Crandon Mine Purchase Anniversary Celebration Held Last Saturday

By Tina L. Van Zile, Environmental Director


Last Saturday was the 20th Anniversary Celebration for the historic Crandon Mine Purchase. Events were held at the Mole Lake Casino and Lodge Conference Center and the Forest County Potawatomi Community Center. We started the day off with an opening drum song from the Sokaogon Singers, and their second song brought in the Sokaogon Chippewa Veterans Color Guard.

Chairman Robert Van Zile, Jr. and Chairman James A. Crawford each welcomed everyone to the glorious day. Then Chairman Van Zile offered a prayer for the day’s events and began his oral presentation, that included history of the 28-year battle against the mining companies. He shared significant information that many people probably didn’t remember, like the trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. Chairman Van Zile, Glenn Reynolds, Ken Van Zile and Roman Ferdinand met with BHP Billiton and explained the disaster that the Crandon Mine would create for the Sokaogon people if they continued to pursue the project.

Frances Van Zile was very emotional during her talk because this was the first time she didn’t have Fred Ackley, Jr. by her side. She said, “This is so hard without my Freddy,” and we all became teary eyed with her because we felt her pain.

Fran and Fred were a force to be reckoned with during the 28-year battle. They attended many marches, meetings, gatherings, etc., all to represent the Sokaogon People. Fran said, “Dale Alberts, (Crandon Mine President at the time) told me, Franny do you really think tying tobacco ties to the trees out here is going to stop this mine,” and Fran replied, “Yes, yes it will,” and now look at us here today celebrating the 20th anniversary since we prevented the mine!”

Everyone clapped and hooped because we all knew our tobacco offerings are powerful. I told Franny, “I want you to know that you gave many of us inspiration to join the fight along with you. You have taught us all very well, and I assure you that we will carry on the fight against mining, and we will educate our youth about the 28-year battle so it will never be forgotten!”

During the mining opposition we had four Tribes standing side by side with us. We called ourselves “Niiwin (four in Ojibwe) Tribes”. Ken Fish represented the Menominee Nation during the celebration. Ken was very instrumental during the opposition, as he headed the treaty rights division for his Tribe back then. I remember Ken and Apsenahkwat traveling together, along with the Sokaogon Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi, to Washington D.C. to spearhead federal agencies and their review of the proposed Crandon Mine EIS process, demanding answers on Tribal cultural concerns. Menominee Nation was a strong ally!

Sokaogon thought it was important to fly Zoltan Grossman and Debi McNutt from Olympia, Washington, to Mole Lake for the celebration because they led the charge for Midwest Treaty Network. Zoltan and Debi were community organizers who educated non-Natives throughout Wisconsin during the proposed mine era.

Their grass-root organization worked with many other Wisconsin grass-root organizations, combining their forces and joining the Tribes in the fight against the proposed Crandon Mine. They were instrumental in leading “speaking tours” in towns all along the Wolf River. The education they provided to people who would be affected downstream from the Sokaogon Chippewa Reservation was pivotal in gaining support. The proposed mine was not just a threat to the Sokaogon people, but everyone downstream because Swamp Creek, which runs through the reservation, is at the headwaters of the Wolf River.

Throughout the morning, we heard from GLIFWC’s John Coleman and Former Sokaogon Tribal Hydrogeologist Roman Ferdinand. Both John and Roman reviewed hundreds of technical data submitted by the mining company as they pursued their mining permits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It was a great weight on their shoulders, but they never gave up. They attended numerous technical meetings over the years and they both proved to play a vital role because they, in turn, had to explain this technical information to Tribal leaders.

