Perhaps the most profound of all Anishinabe teachings, seventh generation philosophy holds that one must be mindful of the effects of any decision or action on the future of the people unto the seventh generation. After all, we ourselves are a seventh generation who owe our very existence and our rights to the wise thoughts and brave deeds of our Grandfathers and Grandmothers seven generations ago. In this modern industrial age, there is no greater challenge to the seventh generation than the environmental threats facing our world.
This article will discuss the Anishinabe role in the creation of the “Protect the Earth” movement, which is dedicated to preserving our collective natural resources so that they may be enjoyed seven generations hence and beyond. The story picks up with the “Walleye Warriors” during the turbulent spearfishing riots of the eighties and proceeds through the blockade of the railroad tracks by the Anishinabe Ogitchidaa in 1996 and on to the drafting of the much needed Seventh Generation Amendment.
The 1983 Voigt decision, upholding the right of the Ojibway People to hunt, fish, and gather on off-reservation lands ceded to the United States in the Treaties of 1836, 1837, 1842, and 1854 (collectively called the Ceded-Territory Treaties), spawned a vicious outpour of racism against the Ojibway. During the late eighties and early nineties, a series of tense, often violent, conflicts broke out at boat landings throughout the north woods as Ojibway spearfishermen, dubbed “Walleye Warriors”, ventured bravely onto the waters to exercise their right to fish in the ceded-territories, while white protestors hurled racial insults and physically attacked them. The situation grew more serious as bullets were shot across the water at the fishermen. Native activist Walt Bresette and non-Native activist Rick Whaley co-founded Witnesses for Non-violence and the Midwest Treaty Network to support the Walleye Warriors and foster peaceful counter protests at the boat landings.
Walt knew that northern Wisconsin’s non-Native population, including many of those who belonged to racist anti-treaty groups, would eventually see that the profiteering corporations and corrupt government agencies polluting Wisconsin’s natural environment posed ‘more of a threat to their lifestyle than Indians who go out and spearfish”.[i] Mercury pollution from mine wastes, a byproduct of the mining process, posed a common threat to both Native spearfishermen and non-Native sport fishermen.
During the height of the spearfishing wars, Walt Bresette and Anishinabe poet Al Hunter went to an anti-treaty rally in Minocqua, Wisconsin. According to Hunter, “The park was filled with guys in orange coats, when Walt walked right up to the podium to hear ‘em talk. A path cleared. It was like the parting of the Red Sea for a couple of Shinnob guys.” As Dean Crist, leader of Protect America’s Rights and Resources (PARR) – the leading anti-treaty group, – got up to speak, Bresette shouted, “Hey, what about the mines?”[ii] As the end of the spear fishing controversy neared, the refusal of the anti-treaty groups to take a stand against mining was costing them their “environmentalist image”, such that many ecologically minded sport fisherman had withdrawn their support. All that was left of the anti-treaty movement was racist rhetoric. At that point, the focus of Walleye Warriors changed from “winning” to “healing”.[iii]
Anishinabe Ogitchida Walt Bresette and activist Sandy Lyon
Gradually, non-Native sport fisherman and Native spearfishermen became united in their opposition to the “outside” threat posed by mining companies and the pollution of Wisconsin’s precious waterways. Remarkably, the vast majority of Wisconsinites, including a great many who had been part of the anti-treaty movement, supported the 1996 Anishinabe Ogitchida blockade of the railroad tracks and subsequent campaign against White Pine Mine.[iv]
The Protect the Earth movement had been born over the course of a turbulent decade in which Anishinabe sovereignty had been reaffirmed and redefined. An unprecedented interracial and multicultural alliance emerged from the spearfishing conflicts. Such organizations as Anishinabe Niiji, which in the Ojibway language means “Friend of the Anishinabe”; the Midwest Treaty Network; Lake Superior Greens; The Environmental Network, Great Lakes Chapter; and WOJB FM radio all owe at least part of their existence to Walt Bresette and his tireless campaign to unite the people of the Great Lakes for Mother Earth.[v]
Anishinabe treaty rights had emerged as a powerful weapon against the environmental degradation resulting from corporate tyranny and governmental corruption Any threat to the natural environment within the ceded-territories endangered the ability of the Ojibway to exercise their usufruct rights to hunt, fish, and gather. If harm were to come to the game animals, fish, or wild rice, or any number of edible and medicinal plants harvested by the Ojibway, then the ceded-territory treaties have been violated. Thus, the ceded-territory treaties stood as a strong and unyielding protection for the shared environment of all people throughout the Upper Midwest.
