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Political Matters
September Political Matters
Friday, September 09 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Remembering Jim Northrup
Whenever I found a new issue of The Circle, I would turn first to Jim Northrup’s column, “Fond du Lac Follies.” There I learned about Ojibwe lifeways: the cycle of the seasons, from sugar bush through ricing; the language camps embraced by Jim and his wife, Pat, who also spent countless hours together weaving birch bark baskets. The Northrups also seemed to host an endless stream of visitors at their home in Sawyer, Minn.
 
Jim wrote about motoring around the country, to speaking gigs at college and university Native studies programs and to veterans’ reunions; he also jetted around the world, to places like Hungary, where people seem to know more about American Indian history and current struggles than do non-Indians in the United States. “Fond du Lac Follies” also included jokes, in Ojibwe and English.
Jim Northrup wrote his column for 25 years, hanging up his “spurs and computer,” in his words, about two years ago. This year, on Aug. 1, he walked on. He was 73.
 
I knew Jim casually, running into him at powwows and other Indian gatherings. I recall being greeted warmly by Jim, and his close friend Ray Earley, at a fundraiser for  The Circle some years ago in Minneapolis. Of course, Jim had wonderful stories to tell. He joined the Marines, at the age of 19, and was shipped to Vietnam. It was an experience that profoundly influenced his life. He told the story about a day out in the boonies of Vietnam, when a helicopter landed and out stepped John Wayne, “who killed Indians by the dozens with his movie six shooter,” as Jim wrote in a poem titled “The Duke.” Wayne was scouting locations for the horrible 1968 pro-war movie “The Green Berets” – but he declined an invitation from the “Indian patrol leader” to take a “walk with the grunts.”
 
Regarding the Vietnam War, in 2010, Jim told a huge crowd at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., that writing about his war experiences “helped with the trauma of combat.” If you’d like to get a taste of Jim reading his poetry, there’s a YouTube video from LZ Lambeau: Welcoming Home Wisconsin's Vietnam Veterans at: bit.ly/jim-lambeau.
 
The surreal and the heartfelt experiences of life mixed in Jim’s columns, plays and poems. He was one of our most talented storytellers, in Indian Country and in the wider world. The obituary published in the New York Times concluded with Jim’s comments about his impending death, in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio: “I know where I am going. I’m going to, as the Ojibwe call it in the language, the land of everlasting happiness. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a different world. I’m changing addresses.”
 
May the memory of Jim Northrup always be a blessing for his family and friends.

“Songs” from Pine Ridge
My wife and I recently watched “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a gritty and affecting film about contemporary Indian life set on the Pine Ridge reservation. There aren’t many fictional narrative films that deal so compellingly with the struggles young Indians face, as far as staying or leaving the rez.
 
Director Chloé Zhao, a native of China who came to the U.S. alone as a young teenager, gets great performances from the young Native actors, especially John Reddy, a Pine Ridge native who plays the film’s protagonist, Johhny Winters. He’s a bootlegger who runs afoul of another group smuggling beer and liquor from the border town of White Clay, Nebraska. Johhny is contemplating leaving Pine Ridge for Los Angeles, where his girlfriend will be attending college. Veteran actor Irene Bedard (“Lakota Woman,” “Pocahantas”) plays Johnny’s mother.
 
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is available on DVD from Kino Lorber, and from Netflix.

A fight for water
The high profile story in Indian Country last month was the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is planned to run underneath the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
 
Some 120 tribes from across the country have voiced support for the Standing Rock tribe’s stand for water and against the 1,200-mile pipeline that would carry oil from the Bakken field in western North Dakota to southern Illinois. 
 
In late August, Standing Rock chairman David Archambault II wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that put this struggle in the historical context of U.S. violations of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties and other depredations against the Dakota/Lakota nation.
 
I will explore the issues here in a future column.
Protecting our water
Friday, August 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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In my May column, I promised to write more about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) investigation into Minnesota’s compliance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA).

As the state prepares to consider a number of permits sought by PolyMet Mining Co. for its copper-nickel mine and processing plant in northeastern Minnesota, it appears that Minnesota has been asleep at the switch in monitoring pollution from taconite mining and other industrial facilities – over several decades.

The environmental group WaterLegacy petitioned the EPA last year (July 2, 2015), calling on the agency to withdraw the state’s authority to enforce industrial pollution permits under the CWA. WaterLegacy argued that some 25 mining facilities in the state are operating with expired permits, putting water resources and wild rice at risk.

The EPA launched an investigation into the allegations of lax environmental oversight, and has now asked the Minnesota attorney general to respond to its questions by Aug. 12. The EPA wants to know how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) can protect our waters, especially after the Legislature passed measures in 2015 and 2016 that essentially exempted taconite mining operations from complying with a 40-year-old sulfate standard for waters that contain wild rice. Scientific studies have found that sulfide in lake sediment starves wild rice.

“This is about time, it’s been decades, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has just refused to enforce the wild rice sulfate standard,” said Paula Maccabee, WaterLegacy’s advocacy director and counsel, regarding the EPA deadline.

“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has operated in a vacuum where the only real participants have been the mining companies,” Maccabee continued, during a phone interview in late July. She said that there has been a “complete failure to comply with the Clean Water Act” in Minnesota.

The 2015 state law that instructed the MPCA not to enforce the standard on sulfate pollution was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Maccabee. She said that WaterLegacy had been amassing evidence of the state’s environmental performance for some months, then decided the time had come to “call out the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Legislature for failure to respect the Clean Water Act and failure to enforce laws limiting mine pollution.”