Roman worked for the Sokaogon Chippewa for 20 years, and we are extremely thankful for his dedication to our people! GLIFWC formed a mining team which included Ann McCammon-Soltis and Esteban Chiroboga, and they all deserve much credit for assisting the Tribes. Today, they continue to represent Ojibwe Tribes who are facing threats from mining.
Glenn Reynolds, former Tribal Attorney, talked about the many legal challenges the Tribe faced. Back in 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted the Sokaogon Treatment-As-A-State (TAS) for our Water Quality Standards, but the State of Wisconsin immediately sued the EPA stating the Tribes didn’t have jurisdiction over their waters.

Glenn was not only providing legal representation on all the mining-related threats but now he had to defend the Tribe’s right to TAS as well. Glenn spoke about how Nicolet Minerals (the last name of the proposed Crandon Mine project) contacted the Tribe to see if we would be interested in purchasing Spirit Hill. Of course we said yes, go back and tell them we’ll buy it and ask them if they want to sell the land around Oak Lake too. Glenn and Roman both went and talked to the President of Nicolet Minerals, and they came back and said, “This guy is interested in selling more than just Oak Lake land.”

One thing led to another, and we were negotiating for all the land. Glenn believes the trip to South Africa and meeting with Brian Gilbertson, President of BHP Billiton, to inform him of what devastation would be done if the proposed Crandon Mine project went into operation just two miles upstream from our reservation, had an impact. Two weeks after that meeting, BHP Billiton shut down the Crandon Mining office.

It was then that the Connor Family purchased the mining company from BHP Billiton, but they could not fund the expensive permitting process. This opened the door for the Tribe to purchase it all.

Sayokla Kindness-Williams and Justice Peche from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Western Mining Action Network (WMAN) shared a couple stories of IEN’s involvement back in the early 1990s when they held a Protect The Earth Summit here at Mole Lake to bring worldwide attention to the threat Sokaogon was facing.

Sayokla spoke about WMAN bringing me to Kamloops, British Columbia, to speak about putting an end to the proposed Crandon Mine. She said, “Tina spoke so eloquently and passionately that she made hundreds of people cry. At the end of her presentation, she received a standing ovation from over 300 people.” She added, “Tina is an excellent speaker when it comes to telling the story of the 28-year battle against the Crandon Mine.”
Sayokla and Justice gifted me with a ribbon skirt, maple syrup, Native sewn towels, shell earrings and more, and it brought me to tears because she asked everyone to give me a round of applause and I received a standing ovation. This touched my heart so much that I could not hold back the tears.

Al Gedicks was the next speaker. He spoke with so much passion and a hint of anger because he has a direct connection to Sokaogon. His best friends are Danny (Sokaogon Tribal Member) and Sherry Poler. It was Danny who asked for his help back in the early 1970s when Exxon was the first mining company to go after mining permits.

Al does his research, and he can challenge any company when it comes to something he is passionate about. One thing in particular that Al stated was that if the mining company were to open this Crandon Project, they would be committing cultural genocide. Al talked about a “social license to operate” – which means the mining company works to win over the support of the community where their mining activity will take place. Without this social license, it creates political and financial problems for mining companies. That’s why it is important for communities to actively show opposition if they do not want mining in their back yards.

Dave Blouin of the Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter, spoke of their involvement throughout the years. Dave has been an avid activist fighting mining companies, and he is very good at investigating the financial background of mining companies. He has told me many times, “You can tell what’s going on by diving into a company’s financials, because they are all about what kind of profit they can make.”

Dave currently meets by Zoom every month with many of us activists, and we discuss current proposed mining projects so we can collectively work to prevent these projects in Wisconsin and in our ceded territories.

Allison Werner of the River Alliance of Wisconsin wasn’t involved during the 28-year fight, but her organization assisted Sokaogon by keeping an eye on things down in Madison. The River Alliance always works to do their best to educate people about the truth of mining projects and then they let people make their own decision. The River Alliance always has a board member from a Tribe to ensure their involvement with the Tribes, as well as including the Native perspective on all the good work they do across Wisconsin.

