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The Ojibwe have every right to oppose copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota

Twin Metals offices in Ely.
Courtesy of Twin Metals Minnesota
Twin Metals offices in Ely. The company hopes to build an underground mine primarily for copper and nickel, but also to collect cobalt, palladium and platinum.

There is really nothing new under the sun. Calls for the boycott of Ojibwe businesses because of their resistance to copper nickel sulfide mining in northern Minnesota is just another episode in a long tradition.

The history of the United States is littered with examples of stealing land from Native Americans, or cheating them out of it and then failing to even bother to observe the promises made to them in over 200 treaties with Native Americans where they ceded land to an ever-expanding and rapacious U.S. government. The Pequot Massacre in 1637, where the pious Pilgrims killed some 500 Indians, kicked off a three-year war to take the Pequots’ land that set the stage for events ever since.

The Dakota War, or Little Crow’s War, here in Minnesota is a prominent example of the malign neglect of treaty obligations to Native Americans. Leading up to the war in 1862, late and missing annuity payments, due in exchange for the vast tracts of land ceded by the Dakota, caused privation and hunger among the Indians, and it sparked the war. As we know, after the war, President Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota braves in Mankato and banished the Dakota from Minnesota and abolished their reservations. Little Crow escaped to Canada, but drifted back to Minnesota – as many Dakota did – where he was ultimately shot by a settler for the bounty, like a gopher. The internment of Dakota people – noncombatants – at Fort Snelling and the act of banishment, just as an aside, were acts of collective punishment, now prohibited under international law; remember, the Dakota were and are a sovereign nation.

More recently, violence was threatened against members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe by local whites for the Band’s exercise of fishing rights on the lake named after them, and the DNR was taking enforcement actions against the Mille Lacs Band for fishing that the Band maintained it was entitled to do. It sued the state, and in a 1999 Supreme Court decision, the court ruled that the Band did possess usufructuary rights under treaty to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded lands. But they had to go to the Supreme Court to prove it.

And in the news just this week, Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison reversed the DNR and State’s position – amazingly – and said that the Mille Lac Band’s 67,000 acre reservation on the south side of the lake does, in fact, exist. The question is before a federal court (well, and a state court, too), with the Indians, as always, having to go to court to assert their treaty rights and protect what is theirs.

Mille Lacs county officials, of course, retreated to the fainting couch, and laughably complained about what “might be lost,” including the south end of Lake Mille Lacs. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior and now state officials, it wasn’t theirs to lose in the first place. But given the attitude toward Native Americans since the days of the Pequot Massacre, you can see how they might think that way.

Steve Timmer
Steve Timmer
Which brings us to the real subject of this commentary: sulfide mining and Ojibwe opposition to it.

In recent days, former Minnesota Senate Minority Leader and big-time sulfide mining supporter Tom Bakk canceled a political fundraiser at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, owned by the Bois Forte Band, because the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe supports the prohibition of sulfide mining in the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The tribe is concerned about the effects of that mining on tribal lands and treaty rights in ceded land. If you read the Timberjay story at the above link or this story in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, you’ll see that Ely’s mayor, Chuck Novak, jumped on the bandwagon and is urging a wider boycott of Ojibwe businesses.

This boycott is different in degree but not essentially in kind from the examples cited above. Take from the Indians and then punish them if they complain.

You should be troubled by the efforts of state and local politicians to suppress legitimate political expression. I am. But I hope you see the pattern.

This isn’t the first case of “Indians? What Indians?” even just in the consideration of copper nickel sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

In 2013, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency canceled a study that would have almost certainly fingered at least some of the culprits responsible for making the St. Louis River, which runs through the Fond du Lac reservation, so mercury polluted that you can’t eat the fish, and would have found that a sulfide mine probably wasn’t the smartest thing to add to the watershed. The Fond du Lac Band was one of the cooperating agencies in the canceled study, known as a Total Maxiumum Daily Load study.

In 2015, the Department of Natural Resources ignored a water model prepared by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission that showed that acid runoff from the proposed PolyMet mine would not only pollute the St. Louis River watershed, but also the Rainy River watershed in the Boundary Waters. The DNR’s Steve Colvin admitted that the GLIFWC water model was a serious piece of work, but the DNR ignored it anyway. That’s one of the issues involved in the litigation against the PCA’s water permit that is currently  before the Minnesota Court of Appeals on appeal from the grant of the permit. (The DNR was a sponsoring agency for PolyMet’s environmental impact statement; the PCA was not.)

It’s the same DNR, perhaps not coincidentally, that had to be dragged before the Supreme Court before it would recognize Ojibwe treaty rights on Lake Mille Lacs.

Federally recognized Indian tribes are considered equivalent to states for several purposes under the Clean Water Act.

The Fond du Lac Band also complained to the Corps of Engineers (also a sponsor of the PolyMet EIS) about the wetlands destruction that the Corps’ permit for the PolyMet mine would involve. Again, it was, “Indians? What Indians?” That permit is now in federal court in two separate suits, one brought by the Fond du Lac Band.