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) was created in 1984, comprising eleven Ojibway tribes, to implement the ceded-territory treaty rights under a management strategy designed to maximize the yearly harvest while ensuring the continuing availability of resources for future generations.[vi] Bresette and many others envisioned an “environmental zone” encompassing the ceded-territories that would be jointly coordinated by state and tribal agencies, and which would serve as a model for green economic development throughout North America and the world. Such exceptional cooperation between states and tribes has not yet developed, though significant progress has been made.[vii]
As much of a victory as the Voigt decision was for the environmental movement, it was only applicable to the ceded-territories of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Therefore, Lake Superior Greens began exploring the prospect of securing universal environmental protection throughout the United States. The challenge lay in the fact that the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, does not include provisions for the protection of common property, those natural resources which cannot be owned by an individual but rather are held in common by all human beings, such as clean air, safe drinking water, sunlight, and other natural gifts. The Fifth Amendment provides protection for private property, which has been the major grounds of opposition to environmental legislation, with industrialists and corporate interests claiming that environmental regulations result in the diminished value of private property. Lake Superior Greens believed that, “the taking of common property through abuse of private property use should be as illegal as the opposite.”[viii]
The only Constitutional basis for the protection of common property lay in the Preamble, which includes a line calling for the present generation to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. This clearly exemplifies seventh generation thinking, as it was the intention of the forefathers to preserve for future generations, “our Posterity”, that for which they had fought so gallantly. It seems entirely reasonable that clean breathable air, fresh drinking water, and other common properties should be considered “Blessings of Liberty”.[ix]
In 1995, in the Spirit of securing the “Blessings of Liberty” for future generations, the Lake Superior Greens drafted a landmark Constitutional Amendment called “The 7th Generation Amendment” or “Common Property Amendment”, which would provide Constitutional protection for common property, balancing the protections of private property and giving environmental legislation a solid legal foundation. [x] Below is the draft language for the 7th Generation Amendment:
“The rights of the people to use and enjoy air, water, sunlight, and other renewable resources determined by Congress to be common property, shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for the future generations.”
As Wisconsin celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1998, Walt Bresette and Frank Koehn organized the 7th Generation Walk, a 320-mile journey from the Red Cliff Reservation (the northernmost point in Wisconsin) to the state capital at Madison. The Walk had several purposes, most notably of which was to raise awareness and gain popular support for the 7th Generation Amendment. Along the way, the walkers would stop in each community and hold talking circles to discuss the environmental and economic issues impacting their region and to gather stories and messages from each community to present to the governor and the state legislature. The Walk was planned for 28 Days (the sacred lunar number of the Anishinabe and also the length of the rail blockade on Bad River), ultimately culminating in a rally at the steps of the state capital building. As a personal outreach, the 7th Generation Walk was a journey that intended to put a human face on a movement to protect the common property of people everywhere.
“A photo of Walt and Frank Koehn at sunrise on Lake Superior on Eagle Bay (as far north as you can get on the mainland of Wisconsin) following the beginning prayers for the Protect the Earth Journey, the 320 mile walk for awareness about the Seventh Generation Amendment.”[xi]
I was blessed to be able to walk on the Protect the Earth journey and I would like to share a short excerpt from my journal that I kept during that sacred sojourn:
We are traveling to Park Falls tonight. Park Falls has the reputation of being one of the most racist towns in Wisconsin. During the spearfishing conflicts of the late eighties and early nineties, Park Falls was known as PARR Falls (for Protect America’s Rights and Resources, an anti-treaty group that led the racially motivated assaults on the native spearfishermen). The tension of the spearfishing conflicts is still thick. The people have not let go of their anger and hatred. We have asked Anishinabe Ogitchida to take us through Park Falls. Butch and Buster were at the boat landings years ago and have now returned. We went to Butternut Lake boat landing to visit the battlegrounds once again. We met another man at Butternut Lake who was at the standoff. His memories and presence was a source of inspiration for us all. Park Falls is a very negative place. We have all picked up on the negativity. The people of Park Falls were very unhappy to see us. After a slight mix up, we ended up at a park next to the Flambeau River, overlooking the pulp yard of a paper company. The sight was unbelievable. A reporter from Park Falls came to meet us. He was a good man. I am reminded of the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Can God find 10 righteous people in all of Park Falls? We posted watch at night in case anyone wanted to mess with us. I kept watch from 2 to 4 A.M. It was an unpleasant experience.