My daughter, Tashena Van Zile, was asked by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter to be taken to the former Crandon Mine property because I was way too busy to leave the event. She took him to the location of the ore body and told him how it would have devastated our rice beds because of the close proximity to the reservation. She then took him to the north end of Rice Lake so he could see where “the food that grows on water” is. It made me happy to see that Tashena could share her personal knowledge because she was a young girl who traveled with me everywhere addressing many state and federal agencies during the permitting process.

Jeff Crawford is the General Counsel for the Forest County Potawatomi and he gave history of the proposed Crandon mine. He said that for him personally, he would always get inspiration from a prayer from the late Jim Thunder, and that to ensure their Tribe doesn’t entertain mining, they have changed their constitution to make those decision in the hands of the General Council membership. Jeff also shared that they would need a super majority and it would be difficult to get that in any decisions within their Tribe. He hopes this will protect future generations.

I was last to speak after the long day of presenters. I showed a presentation mostly of maps and pictures that reflected on the history of the former proposed Crandon mine project. I wanted people to see the map that shows just how close the project would have been to the Sokaogon Chippewa Community.

It’s one thing to tell people that we are only two miles downstream, but for them to see on a map how close it really is, they began to realize that the mining project would have devastated our homelands.

I made sure to thank the NiiWin Tribes as well as the many Wisconsin grassroots organizations who stood side-by-side with the Sokaogon to defeat the proposed Crandon Mine. Similar to Jeff Crawford, I, too, shared how I maintained the strength to carry on each day. I would visit our Historical Marker, which tells people about the Battle of Mole Lake, and no matter what I was facing I needed to be strong like our ancestors who died fighting for our wild rice beds.

This gave me strength every day, and I honestly thought I would be fighting the proposed Crandon mine project until the day I died. We, as Native peoples, rarely WIN against mining companies, so when we struck the deal to make the purchase it was extremely emotional. It was as if someone cleared the black clouds over our reservation and our people could finally rest easy!

The happiest moment at the celebration was seeing all the Native and non-native warriors seeing one another again. People were hugging and reminiscing of the struggle we all endured. I personally shed tears a few times. But looking across the crowd of people, I also saw many smiles! It was a good day to have a good day.
I have so many people to thank for helping make the day a joyous one. First, the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribal Council and the Forest County Potawatomi Executive Council for providing the modest budget for the event. Secondly, I would like to thank the planning team members including Jacki Braun, Tashena Van Zile, Tiffany McGeshick, Narciso Tovar, Amber Haseman, Dillon Crawford, Marcus Daniels, Jessica Jacobsen and Matt DeLeew. Thank you to the Potawatomi Traveling Times designer who took our hand drawing floral work and digitized it to complete our T-shirt design. He then transferred it for our beautiful poster. Thank you to Nathan Podany, Mike LaRonge and Joel Polar for hauling everything before, during and after the event. Thank you to my personal friends who came to volunteer including Chantel Alveshire, TJ and Sayokla Kindness-Williams.

I had some fabulous cooks for the lunch and feast, including Norbert Polar, Mark Van Zile, Jr., Chris McGeshick, Vickie Ackley, Cheyenne Landru, Mike Krusensterna, Virginia Poler, Jacki Braun, Maxine Trudeau and James Polar, Sr.

Thank you to the Lac du Flambeau National Resources Department for donating all of our eco-friendly paper products. Thank you to my granddaughter’s father, Hunter Mayo, for harvesting and donating two deer for the feast. Thank you to the Potawatomi Farm for donating grass-fed beef for the feast.

When you have a good team, it makes an event like this go smoothly. Everyone worked so hard, and I truly appreciate every one of them!

Lastly, thank you to Jeremy Wild from our Sokaogon C-Store and Renae from the Mole Lake Lodge for working with me to buy out their stock of gifts for our powwow giveaway.

If I have forgotten anyone, I apologize now.

Chi-Miigwech to all who played a role in making the day a success!
Photos courtesy of Kimberlee Soldier.

Reprinted with permission.