Chippewa Treaties: Protecting Northern Wisconsin
In Northern Wisconsin, as in other parts of the country, treaty rights have led to friction between Indians and some non-Indians over natural resources. Ironically, though, in the face of an outside threat to the same natural resources (such as mining), the same treaties can serve to bring Indian and non-Indians together in a common cause.
In Washington state, years of fighting over fishing rights ended when the state and tribes decided to co-manage the fish resource, and to use the treaties to protect it from logging, damming, and other harmful practices. In Montana, the Crow Indians used their treaty rights to declare the air over their reservation protected, thus preventing the building of a coal plant that would have drained underground water supplies. Their move had the support of local non-Indian ranchers who before had fought the Indians over water rights. The same happened in South Dakota, where Indian-rancher opposition prevented uranium mines and a coal slurry pipeline. If the water was taken by corporations, the reasoning went, the two communities would have nothing left in ten years to fight over.
Now it turns out that treaties may be useful in protecting the environment here. Multinational corporations and the government are looking at the North's granite bedrock as a source for metallic minerals and uranium, and as a possible dumpsite for radioactive nuclear waste.
Kennecott (owned by the world's largest mining company, London-based Rio Tinto Zinc) is about to close a copper sulfide mine in Rusk County. Local residents fear that after the company leaves, the mine will leak sulfuric acid into the Flambeau River, 140 feet away. The DNR bought RTZ/Kennecott's reassurances and permitted the project in 1993, even though mining sulfide ores has never been accomplished without significant pollution. Indigenous peoples around the world have united against RTZ damage to their ancestral lands.
There are currently about nine other sulfide mines in various planning stages. Noranda (a Canadian firm that proposed the Lynne zinc sulfide mine near a walleye spawning bed in Willow Flowage), Chevron (an oil company) and others have found mineral deposits in Oneida County that would have the same effects. A cyanide leaching plant has been proposed for extraction of gold in Taylor County. Exxon wants to open a zinc-copper mine just upstream from the Mole Lake Chippewa Reservation's wild rice beds, and the Wolf River, and has been met by a strong alliance of Native Americans, environmentalists, and now sportfishing groups!
We supposedly have strict mining laws in Wisconsin, but there are many loopholes. RTZ/Kennecott was easily able to get around restrictions, such as the one that set a minimum allowable distance of a mine from a navigable stream at 300 feet. In the past two decades, state officials have worked to grease the skids by weakening mining pollution laws and lowering mining taxes. The state now allows counties to override town moratoriums on mining. Such a moratorium had stalled the RTZ/Kennecott Ladysmith mine for years, until the state allowed the Rusk County Board to override it.
Meanwhile, the federal government has aggressively pushed the creation of new mines and new waste-generating nuclear facilities, and changed regulations to allow low-level radioactive wastes to be deposited in ordinary landfills. Rules also now allow nuclear waste to be stored on mine sites. Northern Wisconsin is high on the list of possible second-phase high-level nuclear waste sites, according to studies commissioned by the Department of Energy.
So if our county, state, and federal governments continue to maintain a decidedly pro-Big Business attitude, who will look out for the small-time farmer, fishing guide, or resort owner dependent on clean water? Treaties may provide us with a last line of defense against serious environmental problems. The treaties do not cover mineral rights, but they do guarantee Chippewa access to off-reservation fish, game, and wild rice - precisely the natural resources that would be endangered by mining. Treaties may also serve to protect endangered species, particularly those (such as the rare clams found in the Flambeau), whose extinction would indicate serious water contamination.
The Mole Lake Reservation unsuccessfully sued Exxon to protect its rice beds from the proposed Crandon mine. The Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation unsuccessfully sued to protect endangered species from the Ladysmith mine. Lac du Flambeau Chippewa have come out against the nearby Noranda project, which was delayed due to wetlands considerations. Michigan Chippewa are using the treaties to stop a proposed low-level nuclear waste project. DNR Secretary George Meyer has acknowledged that the Chippewa have a case - that treaties have legal standing in federal court to slow or block projects that may be destructive to the environment.
