Authorities in Michigan have finally acknowledged what Menominee historians have always known: the area around the mouth of the Menominee River is the site of a significant ancient settlement and burial grounds.
The Michigan Historic Preservation Review Board last month voted to nominate large areas around the Menominee River, known to the Menominee as Anaem Omot, as a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places.
This would mean developers of major projects at the site would need to consult with the Menominee Nation, which is what tribal officials have been seeking for decades.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Chairman Ron Corn Sr., of the Menominee Nation. “[The] vote recognizes a rare and sacred Menominee heritage site that has lasted through centuries of violent dispossession and where Menominee members continue to visit and hold ceremonies today.”
The tribe and its environmental activist allies have opposed proposed mining at the site.
The Menominee Nation, in federal court, has challenged efforts by Canada-based Aquila Resources to start its Back 40 Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The mine would extract gold, silver, zinc and copper.
Tribal officials argued the mine would harm the environment, affecting the water in the region, which is historically significant to the Menominee Nation.
The project is in limbo after a Michigan judge denied a wetland permit, but opponents worry another company could try again in the future.
Aquila Resources was acquired last year by Gold Resource Corporation.
Efforts by the tribe and environmentalists have helped thwart the project the last 20 years.
Most of the concern has stemmed from the fact that the mine would be on the banks of the Menominee River, separated from the waters by only an earthen dam.
The mine would operate on 83 acres and its pit would be 2,000 feet by 2,500 feet, according to a report from the Detroit Free Press. The life of the mine is estimated to be seven years, and it would produce thousands of pounds of zinc, gold, copper, lead and silver. An on-site processing mill would crush and refine the minerals and ores using flotation, separation and cyanide.
The tribe has been assisted in its efforts by Earth Justice, a non-profit organization of environmental lawyers.
Archeologist Dr. David Overstreet, who works for Menominee Nation, was tasked to find evidence to support the significance of the historic site.
The site contains documented burial mounds, ancient raised agricultural fields, hammered metal artifacts, unmarked graves, ancient medicine lodges and dance rings associated with the Menominee Dream Dance.
“We had to demonstrate a preponderance of evidence in our favor and I think we finally just wore them out,” Overstreet said.
The Menominee River is the site of the creation of the Menominee Tribe, which is along the border of northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
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The Wisconsin Review Board voted last year to nominate the site to the National Register of Historic Places.
“This will not necessarily stop the mine,” Overstreet said.
If the site is approved by the National Register, it would mean that any major development would have to go through additional layers of federal and tribal approval.
Stefanie Tsosie, an attorney with Earth Justice, said that wouldn’t mean a homeowner on the site couldn’t develop on their property, such as build a garage.
The site would be treated like any other historic district in which any development has to go through a separate analysis of impact.
“It’s not a complete halt of progress,” she said.
Michigan Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said Wisconsin officials shouldn’t dictate what can be done in his state.
“This particular Native American tribe (Menominee) had a historic presence on this land hundreds of years ago, but now lives 500 miles away and has never invested in this community,” he said.
The Menominee Reservation is actually located about 60 miles from a section of the Menominee River and the tribe owns property in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in Menominee County.
LaFave argues a mine would significantly improve economic development in the region and combat homelessness.
He said another tribe, the Hannahville Indian Community (Potawatomi), which resides in the Upper Peninsula, has not opposed the mine.
“Michigan has strong environmental protection laws,” LaFave said. “We can mine here safely and protect the environment.”
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. You can directly support his work with a tax-deductible donation online at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Menominee win key victory in fight against Back 40 Mine in Michigan