Cardinal View: Wisconsin’s environmental policies are at odds with Native beliefs

Photo by Cameron Lane-Flehinger

The Native American concept of “7th Generation thinking” emphasizes the need to think about how contemporary actions will impact those down the road. This provides a framework for many native communities, helping to prevent selfish decisions. Sustainable mentalities such as this uphold the Native American ideal that humans are not owners of land, but rather temporary residents with an obligation to preserve and respect it.

This mentality differed strongly from the capitalist perspective of European colonists, who viewed land as a resource that could lead to wealth and financial independence. Enlightenment thinkers justified the “New Land” as theirs for the taking, since Native Americans did not view land as ownable property, and were therefore not in possession of it.

In Wisconsin specifically, French and British settlers poured into the region during the 18th and 19th centuries looking to get involved in the fur trade. As a result, many Native Americans fell victim to deathly illnesses, while the survivors were slowly pushed out of the areas that they had called home for thousands of years.

Some tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk Nation, were relocated outside of state boundaries, as the Homestead Acts during the 19th century provided settlers with native land. And while the Ho-Chunk Nation eventually returned to Wisconsin, native communities had been pushed into restricted reservation areas around the state, a far cry from the limitless countryside they had previously known.

The “Prove It” bill was a reasonable protection. Show us that you mined safely and that your mine was shut down without polluting the environment. Why did legislators feel the need to repeal it?

The vastly different perspectives on the environment spurred years of conflict between settlers and Native Americans, but the problems are far from over. Since colonists overtook the land we now know as Wisconsin from its native tribes, there has often been a strained relationship between the government and the Native Americans that remain in Wisconsin, particularly concerning environmental protection.

Historically, Wisconsin has been heralded as a forward-thinking state when it comes to environmental policies. In 1998, Wisconsin’s state government passed a “Prove It First” mandate, which required companies to clearly prove their projects would be able to be in operation for a decade and be closed for an additional decade without leaving groundwater and surface water polluted with acid drainage. This drainage contains arsenic, lead, mercury and cyanide, among other dangerous toxins that polluted Wisconsin’s environment.

Recent government proposals in Wisconsin have demonstrated that the historically tense relationship regarding natural resources has not changed as much as some would like to believe. Last fall, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, proposed AB 499, a bill which repeals the “Prove It First” mandate. The Ho-Chunk Nation, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and Oneida Nation joined multiple environmental advocacy agencies in opposition to the bill. However, in December, Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill into law after it passed through the state Assembly and Senate.

The united opposition to this bill by Native tribes and environmental advocates is rooted in the fact that the “Prove It First” law prevented any metallic mines from operating, as none had been able to prove they do not pollute water sources with acid mine drainage.

The passage of “Mining for America” indicates that officials have become more enamored with job creation at the expense of the environment and natural resource protection. As environmentally risky propositions continue to get proposed, native tribes have taken it upon themselves to fight back.

Patty Loew, a former UW-Madison professor and current director of Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, shares the sentiment of the tribes and conservationists.

“The ‘Prove It’ bill was a reasonable protection,” Loew, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, said in an email. “Show us that you mined safely and that your mine was shut down without polluting the environment. Why did legislators feel the need to repeal it?”

Loew suggests the repeal of the mining moratorium is concerning for the simple reason that “sulfide mining produces sulfuric acid. Acid mine drainage threatens Wisconsin’s physical and cultural well-being, our plant and animal relatives, and the Anishinaabeg way of life.”

Beyond just the Acid Mining Bill, Loew is concerned that the Wisconsin government’s policies demonstrate “short-sightedness.”

Many Native American leaders share this perspective and have embraced it as their responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s landscape from the dangers associated with reckless economic expansion.

While the Ho-Chunk Nation eventually returned to Wisconsin, native communities had been pushed into restricted reservation areas around the state, a far cry from the limitless countryside they had previously known.

In January, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin Indians filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for their allegedly negligent review of Back Forty Mine, which would jeopardize wetland habitats and water resources such as Menominee River and potentially Green Bay.

At the annual State of the Tribes this month, a meeting between Wisconsin’s eleven remaining tribes, Menominee Tribal chair Gary Besaw reiterated Wisconsin’s Native communities’ obligation to protect the environment. Acknowledging that “a certain amount of risk might be tolerated in exchange for certain minerals that help society,” Besaw emphasized that “we aren’t allowed ethically to put our future babies’ world at high risk.”

These recent conflicts demonstrate that the complicated intersection between environmental conservation, Native traditions, and economic expansion is by no means a thing of the past. Although the tribes of Wisconsin and the state’s government appear to be at odds, both Loew and Besaw reiterate that this land is a shared home, and protecting the environment is a mutually beneficial goal.

Abiding by sustainable practices is not just respectful to Native populations, but essential to future generations of all backgrounds. Echoing the 7th Generation principle, Loew said: “Understand that we want the best for their children as well as our own. You can’t drink gold and silver. Water is life.”

Cardinal View editorials represent The Daily Cardinal’s organizational opinion. Each editorial is crafted independent of news coverage. Please send all comments, questions and concerns to editorialboard@dailycardinal.com.


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