February 3, 2013 by Barbara With
January 23, 2013. The only public hearing on mining bill SB1/AB1 is taking place in Madison, Wisconsin. Next up in the queue is Mike Wiggins Jr., Chair of Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reserve is 300 miles north of the state Capitol and six miles west of the site of a proposed 21-mile open-pit mountaintop removal iron ore mine.
Having faced a similar tribunal several times before, Wiggins looks slightly impatient with the new incarnation of yet another committee pushing the same corporate-sponsored bill. Neither he nor any other representative of Wisconsin’s Native Sovereign Nations have been consulted.
Even though he has the support of Federal law, state legislators, environmentalists, scientists, local and county governments, and the majority of the people likely to be directly affected by a mine in the Penokee Hills, Wiggins is once again being treated as a gullible child by the committee. He is also dealing with obvious racism playing out in the fight for a mine in his backyard.
Wiggins, who stands to lose more than anyone if the mine is built, was not invited to speak by the committee. He’s in good company, however; neither the Army Corp of Engineers nor any scientists have been invited either. The mining company and their legislative advocates dominate the first four hours of the hearing; the pro-mining supporters bused in by the Koch Brothers’ astroturf group Americans for Prosperity and other Tea Party groups are next up. Wiggins, his fellow Bad River members and members of other Anishinaabe bands are pushed to the back of the line. Many are never given a chance to speak at all.
Wiggins is given two minutes to beg for the lives of the 7,000 members of his community.
For the fourth time (three other public hearings were held for AB426 in 2011 and 2012), proof is presented that iron ore mining in Minnesota has killed off wild rice in the St. Louis River for 100 miles and that an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills will devastate the wild rice in the Kakagon Sloughs. For the fourth time, the committee expects Wiggins to plead for the sacred water and sustainable food production that his people are dependent on.
Instead of pleading, Wiggins warns:
Because we’re directly downstream and set to endure the impacts of this project, we view it as an imminent threat. This human threat really manifests itself in a form of genocide. Genocide.
The fact that the sulfate run-off from an iron ore mine in the Penokees will kill the wild rice rightly has Wiggins speaking the “G” word.
Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.
In a historical context, Wiggins has every right to be concerned.
In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed for the relocation of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “… it was sometimes applied unilaterally and enforced at gunpoint, in flagrant violation of previous treaties, to evict Indians from valuable lands in the East.”
The Treaties of 1837 and 1842 guaranteed the Ojibwe—Wiggins’ ancestors—the right to stay in the Lake Superior basin in exchange for ceding the US government 23 million acres. In return, they would receive annuity payments for 20 to 25 years, a combination of cash, food and services, and the right to hunt, fish and gather on those 23 million acres for perpetuity (forever). These annual payments were to replace the hunting, fishing and other land uses now relegated to a handful of reservations within the ceded territory, and made the Ojibwe much more dependent on the US government.
Treaties were not, however, negotiations of equals. As Chief Buffalo “negotiated” with the white government, he understood that he either “negotiated,” or his people would get openly slaughtered. It was that simple.
Since Columbus landed, European Colonialists had killed off much of the indigenous population in the new colonies. Later, General William Tecumseh Sherman, fighting the Indian Wars, wrote to Ulysses S. Grant proclaiming, “We are not going to let thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the railroads. One method of liquidation was to attack their food supplies. Plains Indians were assaulted when white hunters slaughtered the buffalo from moving trains, leaving their carcasses to rot and depleting the resources the Cheyenne and Comanche needed for survival. The result was the destruction of countless First Nation lives and tens of millions of buffalo, both nearly driven to extinction.
General Phillip Henry Sheridan took over command of the Indian Wars from Sherman. In his Annual Report of the General of the U.S. Army in 1878 he admitted that, “We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could any one expect less? Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties?”
The 1837 and 1842 Treaties required that most Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Ojibwe bands receive their annuities in La Pointe on Madeline Island. Material survival for the Ojibwe was now hinged on how willing the U.S. government was to honor its commitments. Every autumn, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was to send the food, supplies, money and other provisions promised in the Treaties.