There is a separate treaty, concluded in 1854 on Madeline Island, which secured the same usufructuary rights to the Lake Superior Chippewa as exist for the Mille Lacs Band on Lake Mille Lacs. Based on the remarks and actions of Tom Bakk, Chuck Novak, and of our regulatory agencies, you wouldn’t necessarily know that. But now you do.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has treaty rights and First Amendment rights and is absolutely entitled to exercise these rights in protecting hunting, fishing, and gathering on both ceded and unceded lands. Don’t let Tom Bakk and Chuck Novak tell you otherwise. The Indians ought to be able to exercise these rights without hazing, intimidation, and retaliation from elected officials. We’ve had enough of that.

Steve Timmer is retired after practicing law in the Twin Cities for over 40 years. His Twitter handle is @stevetimmer.


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Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 02/29/2020 - 09:04 am.

    Ely did the same thing over Bent Paddle beer a few years ago. They managed to get the beer pulled from the stores and out of all the eating places in Ely and the surrounding area. It worked so well, that Bent Paddle had to increase their building as sales soared, and the beer got popular. Of course the worst part about having Bent Paddle beer in Ely was because it had a paddle on it`s label, instead of a piece of mining equipment. You see in Ely [the locals], if you do not support the mines, you need to go back where you came from [tell that to all the cabin folk that pay those nice high taxes]. I think the Tribe feels maybe those who want to control the tribes opinions, should take their own advice and go back where THEY came from. That being said, I really don`t think the tribes casino and other businesses will wither and die off. If anything, my guess would be, the tribe will continue to buy up what they can throughout the area as their cash flow allows.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/29/2020 - 09:06 am.

    What makes this even worse is the State, and Bakk etc boycotters, are acting as the handmaidens of foreign mining conglomerates Glencore and Antogofasta. It is all fundamentally illegitimate. Coercion in the worst sense, depriving even future generations of autonomy and agency. It is rapacious indeed.

  3. Submitted by Lynn Levine on 02/29/2020 - 09:33 am.

    It made me sad when Amy Klobuchar, in the debate, quoted the Ojibwe saying that we must preserve our planet in a way that includes thinking of what’s best for the seventh generation, while simultaneously supporting a policy that endangers the whole tribe. I wish she had been confronted on stage. That statement of the Ojibwe way of thinking is beautiful. We must also preserve our planet in a way that allows the protection of the diversity we have not only in flora, fauna, and wildlife, but also in a way that protects people like the Objibwe.

    • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 02/29/2020 - 10:07 pm.


      Amy Klobuchar gets a solid “D” on the environment from the Center for Biodiversity, the lowest ranking of all of the “top tier” presidential candidates.

      • Submitted by Greg Claflin on 03/01/2020 - 03:47 pm.

        Dear old Amy bless her heart. She sure loves the environment. Didn’t she vote to take the timber wolf off the endangered species list and vote to remove the ban on hunting predators such as timber wolves from aircraft and helicopters. Sounds crazy, but I guess it’s a thing some folks do. You know, the ones not from here.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 03/02/2020 - 10:21 am.

      She is also reflexively supportive of farmers, which is to say, not of farmers but of corporate and private equity agribusiness polluting the land and water and exterminating pollinators. That is the “moderate” stance in part.

  4. Submitted by richard owens on 02/29/2020 - 11:37 am.

    Yes, the Ojibwe have every right to oppose copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota.

    Water is LIFE.

  5. Submitted by Kathleen McQuillan on 02/29/2020 - 01:21 pm.

    Hmm… Maybe it’s time to note what businesses are posting those “We Support Mining” signs (which when translated means “We Support Copper-Nickel Mining”). I don’t generally believe in “an eye for an eye”, nor do I like “trade wars”, but somebody else suggested that boycotting works. So for the sake of future generations, if all else fails… you decide.

  6. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 02/29/2020 - 02:26 pm.

    I respect Indian rights and support their position on copper/nickel mining. We must respect their position. Why must we always tear up our to create “jobs”? Why does environmental preservation always get sacrificed for “jobs.”

  7. Submitted by Steve Timmer on 03/01/2020 - 01:27 pm.

    There is a letter in today’s (3/1) Ely Echo that illustrates the central point of my commentary better than I ever could.

    The letter is remarkable and chilling. It descends rapidly into self-parody. The writer says that since whites brought pickup trucks, among other things, to the Ojibwe, it is small and unfair of them (I am being charitable here) to oppose copper sulfide mining.

    According to the writer, whites have always loved and helped their Indian brothers and sisters. But for my money, the letter is about as poisonous a take on the treatment of Indians and treaties with them as I have ever read.

    It stuns me, frankly, that even a pro-mining newspaper like the Ely Echo would publish it.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 03/01/2020 - 04:38 pm.

