It’s no accident that the river that divides the places known today as Wisconsin and Michigan bears the same name as the Menominee Tribe. The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin lived along the Menominee River for thousands of years, and evidence of their ancestral past — including sacred sites, such as dance rings and burial mounds — still line its banks.
“People who aren’t Menominee maybe can’t understand that our relationship with that river goes back way before 1492,” explains Guy Reiter, executive director of a grassroots organization focused on community wellness for Menominee people. “We know its secrets, and it knows our secrets. I need it in my life, and it needs us.”
The Back Forty mine, a massive proposed mine and ore-processing center, posed an existential threat to the Menominee Tribe’s cultural landscape along the banks of their namesake river. Canadian mining company Aquila Resources sought to dig an 80-acre open pit immediately adjacent to the river in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula to extract copper, zinc, gold, and silver. The pit would have been deeper than the Statue of Liberty is tall, merely 50 yards away from the river.
Earthjustice, representing the Tribe, filed suit to challenge the company’s permits. In January 2021, a Michigan judge denied the Back Forty project a wetlands permit, ruling that the mine “is not in the public interest” and will damage nearby cultural and historic resources. More recently, another court decision called the company’s mining permits into question. Seeing the writing on the wall, Aquila Resources announced in May that it will surrender its mining permits and drop its efforts to reinstate its wetland permit. Still, the company has announced plans to submit yet another proposal to revive the ill-conceived project.
“The proposed project site is sacred to the Menominee people and should remain protected from destruction,” says Gunnar Peters, chairman of Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.
A series of treaties over hundreds of years greatly reduced Menominee Tribal lands, and the present-day Menominee Reservation lies roughly 60 miles from the mouth of the Menominee River. After a long history of being pushed off their lands, protection of the lasting cultural landmarks is paramount to the Menominee Tribe.
Along the banks of the Menominee River, “There’s some ceremonial sites that people still use today,” says Menominee Tribal Chairman Douglas Cox.
In court testimony, Chairman Cox noted, “If I was one to practice ceremonial and spiritual ways of the Menominee at a site like that (if I could even get on the site anymore) — and there was a 90-foot tailing pile at that site — I would not use that site any longer, nor would I go back. Those kinds of impacts are real. They will be realized. And it relates all the way down to the place of our origin.”
The clean waters of the Menominee River have long been a draw for family outings, rafting, boating, and sport fishing. Yet in 2018, the conservation group American Rivers listed the Menominee as one of the nation’s most endangered waterways, due to the risk of acid mine drainage from the Back Forty project.
Acid mine drainage is caused when sulfide ores, the rocks that bear minerals such as gold, nickel, zinc, and copper, react to form acids because they have been exposed to air and water in the process of mining. It can manifest as a nasty contaminated runoff leaching from mine sites, filled with pollutants including heavy metals that are toxic to fish, vegetation, and water quality.
“It’s likely going to affect Green Bay and Lake Michigan and Great Lakes,” Chairman Cox notes. “This is going to be an impact to our region.” The Menominee River flows into Green Bay, a part of Lake Michigan, and connects to a watershed that ultimately feeds drinking water supplies.
On a sunny spring afternoon in 2019, six high school students from the Menominee Indian School District came to see the sacred sites at the river’s edge. Dave Grignon, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, led the group to the mouth of the river, located in present-day Marinette, Wisconsin.
“Our history took place on the Menominee River,” Grignon explained to the teens. “It was said that the great Ancestral Bear came out of the mouth of the Menominee River.” The Ancestral Bear emerged from the water and was transformed into a human, marking the first Menominee. As the bear traveled up river, it met others such as wolf and crane, the beginnings of the five clans that still form the Menominee Tribe’s social order.
Grignon added, “One of the first things the Menominees did was fish sturgeon on the river.” Lake sturgeon, which migrate up the Menominee River, continue to hold great cultural significance to the Tribe. Historic gatherings took place in celebration of the fish, marking the ends of long, bitter winters.
As Grignon explained to the youth, wild rice is another food that is considered exceptionally important to Menominee, recognized as among the first gifts the Creator bestowed to them. The Tribe recently re-established wild rice at the mouth of the river to commemorate their historic ties there. Yet sulfates, which would be produced as part of the mining project, are especially harmful to wild rice.
A pair of eagles circled overhead as the high-school students arrived at their second stop on the sacred-sites tour, near the boundary of the proposed Back Forty mine. The young people laughed and joked as they walked through the woods. Sun peeked out from the clouds overhead, and light danced across the high rushing water. Sprigs of sedge, trillium, and other delicate flowering plants pushed up through a blanket of leaves.
Grignon and archeologist David Overstreet led the group to a conical mound that rose up from the forest floor, where Grignon led a short prayer and made an offering of tobacco. Mounds can be found scattered through the woods along a three-mile stretch lining both sides of the river, including within the proposed boundaries of the mine. While some were used for burial, Overstreet said, others may have been used for ceremonial purposes relating to fertility or other aspects of life or worship.
“Seeing the burial mounds made me feel emotional, but happy at the same time, seeing where my relatives were,” said Aaliyah Webster, a 14-year-old high school student. “Just being here made me feel really proud to be who I am, and where I come from. I just want to help stop the mine, so we can keep these sites and future generations can come up here and learn the same things I did.”
Near the mound was a series of furrows still visible on the forest floor that had once been a raised garden bed — radiocarbon dating suggests crops were grown there as early as 1450. In addition to being closely tied to the Tribe’s ancestral past, these agricultural sites are treasured by historians and archaeologists who view them as puzzle pieces that can aid in a richer understanding of ancient cultures’ lifeways.
“These are pretty sophisticated agricultural systems,” Overstreet noted, explaining that he and other scholars were intrigued to discover that ancient Menominee people were growing maize so far north, well into an era known as the Little Ice Age. “They are still trying to figure out how it is that they altered the soil conditions to make them incredibly fertile.”
To better understand these ancient agricultural methods, Overstreet and Grignon established a replica garden at the Menominee Indian Museum, on the reservation. They engaged tribal members in a community project of creating garden beds using the traditional cultivation tools of ancient people: digging sticks and hoes made from bison scapula. The project has fed ongoing curiosity and rediscovery of Menominee history and culture.
On their sacred site tour, the group of high school students also visited a dance ring, one of several in the area, which would have been used for ceremonial purposes by Menominee and other neighboring Tribes.
Because of the historic and cultural importance of Menominee village sites near the Back Forty mine, both Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s review boards have recently voted to approve the Tribe’s nomination for listing on the National Register of Historic Places — the official list of historic buildings, districts, sites, structures, and objects worthy of preservation. Yet if the Back Forty mine is built, this opportunity for historic preservation could be lost, and the landscape will be altered beyond recognition.
This blog was originally published in June 2019. It was last updated in November 2022 to reflect the Tribe’s recent victories.