A proposed large-scale iron mine has become an issue in a Wisconsin Senate election. Native votes could make a difference in the results.
There may be no tribe in the country that understands the significance of voting more than the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. After all, tribal members faced the ultimate political test: A fight to stop Congress from terminating the tribal government some half-a-century ago. (Followed by their successful restoration campaign that was enacted into law in 1973.)
During the 1950s — when the battle was most intense — most of Congress and the state government ignored the wishes of tribal members. The Menominee were essentially bullied into termination by one U.S. Senator, Utah Republican Arthur Watkins.
“There was so little interest, or controversy over, most Indian legislation that it often passed on consent calendars were a single negative vote would have meant its defeat,” writes Stephen J. Herzberg in his paper, “The Menominee Indians: From Treaty to Termination.” So Watkins demanded and got his termination bill.
Think about that: One vote could have prevented termination.
These days the Menominee Tribe does a lot better than one vote.
On Election Day in 2012, the tribe turned out 90 percent of its registered voters and some voters were lined up for 2 and 1/2 hours waiting at the county clerk’s office.
Matt Dannenberg is an organizer working with Wisconsin tribes on voting issues for the League of Conservation Voters. His organization is conducting voter education training this week. He said other tribal leaders have a competition to be which community will be the next Native vote leader in Wisconsin.
The project started because Native Americans were voting at “significantly lower rates than the state average,” according to the conservation voter institute’s web site. “For example, only about 34 percent of Native Americans in Ashland County voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election – in stark contrast to overall statewide voter turnout of 52 percent in 2010.”
There is no U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, but there is a significant issue driving voter interest, mining policy. Dannenberg, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Chippewa, said Native Americans are registering to vote so they will have a say about mining in northern Wisconsin. The fear is that a large-scale iron mine will pollute the headwaters of the Bad River as well as disrupt treaty-rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice. And, in a parallel to the termination era, the state government officials failed to consult with area tribes.
This is where politics and public policy intersect. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, approved a rewrite of mining laws, including open pit iron mining, and has benefited from some $700,000 in mining company donations. Democrat Mary Burke has said she does want a mining industry but one that “takes into account” protecting the environment.
My friend Paul DeMain, who is president of Indian Country Communications (a note of disclosure: I own a small share of the company), has been campaigning against the open pit mine for months. Last year the company deployed armed guards to protect the site from protestors. “What the heck?” DeMain asked at the time. “It’s come to a sad situation when you’ve got to have a machine gun to protect a business that people around here don’t want.”
DeMain, who is Oneida and Ojibwe, decided enough was enough — and is now running for a seat in the state Senate. (A new movie about the mining standoff opens October 8, staring De Main and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate, Winona LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg, and founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project.)
“The fact that an out of state mining company owned by a billionaire, (Cline) and supported by two other Billionaires, (Charles and David Koch) and how they sprinkled secret money to an organization called Jobs for Growth, that then sprinkled hundreds of thousands of dollars around to support the election of Republican Senators (including my opponent Jerry Petrowski) in favor of their bill, who then voted on a pure GTAC Mining Company bill is becoming more familiar to citizens everywhere.” DeMain writes on his Facebook page. “These Republican Senators voted against 18 amendments including one that would have required the mining company to provide jobs for Wisconsin citizens 1st, revenue sharing of taxes generated for job training at educational facilities in northern Wisconsin, and provided the mining company with the ability to fill in wetlands, rivers and lake beds with their sludge in violation of the Wisconsin Constitution, and their public trust to protect the waters of Wisconsin for all state citizens.”
Wisconsin has a history of close elections — and a significant boost of the Native voter could be a deciding factor. But more important is the idea that American Indian communities have a say in their future. It’s a simple truth, but one that was painfully ignored during the termination era.
Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.