Migizi, the eagle,
above the earth,
over lakes and streams.
Anishinabe, dancer of dreams,
traditions and life,
dancing to the beat
of the drum
heard from generation to generation.
The eagle calls to the people
of every nation…
The Earth, mother to all creation,
needs you, ogitchidaa,
to care for the rivers,
plains, mountains and valleys.
Leader, warrior, earth protector –
On the morning of July 22, 1996, five men awoke before dawn and made their way to a remote stretch of railroad tracks on the Bad River Indian Reservation near Highbridge, Wisconsin, not far from where the tracks crossed over a bridge so old and rickety that the rail ties were falling into the river. A sacred fire was lit and an eagle feather staff was placed on the railroad tracks. Prayer flags were set in the four directions and a drum was set up for the ancient songs of prayer and thanksgiving. The men were Ogitchida, protectors of the Ojibway people, and they had come to blockade the tracks and stop any trains from crossing the decaying bridge. Why had these men taken such a bold action? Wisconsin Central Ltd. had begun transporting sulfuric acid across the reservation to supply the solution mining operation at the White Pine Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Copper Range Mining Company closed the mine in 1995, after forty years of operation, due to declining profits, but Inmet Mining, a Canadian-based company, planned to use solution mining, in which acid is poured into the mineshafts, to recover the remaining copper. The operation required 550 million gallons of sulfuric acid![ii]
The Ojibway living on the Bad River Indian Reservation were terrified that a train accident at the old bridge would dump thousands of gallons of sulfuric acid into the river, destroying the wild rice, from which the people draw their livelihood, along with the rare sturgeon and countless other species living in the river. The acid would seep into the drinking water on the reservation and inevitably be washed into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The Ojibway also feared acid drainage from the mine itself, which was only five miles from Lake Superior. John Wilmer, Chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, brought the concerns of his people to state and federal government officials.[iii]
Regrettably, the fears and concerns of the Ojibway People fell on deaf ears. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), citing interstate commerce laws, gave Wisconsin Central Ltd. permission to ship the acid across the reservation without the consent of the Bad River tribal government. When the tribe protested, claiming that the tracks were unsafe, the FRA sent an inspector who cited several areas of concern, but authorized the trains to proceed with their shipments provided they didn’t exceed 10mph. Shipments commenced on June 21. The initial phase of the solution mining began at White Pine Mine on July 2.[iv] Only one day prior, the Environmental Protection Agency had granted the permit for Inmet to proceed with the project without completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or holding public hearings on the proposed project, claiming that the involvement of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was sufficient for granting a permit.[v]
Anishinabe Ogitchida decided that enough was enough. Sulfuric acid and solution mining posed direct threats to the health and safety of the Ojibway people and threatened the very livelihood of the people by potentially irreparably damaging the environment, from which the Ojibway draw their sustenance. Ogitchida Butch Stone explained the need for action:
“A lot of people are good at talking the talk. However, they’ve got nowhere. We have environmental organizations talking against mining, against these chemicals, against the destruction to out water, the air, the animal nations, the plants, but they don’t take no action. We are a sovereign people. We have the inherent right to protect and preserve all that our Creator has given to us to protect and preserve. We are carrying out our duties as Ogitchidaas.” [vi]
As the sacred fire was being lit at the tracks, local and regional press members were receiving a statement from Anishinabe Ogitchida, prepared in advance and delivered by Native activist and Ogitchida spokesman Walt Bresette, who had resigned his position as Indigenous Chair of the EPS’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council after the agency blindly issued the permit for solution mining at White Pine. Below is the press statement from Anishinabe Ogitchida at the onset of the blockade:
Today, at dawn, a sacred fire was lit next to the railroad tracks on the Bad River Chippewa Reservation, within the ceded territory of the Lake Superior Chippewa.
The sacred fire will burn for four days during which prayers, songs and offerings will be made in traditional ceremonies. We, the Anishinabe Ogitchida, will hunt and gather food during these four days.
These next few days will help determine our actions for the next few weeks, months and perhaps years. We ask that these ceremonies be undisturbed by train traffic or those who would seek to disrupt these spiritual activities.
Following the four days of spiritual ceremony, we will leave if the following conditions are met:
1) An immediate cessation of acid mining at White Pine, Michigan until:
a) The Treaty Rights of the Lake Superior Chippewa are considered;
b) There is a full Environmental Impact Statement of the Acid Mine Project
2) A reclamation plan is developed for the existing tailings area prior to acid solution mining.
3) A reclamation plan for the brine aquifer seepage at White Pine prior to
consideration of acid mining.
4) The immediate cessation of all sulfuric acid transport in ceded territory
a) A full EIS on acid mining [is performed];
b) An inspection, report, and repair of rail lines in our territory;
c) All communities on the rail corridor have trained staff, adequate equipment and emergency response teams to handle an acid spill.
If these conditions are met, this peaceful and spiritual gathering will end at dawn on Friday. For the next four days our community will be safe from this unsafe transport of hazardous materials.
We call on others to seek similar spiritual guidance, and to take similar action.
We call on all traditional and spiritual people to join us in these deliberations.