In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny,“ which promoted the racist proclamation that the white population in the East were “divinely obligated” to settle the West. Christianity deemed the indigenous nation heathens. By 1848, Wisconsin had become a state and two years later, President Taylor issued an executive order for the removal of the Ojibwe, in direct violation of the treaties signed not ten years prior.
Back in La Pointe, Chief Buffalo was working to prevent the removal of the Chippewa from Madeline Island and northern Wisconsin—their hunting and fishing grounds, lumber yard, grocery and pharmacy—with its abundant clean water and rivers for wild rice. He made a plea to the citizens of Wisconsin to stand with them. A broad coalition of supporters, including missionary groups, newspapers, businessmen, and Wisconsin state legislators rallied to oppose the removal effort as band members refused to abandon their homes and burial grounds of their ancestors.
To force the Objiwe off their lands, in 1850 the BIA changed the location and time of where they were to pick up their payments. Instead of La Pointe in autumn, the Ojibwe were ordered to retrieve their payments at a remote spot in what is now Minnesota, over 500 miles in away, in winter. When they arrived at Sandy Lake, there would be no real food or provisions awaiting them. The government had purposefully lied to them. Hundreds of Ojibwe died making the trip there and back.
Stunned by the Sandy Lake tragedy and the breach of the 1837 and 1842 Treaties, Chief Buffalo, along with four braves and a guide, set out by birch bark canoe from the shores of Madeline Island to make the “illegal” trip to Washington DC. The book Ojibwe Journeys, published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission notes: “The 93-year-old Chief Buffalo making the journey to Washington, D.C., paddling a quarter of the way in a canoe to defend tribal treaty rights, speaks volumes, and so eloquently, of the sacrifice, pain and determination many have gone through to defend our legal and human rights all the while envisioning a better world for our children.”
In 1852, Chief Buffalo finally met with President Millard Fillmore (Taylor died in office) and told him of Sandy Lake. After smoking the peace pipe together, Fillmore agreed to let them stay. The Treaty of La Pointe was signed in 1854, ceding more land to the white colonialists in exchange for being allowed stay on their reservations and share hunting, fishing and gathering on those ceded territories.
Wiggins’ ancestors who signed away the ceded territory knew where to pick their reserve. Great Spirit led them to the Kakagon Sloughs, where “food grows on water.” Chief Buffalo may never have met Mike Wiggins Jr. but Wiggins was indeed one of the “unborn children” Chief Buffalo was speaking for in 1852.
The Chief understood genocide. He no doubt foresaw a day in future when the white racists would come after his 7th generation to kill them, as they had killed the men, women and children who had come before. Settled in the sloughs, they would at least have food and water, until the end came.
Those advocating for “mining at all costs” refuse to acknowledge Federal Treaty Rights and the legal enforcement of them. But even more disturbing is their callous ignorance of truth of the genocide they are proposing. A mine in the Penokees will kill the wild rice and poison the fish and water, taking away the Chippewa’s means of support, breaking up their spiritual center, their way of life, and introducing decay and illness. Just like Sheridan and his Indian War, SB1/AB1 will initiate another systematic step in the genocide of the Anishinaabe culture.
When Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) visited Wiggins and the Bad River tribal council last February, he shared a smoke from the very pipe Chief Buffalo smoked with Fillmore in 1852. Schultz ended up breaking party lines in March 2012 when he cast the deciding vote that defeated the last mining bill.
And still, the Republicans on the committee attempt to convince Wiggins that he should trust the mining company and the government:
Mike Wiggins Jr: The obliteration of the headwaters in a watershed system is catastrophic. It is catastrophic for the ecosystem, which is ultimately catastrophic for the human population that is dependent and interconnected with it. That’s what we’re talking about. And it’s forever. It’s not 20 years of having a $5,000 bond available.
Sen. Glenn Grothmann (R-West Bend): I don’t think anyone on the committee would vote for a bill unless they were certain that the Bad River would be clean.
Unfortunately, they already have.