Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Sacred Water,” EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles—and successes—to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation
MARINETTE, Wisc.—Pre-dawn purple and gold and orange swirl deep overhead as the waterfront stirs to life. It’s 6 a.m. at Menekaunee Harbor, where the Menominee River empties into Lake Michigan: Workers file into buildings, heavy machinery fires up and 18-wheelers roar and belch and hit the road.
Last week, amid the industry, an uncommon but just as motley assortment gathered in that fading darkness—retirees in flannel, millennials with long hair and oversized backpacks, some sipping coffee, some waiting in running cars as the sun burned off the morning chill. One guy sported a “Tribal Seeds” sweatshirt of the national reggae band, burning dried sage.
They were waiting for the Menominee tribe, en route from their reservation 60 miles south and running late for the sunrise water walk.
The walk had two objectives: Draw attention to the Back Forty mine, an 83-acre open-pit mine on track for approval upstream of here. Canada-based Aquila Resources, Inc., will pull gold, zinc, copper and silver from land adjacent to both the river and ancient burial sites—things sacred to the tribe but miles from their reservation border, and hence their control.
But just as important is the second objective: revive a culture hit hard by decades of neglect. By way of pollution, inaccessibility, or abandonment from within, the culture of a people who once battled the federal government to recognize their very existence is at risk.
The river mouth, once seeded with wild rice, is 60 miles away from their reservation. The tribe’s annual sturgeon feast is now dependent on state-provided fish. Ancient burial sites rest on land owned by a Canadian mining company.
Many tribal members have never visited this river that birthed their people. To see the mouth, touch the water and hear the industry is, for them, to take a step toward reclaiming their heritage and their culture.
Sunrise happened at 6:30, the orb brilliantly burning through the morning fog. The Indians start arriving at 7, bearing donuts and coffee, laughing, some smoking cigarettes, setting up jugs and tobacco for the pre-walk ceremony.
First to arrive was the bright yellow pickup truck of Menominee tribal member Guy Reiter, who has emerged as the tribe’s leading voice in the mine fight. Others filter in. Donuts are shared. Menominee women and girls wear colorful skirts. Most men wear tee-shirts that say “Menominee River” with an image of a Native American walking toward a full moon.
We’re waiting for a beginning prayer. Young girls line up with copper jugs of water, behind them mothers, then grandmothers.
“Anyone want this last donut?” asks Becky Alegria, a researcher, cultural planner at Menominee Historic Preservation Office.
The group, 25 strong by now, is at the mouth of the river, sacred land to the Menominee, who believe their people were created right here.
Cranes are moving rocks across the river and traffic whizzes by as the tribe pushes ahead with the ceremony, yelling so others can hear. “This is our future,” says Menominee Orlann Caldwell, placing her hands above the children. “And this is our present,” she says of the mothers and grandmothers. She then gestures to the space behind the grandmothers, which is left for deceased ancestors.
“Our first ancestors started right here in this ground, we’re going to call to our brothers and sisters to stand up for our water and land,” Reiter adds.
Reiter is stocky, highly affable, quick to put non-Native minds at ease in these kinds of situations. “You know there’s going to be a test later?” he says jokingly after explaining the significance of the ceremony and walk. Nervous laughter follows.
“Our first ancestors started right here in this ground.”-Guy Reiter, Menominee He wears his black hair in a traditional braid more than halfway down his back. The braid is pulled through his hat, which says “Make America Native Again.”
Everyone present is given a pinch of tobacco from a bag of Gambler Tobacco, about 12 bucks at the local gas station. Everyone drops the tobacco into a wooden bowl. The combined pinches will be offered to the mouth of the river. “Not too much, as we don’t want to pollute it,” says Caldwell, standing about 25 feet from a federal Superfund sign.
“Our five clans: the eagle, moose, bear, wolf, crane …they were created here, that took place right here,” says David Grignon, a Menominee tribal elder and director of the historic preservation department, driving his point home by gesturing to the water with tobacco pinched between his fingers.
The 40-mile walk took place as calls for stronger Native say in decisions on land and water use build across the country.
While a couple dozen people stood offering tobacco at Menekaunee Harbor, hundreds gathered in North Dakota in solidarity with The Standing Rock Sioux and their fight against an oil pipeline near their reservation.
Two weeks ago the Menominee, with Wisconsin’s Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican, sent a semi-truck load of firewood to the Standing Rock camp. And a gallon of water was brought back from North Dakota’s Cannonball River, to be carried in solidarity with water from the Menominee River.
But you didn’t see Susan Sarandon, Neil Young or CNN cameras in eastern Wisconsin. The fight by the Menominee—and in other spots, by other tribes around the country—to protect natural resources and preserve their culture is happening outside of our mainstream cultural and media spotlight.
“This is not a protest. We are just standing up for Mother Earth,” says Menominee member Tony Brown.
Retracing footsteps and remembering ancestors
The walk is a relay, with cars leapfrogging one another to spell walkers. The Menominee tribe’s creation story begins at the mouth of the Menominee River, which forms a border between Michigan and Wisconsin, so the walk is designed to retrace the ancestral steps.
The walkers—10-15 at any given time—start by passing through Menominee, Michigan—gas stations, Subway restaurants, lower middle class neighborhoods. They carry a large sign through the streets. But it’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday; few cars pass by, as most people are at work.
Women carry the water. A male carries a large staff adorned with feathers.
A couple hours in, the small town landscape vanished, transitioning into a mix of farms, heavily wooded parcels, and few homes. For a couple hours the group is joined by grade-schoolers from the Menominee Reservation elementary school, bussed to the walk to learn about their history and the meaning of the river.
