• Dan Robinson

Rivers Flow From and Through the Story of the Menominee Nation - pt. 2 of conversation with Anahkwet

Updated: Sep 8

Rivers and their water form a central part of the Menominee Nation’s story. The Nation’s oral history states that their creation came from the mouth of the Menominee River, and the Wolf River flows through the heart of the Menominee reservation. Both rivers are part of the Great Lakes Basin, eventually sending their waters to Lake Michigan, and both rivers have mines being proposed along them, mines that many people feel threaten the health of these rivers.

The Wolf River

The Menominee River flows into the Bay of Green Bay and eventually Lake Michigan, forming the eastern portion of the border between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Near the banks of this river that is sacred to the Menominee people, the Canadian company Aquila Resources is proposing a gold and zinc mine called “The Back 40.”

“The actual mine that they’re trying to propose is an open-pit sulfide mine,” according to Anahkwet, Executive Director of the Menominee community organization, Menikanaehkem. “It’s actually a gold and zinc mine, but the rock in which the ore body is sitting is mostly sulfuric rock, and when added to water and air it creates sulfuric acid. It’s going to be a huge mine if it goes through.”

A second company, Badger Minerals, has begun exploratory drilling in Oneida County, near the headwaters of the Wolf River. This area has been mined before, and, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the land contains sulfide minerals like zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold.

The Menominee Nation, along with a number of community organizations, environmental groups, land owners, and other indigenous tribes, has fought the Back 40 mine for the past seven or eight years, including the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Front 40 organization, and the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River.

Efforts are being mobilized now to fight the proposed mine along the Wolf River. “The thing about the Back 40 mine,” according to Anahkwet, “we didn’t come into it until the permit was put into the state of Michigan to propose a mine, and by that time we were already behind the game... We tried to play catch up as much as we could,” he added. “(With the mine along the Wolf River), we are actually out in front and we’re right there.”

Being out front is extremely important, according to Anahkwet. “Once a company like this actually gets the tools in the ground, it’s a heck of a lot harder to stop them,” he added. “We’re in a pretty good position. We’ve already started organizing around it and there’s quite a few tribes and organizations already on calls that we’ve been doing weekly to discuss strategy.”

The Menominee Nation considers the mouth of the Menominee River to be “our sacred place of origin.” The Nation’s web page devoted to the fight against the Back 40 mine states that, “we have numerous sacred sites and burial mounds up and down the Menominee River, including the area of the proposed Back Forty Mine.” It goes on to say that that Nation opposes the mine out of concern for the “Michigan and Wisconsin residents and the natural wildlife within the Great Lakes ecosystem” that depend on the river and the land around that area.

“We wanted to hold onto our antiquity, which is located along this river,” Anahkwet said. “Through westward expansion and the things that have happened to our people, we are limited in the places that we can go to that haven’t been developed, and we can say, ‘Look. This is where we were, for thousands of years.’”

“Our kids are able to see the actual workings and makings of our old people, rather than seeing houses or developed structures,” according to Anahkwet. “So, (the area) very, very important to us. And like I said, we’ve been in this location for thousands of years. This is one of the last places we have, besides our reservation, that hasn’t been developed and is still very wild. It’s an amazing place when you see it.”

The Wolf River starts in north-central Wisconsin and flows south, eventually emptying into Lake Winnebago, which itself flows out through the Fox River and into the Bay of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Officially designated a wild and scenic river, the Wolf River is “very, very connected to us as a people,” Anahkwet said. “It flows right through the heart of our reservation.”

Both rivers are connected through the Great Lakes Basin, but both mines being proposed near the rivers are also connected. According to Anahkwet, Mr. Tom Quigley runs Badger Minerals, and he used to work for Aquila Resources. “If the Back 40 is a go, they’re going to have a processing plant there,” Anahkwet said. “When you do the processing, that’s a lot of waste rock, a lot of sulfuric rock exposed to the air, and tailings, and all the chemicals that you have to use to do this type of extraction.”

Previously, Wisconsin had a mining moratorium law that required companies proposing a new mine to first show another sulfide mine that had operated for ten years and been closed for ten years without any environmental damage. That law was repealed in 2018, opening the door, according to Anahkwet, to the two mines along the Wolf and Menominee Rivers, as well as a possible processing plant at the Back 40 mine site.

“I think the overall idea of Aquila is that if they get the Back 40 mine project up and running, they’ll have a processing plant there,” he said. Aquila has a couple other small mining projects, according to Anahkwet, and he believes they would like to take the material from the other two proposed small mining projects, along with the proposed mine along the Wolf River and the Back 40 mine, and process all that material at the Back 40 Mine site. “But they’ll never tell you that.”

Still, Anahkwet feels positive about their work on the mines. “We think we’ll be able to stop them,” he said, “but who knows in this day and age. A lot of times the good guy doesn’t win entirely.”

In next week's post, we'll hear Anahkwet talk more about the Menominee language and culture.

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