Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Sacred Water,” EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles — and successes — to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation
Marinette, Wisconsin — Pre-dawn purple and gold and orange swirl deep overhead as the waterfront stirs to life. It’s 6 a.m. at Menekaunee Harbor, where the Menominee River empties into Lake Michigan: Workers file into buildings, heavy machinery fires up and 18-wheelers roar and belch and hit the road.
Last week, amid the industry, an uncommon but just as motley assortment gathered in that fading darkness — retirees in flannel, millennials with long hair and oversized backpacks, some sipping coffee, some waiting in running cars as the sun burned off the morning chill. One guy sported a “Tribal Seeds” sweatshirt of the national reggae band, burning dried sage.
They were waiting for the Menominee tribe, en route from their reservation 60 miles south and running late for the sunrise water walk.
The walk had two objectives: Draw attention to the Back Forty mine, an 83-acre open-pit mine on track for approval upstream of here. Canada-based Aquila Resources, Inc., will pull gold, zinc, copper and silver from land adjacent to both the river and ancient burial sites — things sacred to the tribe but miles from their reservation border, and hence their control.
But just as important is the second objective: revive a culture hit hard by decades of neglect. By way of pollution, inaccessibility, or abandonment from within, the culture of a people who once battled the federal government to recognize their very existence is at risk.
The river mouth, once seeded with wild rice, is 60 miles away from their reservation. The tribe’s annual sturgeon feast is now dependent on state-provided fish. Ancient burial sites rest on land owned by a Canadian mining company.
Many tribal members have never visited this river that birthed their people. To see the…