We call on other Anishinabe Ogitchida to also join us; we will protect our right and our duty to these ceremonies.[vii]
The trains stopped. As word spread, more people joined the Ogitchida at the tracks and journalists throughout the upper Midwest picked up the story. Railroad officials met with Anishinabe Ogitchida and agreed to “delay” shipments and develop an emergency response plan specifically for the reservation; however, when Anishinabe Ogitchida did not leave at the end of the four-day prayer ceremony, but instead the gathering at the tracks grew in number, the very same railroad officials demanded the Ashland County Sheriff “remove the protestors”.[viii] The Ashland County Sheriff, along with a group of county police, met with Anishinabe Ogitchida on July 29 during a somewhat tense, but peaceful, meeting on the tracks. Ultimately, the Sheriff refused to take any action, claiming that, since the blockade was taking place on the reservation and involved Native American religious ceremonies, the matter was clearly a treaty issue and must be resolved by the federal government.[ix]
As if by divine intervention, a Wisconsin Central train derailed in downtown Ashland, Wisconsin at 2 PM on July 30, the day following the Sheriff’s refusal to take action against Anishinabe Ogitchida. Fortunately, no one was injured and the train wasn’t carrying any toxic materials. The derailment, caused by one of the rails breaking in two, perfectly illustrated the concerns and fears of the Ojibway people and north woods environmentalists. An accident such as this could have resulted in the spilling of thousands of gallons of sulfuric acid. As media reporters arrived on the scene, along with many who had been to the blockade to show support for Anishinabe Ogitchida, the rail workers were busy making repairs and getting the engine that derailed back onto the tracks. During press interviews, one railroad official said, “I don’t know why people are so concerned with this minor incident. It happens all the time.”[x]
In frustration, notoriously pro-mining Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson requested a federal mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice to take over the situation on the tracks. Justice Department mediator John Teronnez met with Anishinabe Ogitchida on August 2.[xi] Contrary to reports of an armed conflict on the railroad tracks, the mediator found a peaceful spiritual protest led by conscientious people. Walt Bresette spoke with the mediator as both a spokesman for Anishinabe Ogitchida and a representative of all those, Native and non-Native, who opposed the solution mining project.[xii]
Walt expressed the deepest fears of the Ojibway, not only that an acid spill might contaminate their reservation, but also that acid drainage from the mine itself could irreversibly damage the delicate Lake Superior watershed. Furthermore, Anishinabe Ogitchida considered the project a direct assault on Ojibway sovereignty.[xiii] The Treaties of 1836, 1837, 1842, and 1854, guarantee the Ojibway and their progeny the right to remain on their lands and retain usufruct rights in the ceded-territories to ensure their livelihood. In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld Ojibway sovereignty in the landmark Voigt Decision, which reaffirmed the rights of the Ojibway to hunt, fish, and gather on all off-reservation public lands (and in some cases private lands) throughout the ceded-territories, i.e. the northern third of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.[xiv] The solution mining project was illegal because it violated ceded- territory treaty rights by threatening the natural environment from which the Ojibway secure their livelihood.
After meeting with officials from Wisconsin Central Ltd., Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Ashland County Sheriff’s Department, Inmet Mining, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency, federal mediator Teronnez reached an agreement with Anishinabe Ogitchida in which they would end the blockade in exchange for a complete environmental analysis of the solution mining project at White Pine Mine.[xv] During the negotiations, two trains were allowed to pass the blockade after Ogitchida inspected them for toxic materials and found them to be safe. On August 19, Anishinabe Ogitchida released the blockade after 28 days on the tracks. Trains began moving through the reservation once again, but railroad officials agreed not to ship any sulfuric acid until a formal agreement with the Bad River tribe was reached.[xvii] Walt Bresette announced the success of the blockade saying, “Sovereignty is not something you ask for. Sovereignty is the act. This blockade has successfully drawn public attention to the largest ecological threat in our region’s history.”[xviii]
Nearly a month after the blockade ended, the EPA announced that they would hold a series of public meetings from September 23 – 26 seeking public input on the solution mining project and would explain the process involved in conducting an environmental analysis. The meetings would be held on the Bad River Indian Reservation; in Ashland, Wisconsin; in Ironwood, Michigan; and on the Keweenaw Bay Reservation. Later, after Ontonagon County officials complained, EPA announced a fifth meeting to be held in the city of White Pine itself. Public outcry against the mine was nearly unanimous on the reservations and was strong in Ashland, where many students and faculty of Northland College testified against solution mining.[xix]
Many declared their intention participate in a demonstration at the mine, which Walt Bresette had announced in early September. Only in Ironwood, Michigan, near the mine itself was there any real show of support for the project.[xx] It was at this time that I entered the scene, having arrived at Northland College as a freshman in early September. Like many others, I testified against the mine and rebuked the EPA for granting a permit for an unethical and illegal project without even conducting a proper assessment or involving the Native governments in the process.
