"We Do This For The Water": Indigenous Organizers Defend Menominee River

Indigenous water protectors confront massive mining companies, building community on the way.

Carol Amour

The Menominee River, just 150 feet from the proposed site of the Back Forty Mine, a project intended to extract gold and sulfide from the banks of the river. Bureau of Land Management

This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

The Menominee River forms Wisconsin’s Northeastern border with Michigan, winding for about 120 miles and opening into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. About thirty-five miles from the mouth of the river sits the proposed location of the Back Forty Mine, a project by the Canadian mining company, Aquila Resources. 

The open pit mine that the company intends to dig out of land a mere 150 feet from the Menominee River in Michigan would be deeper than the height of the tallest building in Wisconsin, at 750 feet. The proposed mine will extract gold and sulfide from the banks of the river. 

Opponents of the mining project warn that sulfide wastes will pollute the Menominee River, which provides the spawning grounds for one of the largest populations of lake sturgeon in the Lake Michigan basin. Moreover, the proposed mining site sits on the original tribal homeland of the Menominee Nation, whose sacred place of origin lies at the mouth of the Menominee River. Sturgeon also have great cultural significance to the Menominee, whose reservation is currently located about 85 miles southwest of the proposed mine site. 

And although the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality initially granted Aquila permission to build on that location, the company’s ability to begin mining has been stalled — possibly for good. Ruling in favor of the Menominee Nation, on January 5, a Michigan Administrative Law Judge revoked Aquila’s permit for an open pit mine. The decision was based largely on Aquila’s lack of information on the projected environmental impact of the Back Forty Mine and the dangers of cultural desecration to sacred sites in the homeland of the Menominee.

Guy Reiter, a key player in the Menominee’s opposition to the mine, doesn’t believe the threat is gone forever. 

I’ve heard our elders say that as long as there are minerals on the ground … there will always be a threat.” 

However, Reiter added, the specific threat posed by Aquila Resources and the Back Forty Mine may be weakening substantially. 

Right now, Aquila is on the ropes,” said Reiter. The administration change is helping [too], and there’s more tribal folks in positions at the EPA. Having Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, as the Interior Secretary helps us, too.”

I spoke with Guy Reiter, an enrolled member of the Menominee Nation, at an eighty acre farm on his reservation. 

You can see our green house over there,” said Reiter. In the fields back there, we’re growing hemp, all kinds of corn, and everything. We got a small little garden up here. We call this place Menīkānaehkem.” 

Reiter is the Executive Director of Menīkānaehkem—pronounced men-ee-KAHN-ah-kem, and meaning community rebuilders — an organization that addresses food sovereignty, hosts a youth program, works on revitalizing language and culture, promotes energy sovereignty with solar panels and tiny houses, protects the land and water, and helps bring awareness to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Leading up to the latest ruling against the Back Forty Mine, many other groups and individuals joined in opposition to Aquila. Among those organizations was The Front 40 group in Michigan, which was key in informing the public of threats posed by the Back Forty Mine and organizing community members to block its construction. In total, over 2,000 individuals wrote letters to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) — with 98 percent opposing the mine. 

In addition, 350 concerned citizens attended a public hearing held by the DEQ in 2016, most speaking against the mine. The Marinette County Board voted 28 – 0 to oppose the mine, citing concerns over long term leaching of acid producing wastes into the groundwater and the river, and risks to human health and the environment in Wisconsin and Michigan. Freshwater Future, an environmentalist organization that advocates for the protection of the great lakes, awarded The Front 40 group a Freshwater Hero Award in 2017 for their efforts. 

Reiter attributes the campaign’s success to the fact that it was composed of a coalition of organizations and organizers.

There’s a lot of sharing amongst groups,” says Reiter. We do like a bi-weekly call where there’s tribes [and] organizations. We’ve been staying in communication since the beginning of this thing, and we’re still chatting back and forth. I think everybody understands that we can be more effective if we’re all on the same page and working together.” 

Tina Van Zile, the Environmental Director for the Mole Lake Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe, is one of those collaborators. The Mole Lake reservation is connected to the Menominee reservation by the Wolf River; environmental threats to one necessarily impact the other. A recent threat near Mole Lake by Badger Minerals, a mining company, for example, would have also affected the Menominee Nation — in each case, Van Zile and Reiter worked together to protect the land.

