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Mining, Pollution, and Environmental Concerns


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     Declining Habitat
     Tribes Develop Environmental Programs
     Wildlife and Fishery Conservation
     Opposing Environmental Threats
     Continuing Efforts
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Wisconsin Indians have always been concerned about the environment. As people who have traditionally made their livelihoods from the land, this concern is understandable. But despite prevalent positive stereotypes, it would be an overstatement to suggest that all Indian people have always lived in total harmony with nature and with concern for it. Like other people, Wisconsin Indians used their environment and the resources it provided, sometimes in ways that would be considered harmful today. Indian people used their environment differently than Europeans and Americans who came later, and used it in ways that reflected their unique cultural practices. This holds true for contemporary Wisconsin Indian communities as well.

Before Whites came to Wisconsin, Indian people depended on forests, lakes, rivers, and prairies to supply their needs. Prairies and forests supplied game such as deer, elk, and bison, while waterways provided various species of fish. Great Lakes Indians also gathered plant foods such as wild rice, maple sap, nuts, and berries, and also planted crops such as corn and squash. The coming of Europeans changed some of these practices dramatically. Whites wanted to trade manufactured goods in exchange for furs, particularly beaver pelts. Indians began to hunt beaver and other species more intensively to obtain furs for the trade, and in exchange they received European manufactured goods such as guns, blankets, and metal cooking utensils. In the process, Wisconsin Indians seriously depleted many species in the state. Bison were no longer in Wisconsin by about 1700, and by the late 1700s elk were gone as well. By the 1820s and 1830s, populations of beaver, white-tailed deer, and black bear had greatly declined in numbers.

 

Declining Habitat

White settlers who came to the state after 1834 did far more damage to populations of various animal species by destroying their habitats through farming and lumbering. These two activities did more to deplete wildlife resources than over-hunting by Indians ever did. In the southern portion of the state, farmers cleared land and plowed up the prairies, while in the north, lumber companies cut over many stretches of forest to meet the insatiable demand for timber. The key difference between Indians and Whites is that Indians generally used resources to meet the needs of their communities. The only products they harvested for the market were furs and, in some communities later on, ginseng root for the patent medicine trade. Whites, on the other hand, harvested timber and grew agricultural products almost exclusively for national and international markets. Because White populations were larger than pre-existing Indian communities, they exploited and damaged the environment much more drastically than Indians.

Indians often took part in this exploitation because traditional economies--hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture--and the environments they depended on had been destroyed by White settlers. Some Indians-such as the Oneida, Stockbridge-eMunsee, Brothertown, and Ho-chunk--adapted by taking up subsistence farming like their White neighbors. Indian men in the northern part of the state often worked as lumberjacks for White-owned lumber companies. Because they were forced into poverty by rapid changes that came with White settlement, Wisconsin Indians often sold their reservation lands to non-Indians to make money to pay their debts. Subsistence had changed with the degradation of environments and abandonment of traditional practices, and many Indian people subsisted on store-bought foods and ultimately fell into debt because furs or other traded goods they brought in did not equal what they owed.

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Tribes Develop Environmental Programs

Later practices of the federal government exacerbated existing environmental problems. In 1887, Congress mandated that all Indian reservations be divided and allotted to families as farms so Indian people could learn to be "civilized" and live like Whites. However, this made environmental problems on Indian reservations worse because Indian families often had to sell their lands to Whites. In northern Wisconsin, allotted lands--which were seldom suitable for farming--were often sold to lumber companies which then stripped the land of trees, making them unsuitable for many of the animal species Indian peopl depended on.