Is it just coincidental, then, that the Governor's point-man in treaty lease efforts has been his retired Administration Secretary James Klauser, who is a lobbyist-on-leave for Exxon Minerals? As a lobbyist, Klauser pushed the Crandon mine for years as the start of a mining district across Northern Wisconsin, and was key in drafting laws favorable to the mining industry.
The anti-treaty group Protect American's Rights and Resources (PARR) said on February 23, 1991, that it will not endorse any mining controversy solution reached as a result of long-dead treaties. In contrast, the director of Muskies, Inc. (a sport group representing 6000 members) was one of many who spoke at a Ladysmith public hearing against the granting of the RTZ/Kennecott permit. According to the Wausau Daily Herald (July 17, 1990), he said, Mining is the real threat to fishing in Wisconsin. It has the potential to make the Indian spearing controversy look like a piece of candy.
The new global economy means that corporations can tell local communities to take these jobs and shove em, and locate wherever it's most profitable for them. Cars and electronics are made in Japan, and clothing in Third World sweatshops. Eucalyptus wood is imported from Latin America for processing in Wisconsin mills (meanwhile loggers are struggling here). Federal government policies benefit huge corporate farms and multinational food processors (meanwhile 12,000 Wisconsin family farms have folded in the past decade).
Multinationals have targeted Northern Wisconsin as a mining district. Does this mean that we want to go along with those plans, and jeopardize our existing tourism, forestry, and farming industries? (How will tourists feel about driving behind giant trucks carrying ore or sulfide mine wastes?) Mining is a boom-and-bust proposition. The influx of job seekers and new residents puts stresses on a community and its social services. Companies promise new jobs, but state tax laws give them a tax break for relocating their own skilled workers. RTZ, for example, laid off 1600 Ontario miners, who could be available for the Ladysmith mine, and many miners have been laid off at Michigan's White Pine copper mine.
Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a close-to-home example of the bust that follows the boom. After extracting the copper and silver, the mining companies pulled out, leaving some of the most economically depressed rural areas in the country. They can't go back to their previous farm and forestry economy, because the ecological damage is actually that extensive. USA Today (April 23, 1991) reports that 6 out of the 10 counties with the largest population loss in the last census had gone through mining busts.
Red Cliff Chippewa activist Walt Bresette proposes a Northern Wisconsin economy based on recreation, tourism, small and diversified businesses, small-scale logging and environmentally appropriate industries. Ceded territory, once cleaned up he says, would be marketable as an international spot for vacationers and those looking for a place to live, with a healthy and safe environment. A Toxic-Free Zone would protect natural resources from giant mining and energy corporations, and would benefit all residents of the ceded territories. Bresette says, Sooner or later, people in Northern Wisconsin will realize that the environmental threat is more of a threat to their lifestyle than Indians who go out and spear fish. I think, in fact, that we have more things in common with the anti-Indian people than we have with the State of Wisconsin.
Northern Wisconsin residents, no matter what we feel about the treaty issue, have similar concerns. We are concerned about the condition of our natural resources. We are concerned about the lack of opportunities for employment and small businesses. The difference is that we treaty supporters think that Indian people aren't the problem. In fact, we think that their treaties may be one part of the solution. If Indian people can successfully create an economy that preserves their community, and protects natural resources, it might provide an example to us non-Indian neighbors, who are finding our welfare lines increasing, our kids leaving for work in the city, and our environment degraded by pollution.
The precious land of Northern Wisconsin can be preserved for all of those who live on it, Indian and non-Indian, but only if the rights of all who live on the land are upheld, and they are not divided-and conquered by the real outsiders: multinational corporations. If the Chippewa treaties are weakened, non-Indians will have been robbed of a legal tool to protect off-reservation waterways. There would be no more spearfishing, and no more protests against it, simply because there would be no edible fish left to argue about.
This leaflet is excerpted from the booklet Wisconsin Treaties: What's the Problem?. For booklets to distribute, contact the Wisconsin offices of the Midwest Treaty Network, an alliance of grassroots Indian and non-Indian groups. Donations are welcome.