We’re so connected to our environment,” says Van Zile. That’s always first for us. Our culture goes hand and hand with the environment, especially our wild rice.”

Reiter says that many of the indigenous opponents of the project are trained organizers and possess skills he hopes to share with others. The Native Organizers Alliance training provided tools such as power mapping and meeting facilitation strategies, he explained.

We’re eventually going to be branching out and we want to give people the tools to do whatever they’re working on in their community … All of us have so many things going on in our communities that we need to do something about. We can’t sit around and wait for somebody to save us — we’ve got to save ourselves.

The Back Forty Mine is what got me involved in all this. We were meeting with people and talking about how we could help our community. We were just trying to figure things out.” 

When the Back Forty Mine came up, they started to meet every week. Soon they started to gain traction. More and more people came to their presentations, offering to help. 

When we first started to stand against this mine, we were scrambling to think about what to do. What should we do first?’ And there was this list about a mile long,” says Reiter. 

But then our elders said, well, we should let the River know, and let Spirit know what we’re going to do.’ So we organized the sacred water walk from our beautiful Keshena Falls all the way up to the mine site. It was 126 miles, and we did that with the late grandma Josephine Mandamin — she was a major supporter and she was my mentor,” Reiter explains.

In April 2016, they walked from the birthplace of their nation, the mouth of the Menominee River. Sturgeon were migrating at the same time. 

Sometimes [the sturgeon] would breech and look at us, like acknowledge us that we were walking. It was a real moment — it was like a confirmation of what we were doing.

Grandma Josephine has always told us that this isn’t a protest. You’re not carrying signs. You’re not being loud even. You’re supposed to be thinking about why you’re here, and what you’re doing.’ And when we passed the water back and forth, she would tell us to say, We do this for the water.’ It was things like that that made it way more spiritual than just walking. After it was all done, we realized that we had basically rewalked our creation story. We had walked in the footsteps of that creation story.” 

One of the groups the Menominee worked with made effective use of that cultural connection in a successful lawsuit against Aquila. Earthjustice, with headquarters in San Francisco and a network of offices across the United States, represented the Tribe, when they filed suit to challenge the company’s permits. At the heart of that lawsuit was the threat the proposed mine posed to cultural and sacred sites of the Tribe. Said Reiter, When that Michigan judge denied the Back Forty Project a wetlands permit, he said that the mine would damage nearby cultural and historic resources.

Sulfide mining is the dirtiest of all mining. It pollutes absolutely … You add water and sulfide together, you’re going to get acidic drainage— that stuff just doesn’t go away,” Reiter says. 

They try to tout jobs, and they try to say how environmentally friendly they are, because they have investors, and they have to say those things for them to get money.” 

Van Zile adds, You can’t just go to the Aquila resources website for information … They try to make it sound like they are protectors of the environment. The facts just don’t bear that out.”

Reiter adds, I always think it’s important to make sure that we’re operating out of love and that we’re operating from a place of strength, and not of fear. The companies will have fear, and they’ll try to drum up fear and make it seem like you’re the enemy and all that and they’ll get some politicians that will be right on their side and do the exact same thing. 

But if you come from a place of centeredness and big heartedness, you’ll know exactly what to do and when to do it. And sometimes, you know, if you can be proactive rather than reactive it’s very helpful. If you can get out ahead of em in a couple different areas, it’ll only help you. And always be conscious of burnout too. You’ve always got to be healthy mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”

Tina Van Zile agrees. 

We’re not just here to make noise … You have to ask yourself what kind of place are we leaving for our children. I want to know at the end of the day that I’ve done everything I could. We have what we have because of what our ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Are we going to be proud of what we did?”

Menīkānaehkem is funded through grants and donations. Readers can find out more at www​.menom​i​neere​builders​.org.

'We can’t sit around and wait for somebody to save us—we’ve got to save ourselves.'
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Carol Amour is an educator, author, and theatre producer. She is currently Co-Director of the First Nations Traveling Resource Center and a frequent contributor to Love Wisconsin, a digital storytelling project.

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