Things began to change in the twentieth century. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Indian tribes could buy back reservation lands from Whites and make them tribal property again. As Wisconsin Indians have regained their reservation lands, they have become far more conscious of the need to practice sound environmental management. This is rooted in traditional uses of the land, which emphasize maintaining balance between community needs and those of the environment. The Menominee, for example, continue to harvest lumber on reservation lands, but do so in sequential phases across the reservation, allowing trees to regrow for long periods before tracts are cut again and planting new trees to replace those which have been harvested. This results in a sustainable yield that will produce large amounts of quality lumber in an ecologically sound manner for generations to come. The Menominee have over 220,000 acres of forest they have carefully managed for over 140 years, and their forest management practices are so environmentally sound that in 1995 the United Nations recognized the tribe for their accomplishment. The Menominees have developed a similar management plan for the harvest of sturgeon on the Wolf River which runs through their reservation.

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Wildlife and Fishery Conservation

Other tribes have instituted similar programs to sustain and preserve wildlife resources in Wisconsin. The Oneida have worked with the Bay Beach Wildlife sanctuary in Green Bay to help return timber wolves to the Wisconsin forests, while the Ho-chunk have started a bison ranch in the town of Muscoda so buffalo will once again grace the state's prairies. Wisconsin Ojibwe bands retain rights to harvest fish, wild rice, and other resources on lands ceded to the United States in earlier treaties, and to manage these resources they created the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) in 1983.

All six Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin operate their own fish hatcheries and, in doing so, they do not deplete walleye and other fish species in lakes where they spearfish. Indeed, their efforts have been so successful that the Wisconsin Ojibwe put more fish into the lakes every year than they take out through spearfishing. The fish hatchery at the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation is the largest, and produced almost 23 million walleye in 1991. Four Ojibwe bands--Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Lac Courte Oreilles--also signed an agreement with the National Forest Service in 1993 that gives them a voice in the management of the Chequamegon Forest in northern Wisconsin.

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Opposing Environmental Threats

In addition to initiating important wildlife management programs, Wisconsin's Indians have also been in the forefront of various environmental causes. The most significant is an effort by the Menominee, Mole Lake Ojibwe, Forest County Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee to stop mining of zinc and copper sulfides near Crandon, Wisconsin. These valuable mineral ores were discovered in the mid-1970s, and in 1978 the Exxon Minerals Company collected data on the ore deposits.

In 1993, Exxon, along with other mining concerns, formed the Crandon Mining Company so the ore could be mined. Under their plans, the mine was supposed to operate for about 25 years and would produce arsenic, an extremely toxic substance, as a byproduct. The Menominee have argued that this will poison the Wolf River, which is protected by federal laws because of its many important wildlife species. The mine would also endanger the lands and waterways of the Forest County Potawatomi, whose reservation is close to the proposed mining site, and potentially destroy lakes full of wild rice used by the Mole Lake Ojibwe by fouling the water. Wisconsin's Indian people are not alone in opposing the Crandon mine. Many non-Indian community and environmental groups in northern Wisconsin have also expressed concerns about the pollution the mine would cause.

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Continuing Efforts

Mining has energized Indian communities in other ways as well. In 1996, a mining company wanted to transport a trainload of sulfuric acid to a Michigan copper mine. The train was supposed to travel through the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation, but the Ojibwe there initiated a nonviolent blockade to prevent the train from going through their land. The acid was to be used in copper mines in Michigan, but the Ojibwe feared this mining technology could potentially pollute Lake Superior. They ended their blockade 28 days later when the Environmental Protection Agency promised to study the ecological impact of acid mining on Lake Superior.

However, efforts of other Wisconsin Indian communities have not always been as successful, and new, ecologically hazardous mines have recently opened which threaten Indian communities. In Ladysmith, Wisconsin, the Kennecott Copper Corporation opened a large open-pit copper mine in 1993 despite strong opposition from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe and local non-Indian residents. Nevertheless, the issue of mining in Wisconsin has often brought Indian and non-Indian communities together to fight for a common cause, and has often reduced tensions between them. This was best demonstrated in July 1995 when the Mole Lake Ojibwe band hosted the annual Protect the Earth Gathering, which attracted environmentalists, sportsmen, and other persons concerned about preserving Wisconsin's environment. Many subsequent events and citizen/tribal organizations are continuing their efforts to protect the water for future generations.

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