Article by Tyler Dettloff, originally printed in the Anishnaabe News, Spring 2016 issue.
In November 2015, Canadian-based mining company Aquila Resources submitted a mine permit application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The proposed Back Forty Project would be on the banks of the Menominee River, the origin place of the Menominee people. While Aquila Resources claims to be mainly interested in zinc, copper, gold, and silver, Aquila investors are also interested in extracting other metals via an open-pit sulfide mine.
But precious metals are not the only valuable resources to come from beneath the Menominee River. According to Menominee tribal member and lore expert James Frechette (1930-2006), the river holds the Menominee clan origins. A “Great Light Colored Bear” came up from the earth and traveled up the river. Then, Grandfather granted the bear the ability to change form, into a human, Frechette said, “The bear… became the first Menominee.” This first Menominee goes on to meet Eagle, Wolf, Crane, and Moose who change into humans and form the five clans of the Menominee Nation.
Origin stories create a space that Dr. Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne) would describe as sacred: “These origin stories—that we emerged or fell from the sky or were brought forth—connect us to this land and establish our identities, our belief systems. We have spiritual responsibilities to renew the Earth.” Mann affirms a connection between identity, belief, and origin place in the form of ceremony, and explains the traditional, healthy reciprocity between people and land as “give and take.” Respecting the Menominee River is respecting the sacred origins of the Menominee People.
The Menominee Indian Tribe Reservation, in Wisconsin, is sixty miles from the river. Regarding the Back Forty Mine Project, the tribe has firmly and publicly opposed the mine for both cultural and environmental reasons, and is urging area residents and community members to recognize the cultural significance of protecting the integrity and health of the Menominee River. Two grassroots organizations, Save the Wild U.P. and The Front Forty, have also helped raise community consciousness of the Back Forty Project’s potential negative environmental impacts.
Aquila Resources has released documents that boast their commitment to environmental concerns, community engagement and local economic growth. It’s interesting that in these reports, the word “river” is only mentioned once, and in a non-tribal context. Interested parties—job-creation enthusiasts and environmentalists—may both dispute and regulate the environmental impact of Aquila Resources’ proposed Back Forty Project. Aquila Resources may even be able to comply with environmental and safety regulations in exchange for the promise of public support. But neither Aquila Resources nor any other entities can dispute the sacredness of the site to the Menominee people: origin stories establish and maintain identities and belief systems, as Dr. Mann states. If the Back Forty project can potentially harm the Menominee River, it can harm Menominee cultural identity, a priceless tool against assimilation, for survival.