The walk was a continuation from April, when walkers started at Keshena Falls on the reservation and walked to Menekaunee Harbor.
“This is not a protest. We are just standing up for Mother Earth.”-Tony Brown, Menominee The walkers push on until 6 p.m., pouring the water they’ve carried back into the river about 10 miles from the mine site.
The mine would be along the banks of the Menominee River, near Menominee burial grounds. Sulfide mines don’t have a great reputation—the tribe fears mine waste and acid mine drainage could pollute the river and the groundwater that feeds it.
The metals sit beneath a sparsely populated, heavily wooded area crisscrossed by dirt roads and dotted with small houses and pole barns set far back in the woods. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality this month announced it intended to approve the mine, pending a couple more permits and a comment period. For the Menominee, time is running out.
The next day, Thursday, the tribal members and supporters gathered at a ceremony at the mine site to honor their ancestors.
Many homes near the mine site sport signs saying, “Stop the mine: Pure Michigan needs pure water.” A handful push the other way, with “Stop the whining, start the mining.” At Aquila’s field office, a quarter mile from the ceremony, two County Sheriff cars sit in the parking lot.
The ceremony site is alive. A light rain falls. Menominee members, Indians from other tribes standing in solidarity and locals opposing the mine pour out of cars onto a high bank overlooking the river. In all, about 200 people are gathered. Reiter runs around directing people where to put food tables, microphones, chairs.
Things kick off with Reiter holding the microphone up to Wade Fernandez, a Menominee member and national musician, as he plays a traditional song on the flute.
Traditional drummers set up and soon the pulse echoes throughout the forest and down the river valley. Many of the drummers and singers are teenagers. Halfway through the song the drumbeat slows to a steady, quiet pulse and young girls take up the song, before the pace quickens and crescendos with a high-pitched holler from an older member.
The haunting, driving rhythm moves many tribal members from their chairs to get up and dance.
“I dance to let Mother Earth know the Indian people still love her,” says Fred Ackley, from Wisconsin’s Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe.
Menominee chairwoman Joan Delabreau is the first to speak. “To my Menominee members, welcome home,” she says. “We’re on our ancestral land.”
For many of the members, it was their first time to this sacred land due to the physical separation the tribe has from the river.
Indeed there are burial grounds visible from where Delabreau is speaking. There are ancient raised garden beds, a true organic farming feat for a tribe this far north, in this area and all along the river.
At the mine site gathering, Grignon, with a backdrop of children behind him including 2016’s Junior Miss Menominee, tells those gathered about how the tribe is working behind the scenes to get what’s rightfully theirs. “When we ceded this territory … we didn’t give away the mounds, the sacred sites.”
Grignon, along with David Overstreet, a consulting archaeologist at the College of Menominee Nation, are also in talks with the University of Michigan to repatriate 49 Menominee members and bury them properly. Some of these deceased are from the very mound groups scattered throughout the mine’s footprint, which would be more than 600 acres.
Speakers pour on the positivity; the prospect of losing this fight seems too heavy to acknowledge. Side chatter in the crowd is harsher, disparaging Aquila for being “evil.” But the closest the speakers get to such talk is chastising a bureaucratic Michigan mining approval process that has left them in the dark. The federal government has had little involvement in the mining decision.
“We’re a nation,” Alegria says. “You cannot compare a state to a nation.”
She’s right, and the statement, met by raucous cheers, cuts to the heart of tribal environmental justice issues: What does sovereignty mean for Native American tribes? It’s a question that has remained nebulous at best since treaties were put in place. Alegria is right, nations trump states, but it doesn’t take a legal scholar to see that the U.S. government doesn’t deal with tribes the way they do with France, Germany, Russia or Japan.
The Menominee tribe has repeatedly pointed to the lack of federal involvement in the Back Forty approval process as a breach of their sovereignty. Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II took that message to Geneva, where he told the United Nations Human Rights Council about injustices happening across the United States.
“The world needs to know what is happening to the Indigenous Peoples of the United States,” he said. “This pipeline violates our treaty rights and our human rights, and it violates the U.N.’s own Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Here, not too far from Marinette, we’re seeing a reawakening, and it’s much bigger than a pipeline or a mine. Tribal treaty rights for decades have been slowly eroded by development, pollution and climate change. Fishing rights, clean water, or preserved burial grounds may be legally guaranteed. But if the salmon don’t run, the water turns dirty, or the burial grounds have a 600-acre pit surrounding them, treaty guarantees are breached in the eyes of tribes.
The feds have taken notice. In response to the Dakota Access pipeline protests in North Dakota, the departments of Army, Justice and Interior called for “a serious discussion” on “nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”
There are a handful of local reporters at the mine site gathering, but the national spotlight is elsewhere.
There aren’t Natives on horseback or celebrities. There’s considerable distance from the reservation to the mine. But the Menominee River is the largest draining system in the Upper Peninsula. It drains into rivers that cross the Menominee Reservation. It’s all the same water. And, just like the Standing Rock, the Menominee say the federal responsibility to consult them has been nonexistent.
Ada Deer, perhaps the most famous Menominee member, moves the crowd by recalling the Menominee’s long, hard road. Decades ago the tribe was a test case for termination—something Deer was integral in getting reversed—and has long battled poverty and joblessness. Deer, a long-time Native American advocate, led that charge against tribal termination in the 1970s and served as Assistant Secretary of Interior, head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997.
“Many of us in our childhood would hear about this area, but didn’t come,” Deer says, to a crowd with babies, elders and every age in between. “We need to come.”
All photos and audio by Environmental Health News