I didn’t sleep much last night. We awoke, did morning ceremonies, and passed the sacred pipe. I enjoyed the idea that Anishinabe ceremonies were being performed in Park Falls. We left as soon as we could. I tied four tobacco ties in downtown Park Falls. I pray that the people will be transformed by the powers of Love, Understanding, and Compassion. Only time will tell. Heather arrived this morning to walk with us. I was very glad to see her. After introducing her to everyone, we began to walk. We have to cover 18 miles today.
An amazing lesson came to me today: We saw two crows fly over today, so I knew that I had to pay attention because a message was coming from the Spirit World. As we were walking, we came upon a dead turtle…its shell smashed. Now the turtle is the foundation of the world. It is upon the turtle’s back that the world was remade after the Great Flood. This was the message – the foundation of our world – our society – is cracked. We are therefore doomed to failure. So how do we repair the crack? The answer came to me as we were walking: Buster was walking carrying the flagstaff of Anishinabe Ogitchida. I was walking carrying the Protect the Earth staff. It was just the two of us. And suddenly the answer came to me. Buster is Native American. I am White. We are united in the purpose of working for the Creator. We follow the Natural Way. We are the New People of the Seventh Fire. Perhaps the cure to racism is Walking. We should all get together and go on a Walk…A Seventh Generation Walk!!
The Seventh Generation Walk was a success, but our celebration was not long lived, for on February 21, 1999, tragedy struck as Walt Bresette, at the age of 51, died of a heart attack while visiting friends in Duluth, Minnesota. A true warrior had departed this world. Everyone who knew Walt reacted much the same way. I learned about Walt’s passing from another Northland College student who had handed me a remembrance card that had a picture of Walt performing a smudge ceremony for non-violent resistors in October 1995. The card included a quote from Walt, which said, “Once we were all arrested for not ending a drum ceremony…we danced into a waiting police wagon, high on our collective rejection of authority.” I smiled. Walt’s wake was like an international conference of New People, a real testament to the alliances he helped create. Walt had carried us for many years. He helped foster a movement of peoples back toward right thinking and right action, back toward the Original Instructions of the Creator. Frank Koehn, Walt’s longtime friend and “partner in crime”, summed it up well when he said, “There aren’t too many things that have happened up here that haven’t got Walt’s footprints all over them. He kept us focused. He was truly a leader, a very great leader who knew what to do to prod people into action.”[xii]
And now it is our turn to carry on Walt’s work.
The “Protect the Earth” Eagle Feather Staff
[i] Quote cited from: Al Gedicks and Zoltán Grossman, “Defending a Common Home: Native/non-Native Alliances against Mining Corporations in Wisconsin”, on the website of the International Development Research Center: http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-64531-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html. Gedicks and Grossman originally cited the quotation from Midwest Treaty Network (1991) Wisconsin Treaties: What’s the Problem?, Madison, WI.
[ii] Nick Van der Puy, “Heart failed, spirit lives on.” Ojibwe Akiing: Ojibway Turf, March 1999; Volume 3 Number 3, 1,6.
[iii] Al Gedicks and Zoltán Grossman, “Defending a Common Home: Native/non-Native Alliances against Mining Corporations in Wisconsin.
[v] Nick Van der Puy, “Heart failed, spirit lives on.” Ojibwe Akiing: Ojibway Turf, March 1999; Volume 3 Number 3, 1,6.
[vii] Al Gedicks, Racism and resource colonization
[xi] Both photos of Walt cited from the ‘Protect the Earth’ website: http://www.protecttheearth.org/Walter/aboutwalt2.htm
[xii] Bayfield, Wisconsin (AP), “Ojibwe Treaty Rights Activist dead at 51”, Ojibwe Akiing: Ojibway Turf, March 1999; Volume 3 Number 3, 18.