In Wisconsin, new iron-ore mining legislation threatens the Penokee Mountains, upstream from the Bad River reservation. Some say that Gov. Scott Walker and other mining proponents are about to encounter a force of nature: Objibwe women bent on preserving family and community.
Ojibwe men are easily identified by the notorious flatness of their rear ends. According to my mom, those butts got that way because of the enthusiastic verbal skills of Ojibwe women. She meant this in a good way, however, since our women are famous for tenaciously keeping our families together, defending them against all threats, both inside and out.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t know this yet, but he will soon resemble an Ojibwe man. I almost feel sorry for him. He is soon to run head on, or rear on, into the buzz saw that is the angry Ojibwe woman in full out defense mode.
He and his fellow Republicans have finally pushed a mining bill through the legislature that will allow the creation of a huge open pit iron ore mine just south of the Bad River Ojibwe reservation on the shores of Lake Superior. A similar bill was narrowly defeated in 2011, igniting some of the most vocal environmental protests that the state has seen in years. (See my stories for the Yonder and Indian Country Today Media Network for more background.) The Republican dominated assembly and senate, however, redrafted the bill that handily passed both houses this week. Gov. Walker is expected to sign the legislation this week and probably anticipates smooth sailing for the much-touted jobs bill.
Republicans maintain that by diminishing current mining laws, the new bill will help create jobs in the economically depressed northern part of the state. Tribal members and concerned citizens, however, argue that the proposed open pit iron mine will pose serious environmental hazards to the water, wildlife and quality of life in this pristine woodland. Indeed, the language in the new law presumes damage to wetlands and includes a mitigation plan that Democrats argue is not viable.
According to a story in The Duluth Tribune, under this new mining plan, state environmental officials would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Currently there is no deadline. This public couldn’t challenge a permit decision until after it has been made. Opponents describe the legislation as a corporate giveaway and note that it was written largely by representatives of Gogebic Taconite, the Florida based company that plans to build the huge mine in the Penokee Hills. The Penokee Hills or Mountains lie just upstream of the Bad River reservation.
A recent report by the non-profit organization Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that special interest groups backing the mining bill such as construction, heavy equipment, transportation and other companies contributed more than $15. 6 million to the Republican controlled legislature and GOP Gov. Scott Walker. Money and political influence appear to have won out despite heroic efforts by Democrats who tried to stave off the bills passage Thursday with over 9 hours of debate.
“I’m glad Wisconsin is open for business but sad that it’s for sale to the highest bidder,” noted state representative Nick Milroy in the final moments before the legislature voted to pass the contentious mining bill.
Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. has promised “active resistance” from the tribe to any efforts to build the mine. As a sovereign nation, the Bad River tribe controls their own EPA standards regarding water and air quality. This authority could thwart the mine permitting process. Moreover, my cousin Marylu informed me that the women of Bad River and their supporters are prepared to “sit on the mountain,” if necessary.Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. discusses reaction to proposed mining near the reservation. A 2011 proposal was defeated but looks likely to be signed into law this week by Wisc. Gov. Scott Walker. (Click the photo to play the video.)
Although this may conjure a benign image for non-Indians, it makes me tremble a bit. . Like tidal waves and nuclear reactions, the power of angry Ojibwe women, especially in defense of family and community, is an overwhelming, inexorable force.
I think of my great auntie Pat sitting in her easy chair in the cramped living room of her little HUD home where she held court. Like most Ojibwe women of her generation, she was small. At first glance one could mistake her for a child sitting in that enormous chair. But when she was mad, she had a way of drawing herself up and rooting her little rear end into that chair that made you want to run for cover. Even in the waning moments of her 85 plus years, she could make my cousins jump up suddenly at her commands to fetch a tray for a visitor’s bologna sandwich.
I recall that my Uncle Don used to call her “Jaws.”
Uncle Don presented himself as a devil may care character as he swaggered around the rez, seemingly immune to responsibility and public criticism. I recall the time he went to mass Sunday morning, still swaying from his Saturday night celebration. He hadn’t been to church since the Vatican II influenced changes in the service and was surprised when a man in a nearby pew shook his hand and gave him the blessing, “Peace be with you.”
“Well pleased to meet you too,” he roared out good-naturedly in response.
Haw, hawing for a long time and unashamed, he retold the story for days to approving audiences around the rez. Auntie Pat, however, took the opportunity to remind him of his family duties left undone. When he left her house, he looked several inches shorter and I noted that his rear end was nearly non-existent.
All the Ojibwe women in my life share this fierce protective instinct surrounding family, culture and land. It is an instinct unbounded even by death. Although both my mother Bernice and Auntie Pat passed away in 2011 within weeks of each other, I feel as though they’ve issued an order, one that is startling me, my cousins and all Ojibwe women into action. That order is a reminder that in the Ojibwe worldview, women are the ones who care for the water and it is time for us to step up.
For us, family and community include water, land and wildlife. We know, deep in our blood memories, that there is no escape from the natural processes that dominate our lives. No amount of money, jobs or political back room deals can buy off these forces. Ojibwe and non-Indians alike, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans are all governed by the great leveler, nature. If we befoul our water, we poison ourselves. This is a simple fact that Ojibwe, especially women, understand. We carry our young surrounded by water in our wombs; the power of water is etched in an unutterable place in our bodies, beyond words.
Therefore, when a good Christian church going woman like my cousin Marylu tells me she is ready to “sit on the mountain,” I realize this is serious stuff. Like auntie Pat, the Ojibwe women have drawn themselves up and readied themselves to defend family.
The mining interests better watch their rear ends.