different communities.
Exxon has created mistrust in its dealings with the tribes. It hired a consultant to study possible mine impacts on tribal cultural sites, but allegedly pressured him to report that there would be no harm to them. The consultant, Wesley Andrews, decided to resign rather than continue in a project that had a "lack of respect for traditional culture....". (Andrews letter to Arlyn Ackley, 8/16/95) Leaders of tribes impacted by the project feel that they have not been treated with respect either by company officials or the DNR, especially when it comes to cultural impacts that cannot be given a financial value.
Goodrich track record
Exxon has a poor track record with land-based Indian peoples. Its huge El Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia , South America, earned it a place on the Survival International Top Ten list of the violators of Native rights. (Survival International, London, 1992) The Wayuu (Guajiro) Indians had their groundwater poisoned, their homes covered with coal dust and relocated, and their cemeteries dug up to make way for an ore-hauling railroad. The first CMC President, Jerry Goodrich, was in day-to-day charge of the mine as vice president of operations. One Wayuu leader said that he 'promised us jobs and prosperity and instead worked to destroy our traditional ways and forced us from our land. This must not happen again. To allow this mine is to disappear from the Earth.' (Report on the Track Records of Exxon and Rio Algom, Wisconsin Review Commission, based on hearing held 3/24/95, available for $2 from the Midwest Treaty Network). [ The current CMC President, Rodney Harrill, was formerly in management of the Carter Mining Co. in the Powder River Coal Basin near Gillette, Wyoming.]
Bragg track record
Exxon also has a poor track record in dealing with Native Alaskans before and after the Valdez oil spill. The oil companies bought the port of Valdez in 1969 for one dollar and the promise that Prince William Sound would be protected. (Gregory Palast, "Broken Promises and the Exxon Valdez," Chicago Tribune, 9/21/94). The spill 20 years later not only damaged the commercial fishing industry, but severely affected the traditional fishing and hunting of the Chugach, Eyak, and other tribes. To add insult to injury, some of their cultural sites were also taken or vandalized in the beach clean-up effort. The first CMC public relations manager, J. Wiley Bragg, was Exxon's PR man in Alaska after the spill. (Report on the Track Records of Exxon and Rio Algom, Wisconsin Review Commission, 3/24/95)
Diotte track record
Exxon's partner Rio Algom is famous for the Elliot Lake uranium mine complex in Ontario, which also earned that company a place on the Survival International list. (Survival International, London, 1992) Radioactive and heavy metal leakage from the mines in the 1950s through 1970s polluted the Serpent River, which is home to a band of Ojibwe (Chippewa). One Ojibwe leader reported that it used to be a prime sturgeon river, but the fish have been almost wiped out, and all subsistence hunting and fishing had been affected by the mines. In the 1970s, 18 lakes in the Serpent River system had been contaminated, and even after clean-up the system has not recovered. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources letter to Zoltan Grossman, 1/24/94) Current CMC public relations manager Richard Diotte previously worked for Rio Algom in Ontario, and former vice president Ken Collison worked for it in Nova Scotia.
Given the track records of Exxon and Rio Algom toward Native peoples, it is small wonder that the tribes around the Wolf River won't entrust their natural resources and ancient cultural practices to company promises. How companies treat Native Americans can be seen as an "early warning" on how they will treat non-Indian communities when they get in the way of mining. By bringing together all residents of Northern Wisconsin, regardless of background, we can prevent divide-and-conquer tactics by the company, and build a future protecting our common natural resources.