Tribal sacred sites, wild rice in peril, June 2003
Chippewa rice beds succumb
Tribes strive to balance economy, environment
June 23, 2003
CRANDON � As the eagle flies it�s less than a mile from the end of Fran Van Zile�s outstretched hand to Spirit Hill, where lie buried more than 500 Chippewa and Sioux warriors who died in an epic 1806 battle for the rice beds on what is now Rice Lake. �I�m worried about all the graves up there they want to dig up,� said Van Zile, a bitter opponent of the proposed zinc and copper mine near here and an elder of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community.
As if on cue, a logging truck lumbers down the hillside loaded with timber cut from the east side of the hill � the side that would face a mine that proponents say would support 200 jobs and a $5 million annual payroll for the 25 to 30 years it would take to extract the estimated 55 million tons of ore buried on the 5,000-acre mine property.
The mine parking lot would lie on the other side of Spirit Hill, just yards from where Van Zile stands in the tribe�s Environmental Protection Agency building.
The proposed mine, easily the biggest environmental issue faced by the three Indian tribes north of Green Bay, is also a potent symbol of a more abstract problem.
How do Native peoples grow and diversify their economies without destroying the culture and environment that sustains them?
It�s an especially thorny dilemma given that the tribes� new-found gaming income hangs by the thread of agreement with a government that has broken nearly every treaty it�s ever signed. What�s thornier still: In the world Native Americans inhabit, there is no real difference between environment, culture and the economy.
�We don�t always measure our happiness by economics,� said Alan Caldwell, who directs the Menominee Culture Institute in Keshena.
Language, environment Caldwell is at the fore of a struggle to save the Menominee language. There are about 8,800 enrolled members of the Menominee Tribe of Indians worldwide. About 3,000 live on the reservation. Fewer than 50 are fluent in the Menominee language � none younger than the age of 55.
�You don�t separate language and culture,� Caldwell said. �You don�t have one without the other.�
Caldwell told the story of a tribal elder who rose to speak at a recent meeting held to discipline wayward teenagers who called themselves �Imperial Menominee Warriors,� but whose actions resembled 21st-century street gangs. �Warriors don�t do these things,� the elder said. �They have other responsibilities.�
The elder said Menominee culture is full of ancient stories used to teach youth, but telling them has become pointless. �Not enough of you people in the room understand the language,� he said.
The same stories that inculcate values of character and responsibility also teach that the Earth, its creatures, plants and rocks are alive with a good of their own outside the needs of humans.
If the language and stories die, Caldwell wonders, can kinship with the environment be far behind? �Some of these stories cannot be translated into English because there are no words,� he said.
The Forest County Potawatomis run one of the state�s most successful casinos, in Milwaukee, but the tribe is looking past its current success. �Eventually, one day, the gaming is going to level off,� said Al Milham, vice chairman of the tribe.
The Potawatomis� patchwork 12,000-acre reservation is home to roughly half the tribe�s 1,124 enrolled members. Just four work full-time at the tribe�s 320-acre Red Deer Ranch.
Milham side-stepped questions about the income generated by venison sales from the 600-deer farm, but admits it�s small compared with gaming income.
The farm�s real importance may lie less in the income it generates than the model it provides � low-impact, clean, sustainable, environmentally sound development. The tribe hopes to expand on the theme.
�Right now there are a lot of ideas floating around,� said Paul Johnson, the tribe�s communications director.
Specifics are hard to come by, but Johnson said fish farming, drinking-water bottling and light industry are all possibilities. But members of the tribe are anything but tight-lipped when talking about the economic boost a mine would bring. It�s a boost, Milham said, they can live without. �For mining to happen here would be a disaster for our lands, our people,� he said.
Holly YoungBear-Tibbetts, who directs the College of Menominee Nation�s Sustainable Development Institute, uses a word with ancient Greek origins to explain the way Northeastern Wisconsin�s first inhabitants balance the sometimes conflicting needs of environment and economy.
�Autochthony is the belief you come from the land,� YoungBear-Tibbetts said.
Sustainable development � development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs � became a buzzword of media and academia in the 1990s.
It�s a sign, YoungBear-Tibbetts said, that European Americans are learning what the Menominees and other tribes have always known. �People make better decisions when they�re tied to the land,� she said.
YoungBear-Tibbetts has no illusions about the present. �We�re not all autochthonous people in this land,� she said.
Compared with the Menominees, who trace their ancestry in Northeastern Wisconsin forests for 5,000 years, the white men who began arriving in 1634 when Jean Nicolet landed at Red Banks on the shore of Green Bay still have one foot on the boats that brought them.
�When people get the other foot off the boat, it will change,� YoungBear-Tibbetts said. �Indian nations can be great leaders in this.�
Back at the Chippewas� EPA building, Fran Van Ziles and her husband, Fred Ackley, try to imagine the effect the mine could have on their tribe�s small, 2,000-acre reservation.
Ackley motioned to Spirit Hill. �It�s the closest thing we have to a temple,� he said.
The ancient wild-rice beds on Rice Lake are still an important cultural and economic resource for the tribe, whose Mole Lake Casino is one of the state�s smaller Indian gaming venues.
relies on a flow of clean water from Swamp Creek. If the mine is built, the creek would receive treated mine wastewater. The lake�s water eventually flows to the Wolf River.
