By Melinda Naparalla Special the
Green Bay News-Chronicle
Thousands of years ago the Sokaogon Chippewa settled
in the Mole Lake area, following their elders prophecy that their final home
would be where food grows on the water.
On Rice Lake, the Sokaogon found their food - wild rice.
Wild rice has become the lifeblood of the Mole Lake tribe both as food and
as a source of income for much of the tribe. Women collect the rice, which
grows so thick it looks like wheat, by hand, and it's shucked with birch
bark baskets and the wind.
But the proposed Crandon mine lies two miles east of the reservation, and
the tribe sees its delicate, valuable resource in danger.
"Our biggest concern is the possibility of contamination of the wild rice
beds," said Roger McGeshick, chairman of the Sokaogon. The small community
lacks jobs and many residents live in small houses or trailers.
Even a slight amount of acid could destroy the beds, said David Anderson,
executive director of a non-profit environmental consulting firm Flintsteel
Restoration Association, which does consulting for poor and minority
organizations. The firm is doing consulting for the tribe.
As far back as 1914, the rice beds were protected, Anderson said. In 1914,
the federal Indian agent shut down a logging dam on the Wolf River because
it might affect the rice beds.
"We lost lives for it before the state existed," Anderson said. "The tribe
fought the Sioux to keep the land."
The rice beds are respected and revered as an active part of the tribe's
oral tradition, Anderson said.
"There's a lot of concern over some of what Nicolet Minerals Company is planning
to do," McGeshick said. "They say there will be no contamination, but it's
hard to say that. What happens if it leaks 40 years down the road?"
The tribe has tradition in the area, and tribal members want to see the
traditions passed on.
"I'd like to see my children have everything I had, and I believe the beds
will be contaminated if the mine goes through," McGeshick said.
In the '70s, Exxon wanted to mine, and then again in the '80s. Now it's Nicolet
Minerals, Anderson said. All of them want to mine the same ore body, which
lies upstream of the tribe's waters.
"Local landowners can lease their land to the company and move to a different
area," McGeshick said. "We can't. We were given the land by the federal
government. We aren't going to sell. We can't move our families. We see (Nicolet
Minerals Co.) coming in as a government trying to force us out of our homeland.
We fought to stay here, and we will."
The tribe doesn't know what the future holds for its water and land if the
mine is allowed to proceed.
If the ground or surface waters were contaminated, the tribe wouldn't be
able to use this resource, McGeshick said. The tribe wouldn't be able to
eat the fish or drink the water.
"I'm an outdoorsman and I fish the lakes near the site. They're crystal clear.
I can't imagine pollutants soaking into it," McGeshick said. "I utilize Rice
Lake as my dad used it and my uncles and grandfathers used it."
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the proposed mine site doesn't
lie within any of the tribes' reservations, but does lie within ceded territory
in which the tribes, by treaty, have guaranteed various fishing, hunting
and gathering rights on public land.
"We've always been opposed to it," McGeshick said. "Especially as Native
American people you just have to look at the history of the tribes, not just
in Wisconsin, but across the country. Tribes are pretty much the protectors
of the environment and its natural resources."
The Crandon issue has shaken the tribe's faith in the Department of Natural
"My job is to protect the reservation, and I don't see the DNR protecting
it. If we allow a company like this to come in, I don't see the protection
for the citizens of Wisconsin," McGeshick said. "I used to be a conservation
warden, and I don't understand the DNR. The DNR is supposed to protect."
McGeshick has traveled to various mines in the United States and Canada,
many of which had contaminated the environment and hadn't been cleaned up.
"I saw the degradation first hand," he said. "I see it as a money issue.
They have dollar signs in their eyes.
"A big corporation has all the money, but money doesn't mean anything to
people here. What's important is their way of life. Water quality is part
of their way of life and of ensuring our way of life."
He added: "Even though we're small, I'm confident we'll be able to put a
stop to the mining issue."
The company said it would do everything it could to ensure the protection
of the wild rice beds, including regulating the air and water near the
reservation closely, said Dale Alberts, spokesman for Nicolet Minerals.
The company also will remove pyrite, a metal which becomes acidic when mixed
with oxygen and water, from the waste mine ore. The waste water will be treated
through a filtration system and then deposited in absorption beds to allow
the water to flow through the soil and to re-enter the water
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