      The Ely Echo is 100% pro-mining. I read the same letter, and as an owner and resident in Ely, I can tell you that letter writer is dead wrong. It took me years to clean up my land because of the trash dumped on it. Propaganda is what that letter was really about.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/01/2020 - 07:45 pm.

      Fortunately the citizens also could choose the Timerjay as a news source. If I am not mistaken the Timerjay just took the Echo to court and won.

  8. Submitted by joe smith on 03/02/2020 - 11:55 am.

    It maybe a major surprise to many here but there is a permitting process in place for water and land preservation that must be passed before mining can take place. There is a lawful way for the mining companies to get the permits, once they get permitted they, by law, can mine. There has been over 30 different studies (funded by outside the area “green”” groups) that have put this project on hold for 2 decades. The GLIFWC study shown here is just another red herring study thrown at the process to slow it down.

    Never been a fan of boycotting businesses by either side of the political world but hearing liberals complaining about boycotting is rich.

  9. Submitted by Josh Belleville on 03/03/2020 - 05:30 pm.

    I have not seen a single political figure violate anyone’s First Amendment rights over this issue. I have seen some exercise their First Amendment right.

    The standard here seems to be “if it doesn’t go my way, everyone else is corrupt, inept, or greedy’.

  10. Submitted by Joe Frank on 03/04/2020 - 07:11 am.

    I agree, the Ojibwe have every right to oppose copper/nickle mining. Those who disagree with their decision of also have every right to boycott the tribe owned casinos. If the Ojibwe thought there would be no repercussions for their decision they are sadly mistaken.

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 03/04/2020 - 08:41 am.

      That was exactly my point in my first comment at the top of this thread. The boycott can work both ways. I also, besides my residence outside Ely, own a place in northern Wisconsin. As it is when meeting people, the topic of “where ya from” comes up a lot. I have come across lots folks and families that have been to Ely, and will not bother going back. They felt the negative Ely outlook towards tourists, and with other options available and willing to accept them in the BWCA area….. Most I have found use all sorts of places around the BWCA, and stop short of bothering to venture back to Ely. The Isabella area is about as far west as they seem to want to go after their Ely trip. It seems everyone that has had that opinion, have also said how welcome the feel along areas like the Gunflint or all those other back areas where they feel welcome.

      So yeah, boycotts sometimes take on a life of their own. It`s sad. Because here in northern Wisconsin, it is completely the opposite. Because of it, the money flows into the economy here., and Ely just keeps shoving it off and away……

      • Submitted by Joe Frank on 03/05/2020 - 05:45 am.

        I used to own a cabin in Northern Wisconsin, it’s not even close to living near the BWCA. In WI there are resorts aplenty, motors everywhere, snowmobiling allowed everywhere, no bans on anything. If it were the same in Ely, like it used to be, then everyone would feel welcome again, like they used to be. But when people come here and tell us how we should live, most of us don’t like it.

        • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 03/11/2020 - 10:35 am.

          I know it hurts to think about it, but the Ely area is within the national forest and next to the BWCA. THOSE belong to everyone, not just the Ely locals. Because of that fact, others do have a say in what goes on in those areas. The Ely area locals have always resisted the tourists and cabin folk. What is interesting to note, is who and where the majority of the business owners have hailed from originally before going to Ely.

          . Fact is, there are plenty of area lakes and trails to suit everyone`s desire. But getting any new ones started is like pulling teeth, because even within themselves they fight about it. . Not to embrace those that want to be part of the area and spend money is foolish. Wisconsin I might add also has it`s non-motor lakes and trails. But they learned a long time ago to include it into their economy. Something Ely enjoys trying to fight off. Times change, and in today`s world of tight communication and less travel times to the “north border country”, the area is becoming much more accessible. Done right, this can mean a growth like it does in the other areas surrounding the BWCA, and within the national forest.

          I would also remind you, that the Tribe feels the same way you do about others coming up and telling them [for generations] “how to live”. The difference is, they learned to live with it and choose their battles. They just simply woke up to facts, and learned.

          Maybe the area should listen and move forward instead of backward. That`s the real reason northern Wisconsin has what it does for the “tourists and cabin folk”.

  11. Submitted by joe smith on 03/06/2020 - 07:22 am.

    The Ojibwe have every right to their opinion on mining, good for them. For the folks who oppose that opinion, they have every right not to spend their money at establishments owned by Ojibwe tribe. It has absolutely nothing to do with racism, it is called free market, free will.

    • Submitted by Steve Timmer on 03/06/2020 - 02:58 pm.

      I didn’t use the word racism in the commentary, but I think, yes, it’s a big part of it.

      It’s like the Lake Mille Lacs fishing rights and the reservation controversies. Some people just can’t believe that the Indians actually have rights, or as the Timberjay put it (better than I did), the Indian way of life is entitled to as much respect as the white way of life.,16080?

  12. Submitted by Steve Timmer on 03/06/2020 - 09:44 pm.

    This wonderful little film, which I just became aware of, is a splendid example of the Indian way of life that the Timberjay op-ed talks about.

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