�It�s not just an Indian issue,� Van Zile said. �Everyone should be concerned about the water.�
The ore that would make the mine a money-making operation doesn�t stop at the manmade line that divides the reservation from the mine property, Ackley notes. Surveys have shown that the reservation contains ore, too.
But the earth that holds the ore is a living thing, Ackley insists.
�Go look at some mining areas. It will look the same here,� Ackley said. �There are things more important than money.�
Indians take the long view Forest managed for future
By Phil Haslanger
Marshall Pecore had just finished a tough meeting.
The topic: potential layoffs of some tribal members who work in the lumber industry at the heart of the Menominee reservation about an hour northwest of Green Bay. Pecore is the tribe's forest manager and now he was leading a group of journalists on a tour of the forest and the sawmill.
The lumber business is variable, depending on what species of trees are in commercial demand at any given time. Many timber operations respond by going heavily after those species, clearing forests in a hurry to meet production -- and profit -- goals.
The Menominee have chosen a different way, one aimed at sustaining the forest -- their most precious resource -- for future generations, just as their ancestors preserved it for them. There are 41 species of trees in these woods.
"We could really push the red oak right now," Pecore said. "That would bring in a lot of money for this generation, but not for the next. What we'll have in the future is timber to sell and a variety of species."
But that's in the long term. In the short term, there is economic hardship. Last year, the tribal timber operation had to lay off 50 people, Pecore said. That's tough to do in a county that has about a quarter of its residents living below the federal poverty line.
"I'm amazed at the willingness to accept that," Pecore said of the layoffs. "Even in tough times, there is no cry to liquidate the forests. Why are people willing to sacrifice? Probably because we have been here for thousands of years."
That's a theme that was repeated over and over in two days of visits to three tribes in northeastern Wisconsin. With a vibrant sense of history, these tribes know how to take the long view.
The Menominee may have the longest continuous presence in Wisconsin, but the Potawatomi's creation story traces the very origins of humanity to the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin between Fond du Lac and Milwaukee. Jim Thunder, an elder of the tribe, told how the creator set down the people who would become Indians near Campbellsport, how the tribes dispersed from there, but came back to the medicine ring at that site to replenish the strength of their medicines.
Patty Loew of Wisconsin Public Television and the University of Wisconsin-Madison related the story of the Sokaogon Chippewa at Mole Lake being part of the Ojibwa tribal movement east from the Great Lakes. Over generations, the tribes forgot their way back, so they lived by a prophecy that they would return to a place where food grows on water. They eventually settled along the lakes in northern Wisconsin, where wild rice grows in abundance.
Today, the descendants of those people harvest wild rice on Rice Lake, drawing nourishment, economic sustenance and spiritual depth from this environmentally fragile place.
It takes patience to follow the process tribal member Fred Ackley described. One person slowly pushes a boat through shallow water while a second person gently taps the rice seeds loose into the boat. Then the rice is dried over an open fire, danced upon to shake off the outer shells, thrown into the air to dust off remaining particles, then cleaned by hand. This is not a recipe for mass production. It is a way of life, a source of wonderful food and a provider of some income.
Rice lakes. Forests with varied species. These seem such modest sources of economic sustenance in the consumer world of the 21st century. The income pales in comparison to the gaming revenues that have helped tribes take significant economic strides over the past generation. Yet they speak to attitudes that tribal leaders in northeastern Wisconsin are working to preserve -- attitudes that include keeping an eye on the future, caring for each other, treating nature with respect.
Consider these vignettes:
The Potawatomi have done well at their casino in Milwaukee. They have become a major political player in the state. Yet Loew pointed out that it is less well known that they put some of that money into a $10 million health center in Crandon that serves not only tribal members but all residents in need in a four county area. She noted that the Potawatomi share some of their revenues with other tribes that face even greater economic struggles.
Some of the tribal leaders know that the gaming boom is not likely to last forever. They are building enterprises for the future. The Potawatomi, for instance, in 1996 used some of their gaming proceeds to start Red Deer Ranch on 320 acres of land near Laona in the Nicolet National Forest. These red deer came from New Zealand and are more like elk than like Wisconsin's white-tailed deer. The herd will reach about 800 this year and the tribe harvests about 250 a year to be made into various kinds of venison. They are proud that there has been no evidence of chronic wasting disease among their herds.
Most of the land on the Menominee reservation is communal. Tribal members rent housing from the tribe, but they do not own individual property. The forest, the sawmill, the schools are all community enterprises.
Then there is that forest. It is not an old growth forest, explained Pecore. The oldest trees in the current forest are 150 to 180 years old. The tribe has harvested trees steadily for generations, with most of the plantations cut four or five times since it began keeping records. The tribe built its own sawmill in 1908 and it provides jobs for about 150 tribal members.
At the end of the 19th century, lumber companies decimated the forests of northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. But the Menominee outwitted them and kept their forest dense and productive.
The tribe did this against persistent pressure from outsiders to take over their forest. This was the area, after all, when lumber companies at the end of the 19th century decimated the forests of northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan. But the Menominee outwitted them and kept their forest dense and productive.
The key was to manage the forest on a sustainable basis -- to not cut more down than would grow in that year, to maintain the balance of species.
It's all part of the view for the long haul.
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