EPA officials announced that over the course of the next 12 to 18 months they would conduct an Environmental Analysis of White Pine Mine. The analysis would carefully consider the effects the project would have on Native American populations and would contain many of the same features as an Environmental Impact Statement, which EPA claimed was unnecessary because of the preliminary research provided by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. EPA also announced that the railroad tracks leading through the Bad River reservation met federal regulations for transporting sulfuric acid. In due course, Wisconsin Central Ltd. resumed their shipments of acid. Outraged, Walt Bresette proclaimed that he felt “betrayed” by the EPA and would lead workshops on “how to take apart the rails”.[xxi] This proved unnecessary.
On October 14, 1996, Copper Range and Inmet announced that they were withdrawing their permit application and suspending all activities at White Pine Mine, claiming that the length of time indicated by EPA for the Environmental Analysis, with no certainty of being approved for the full scale project, would result in a net loss of profits.[xxii] In short, the mining companies were unwilling to pay the ante for an unsure hand, and they chose to lose a small amount of money early in the game rather than a great deal of money 12 to 18 months down the road. The company made the intelligent choice. Less than a year later, environmentalists were successful in passing the mining moratorium law in Wisconsin, setting much higher environmental standards to acquire permits for solution mining.[xxiii] The White Pine Mine had seen its final days.
Anishinabe Ogitchida had secured a decisive victory not only for the Ojibway, but also for all people and for Mother Earth. They provided an example of the positive change that may be accomplished through political activism in our local communities and regions. The Ogitchida are warriors, protectors of the people, charged with the responsibility of defending those who cannot defend themselves and speaking for those who are not given a voice. Central to the Ogitchida way is the Seventh Generation philosophy, which holds that one must be mindful of the effects of any decision or action on future generations. Traditional Anishinabe look to the seventh generation to see how their actions will affect their descendants. It is the responsibility of the Ogitchida to look to the seventh generation and take action to ensure the best possible life for the people.
Anishinabe Ogitchida blockaded railroad tracks crossing the Bad River Indian Reservation for twenty-eight days to prevent Wisconsin Central Railroad Ltd. from transporting sulfuric acid to the White Pine Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The solution mining operation at White Pine sat only 5 miles from Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Anishinabe Ogitchida decided to take direct action to protect their people and Mother Earth.
[i] Edward Benton-Banai wrote these beautiful words. Cited from the “Ogitchida” poster published by Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). The copyright holder is University of Saskatchewan. Cited from website: http://scaa.sk.ca/ourlegacy/permalink/27707
[ii] Zoltan Grossman “Chippewa block acid shipments – the Anishinabe Ogitchida group, protectors of the people, fight against transport of 550 mil gal of sulphuric acid for a copper mining recovery project“. Progressive, The. . FindArticles.com. 27 Dec. 2008. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1295/is_n10_v60/ai_18710709
[iv] Peter Macjewski, “Environmental Justice Case Study: Solution Mining in White Pine, MI and the Bad River Reservation”, edited and coded by Kate Jones, cited from University of Michigan, Environmental Justice Case Studies, at the website: http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/cases.html
[v] Midwest Treaty Network. 1996. “Train Blockade at Bad River Ojibwa Reservation, WI, to Stop Sulfuric Acid Shipment to Michigan Mine.” Web site viewed on July 30, 2004. http://www.alphacdc.com/treaty/mtn-brx1.html
[vi] Bad River Ogitchida Butch Stone quoted in: News from Indian Country, Aug 12-19, 1996, pp. A1 and A6.
[vii] Statement from Anishinabe Ogitchida released the morning on which the railroad blockade began. Cited from website: http://nativenet.uthscsa.edu/archive/nl/9607/0092.html
[viii] Macjewski, “Environmental Justice Case Study: Solution Mining in White Pine, MI and the Bad River Reservation”
[ix] Tom Meersman, “A conflict of environment and economics; Chemical shipments spur safety concerns and a tribal protest.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN.), 8/3/1996, 3B.
[x] Alice I. McCombs, “WISCONSIN CENTRAL DERAILS IN CITY OF ASHLAND”. 7/31/1996. Cited from website: http://nativenet.uthscsa.edu/archive/nl/9608/0003.html
[xi] Meersman, “A conflict of environment and economics; Chemical shipments spur safety concerns and a tribal protest.”
[xii] Peter Maller, “Group to protest process at mine: Opponents already blocked acid shipments.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 9/4/1996, 5.
[xiv] Rick Whaley and Walter Bresette, Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance against Racism and for the Earth (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994), 17-21.
[xv] Maller, “Group to protest process at mine: Opponents already blocked acid shipments.”
[xvii] Macjewski, “Environmental Justice Case Study: Solution Mining in White Pine, MI and the Bad River Reservation”
[xviii] Grossman “Chippewa block acid shipments – the Anishinabe Ogitchida group, protectors of the people, fight against transport of 550 mil gal of sulphuric acid for a copper mining recovery project“.
[xix] Macjewski, “Environmental Justice Case Study: Solution Mining in White Pine, MI and the Bad River Reservation”
[xxiii] Cited from “Legislative Briefs”, Brief 98-1, published by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, May 1998. Available online at the Wisconsin State Legislature website: http://www.legis.state.wi.us/LRB/pubs/Lb/98Lb1.pdf