In addition to failing to enforce pollution regulations, the MPCA and legislators have succumbed to the “undue influence of mining industry lobbyists.”

When I worked at the Legislature, more than 20 years ago, and covered the House environment committee, progressive environmental legislation was shredded to bits. It took me some time to realize that industry lobbyists were behind the gutting of these bills.

In response to my question, Maccabee explained that WaterLegacy makes all of its strategic decisions “in consultation with the tribal staff.” For example, the group’s 2015 petition to the EPA to withdraw Minnesota’s authority for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program under the Clean Water Act, was based on documents and investigations by the water quality staffs of the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands (this has been corrected from the print version, which listed Boise Forte incorrectly).

I wrote in my May column that the Ojibwe bands say that state officials for the past eight years have ignored their concerns about the PolyMet copper-nickel project. Since the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved the PolyMet environmental impact statement, Indian band officials have turned their focus to federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which still need to grant permits for the controversial sulfide mining project.

The Indian bands have to be consulted during the environmental review process, because the PolyMet project threatens the health of the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, beyond the borders of the reservations. The Indian bands retain rights to hunt, fish and gather in this territory.

At the end of our conversation, Maccabee explained, “WaterLegacy was formed to address the new threat of sulfide mining, which is a threat to Indian country, and a threat to the Boundary Waters, and a threat to Lake Superior.”

She commented that “regular citizens” often told her that if sulfide mining was going to come into the state, “Minnesota is a place where there is such tough regulations and such good enforcement. What we realized several years into this research is that that’s a myth: Minnesota does not enforce pollution control standards.” And Maccabee added that there are no standards for many new pollutants.

“The last thing we should do in Minnesota is experiment with sulfide mining,” she concluded, in view of state regulators’ failure to control “the much less toxic pollution from taconite mining.”

Stop Trump
Friday, August 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Looking back on the past 50 years or so of American politics, I can’t recall as horrific a development as the rise of Donald Trump. When Republicans meet in Cleveland this month, they likely will nominate a total nincompoop to head the party’s 2016 presidential ticket.

Of course, during the turbulent ’60s there was a political candidate who, like Trump, riled up crowds with incendiary racist rhetoric. George Wallace, the segregationist former-governor of Alabama, ran for the presidency on the American Independent Party ticket. On July 3, 1968, I attended Wallace’s presidential rally at the Minneapolis Auditorium.

In a year that saw the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, and a variety of riots and insurrections, Wallace toured the country stirring up racial hatred. His stop in Minneapolis was no exception.

I recall that hundreds of protesters in the auditorium became increasingly agitated as a miserable country-western band, Wallace’s warm-up act, played on interminably. Finally, protesters congregated in the front of the stage and they were met by a phalanx of Minneapolis cops (likely some of them were Wallace supporters). The cops sprayed mace on the protesters, even before Wallace came out to speak.

“A Negro youth climbed on the stage at 8:15 p.m. and appeared to be trying to take the microphone,” according to a report in the Minneapolis Star. “Shoving and fist swinging started.”

During the candidate’s oration, a throng of protesters in the seats stage left mocked Wallace by repeatedly thrusting out their arms in the Nazi salute and yelling, “Sieg heil!” It was quite a show.

Earlier in the day, Wallace held a press conference at the airport and verbally jousted with reporters for 75 minutes. “I think relations between the races would be better,” he said, regarding his vision society during a Wallace presidency. “I’m gonna pay more attention to the Indians than you’ve been doin’,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported.

In 2016, we again are faced with a racist, nativist candidate for president –  this time, however, it’s a person poised to represent one of the two major political parties in the United States. Trump, a fascistic and bigoted politician, represents a greater danger to this nation than did George Wallace in 1968.

And Trump makes no promise about “gonna pay more attention to the Indians.” In addition to his offensive comments directed at Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, etc., Trump has been a consistent antagonist of tribal sovereignty. His animus against American Indians seems to go back more than 20 years, and stems from tribal competition to his casino holdings in Atlantic City.

In 1993, Trump sued the federal government, maintaining that allowing Indian tribes to open casinos discriminates again him, according to a story in the New York Times. Trump argued in his lawsuit that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which enabled Indians to open casinos across the country, violated the 10th Amendment, which reserved regulation of such matters to the states. In 1993, Trump owned three casinos in Atlantic City. He also testified before Congress and alleged that Mafia crime families had infiltrated Indian gaming operations; he provided no credible evidence to back up his charge.

“I think for a lot of people of color and indigenous people, they’re not surprised he’s come this far and is now the presumptive Republican nominee,” Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, responded to my question about how she accounts for the rise of Trump. “I say that because many of the things that he says out loud we know have been just below the surface.”

Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Nation who was elected to the state House of Representatives last year, added that, in Minnesota, “we have a hard time talking about race,” and “we have some of the largest racial disparities” [in areas like education, income, jobs and health].

Regarding Trump’s spew of racist and bigoted comments, Flanagan commented, “Now that you have someone out front, everything that was like a dog whistle before has now become a bullhorn, and has made it okay to say out loud. So, I’m not necessarily surprised, but I am fairly heartbroken and devastated by just where we are as a country.”

Flanagan is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, and commented that the Democratic nomination battle, between Hillary and Bernie, has been quite “divisive” in the Indian community. I wasn’t aware of that; but with the presidential election just four months away, we are going to have to come together behind Hillary Clinton, who is the only credible alternative to a catastrophic Trump presidency.

PolyMet and Tribal Concerns
Thursday, May 05 2016
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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As I reported in my April column, Gov. Mark Dayton recently instructed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) not to authorize any new lease agreements for mining on state lands with Twin Metals Minnesota. Twin Metals has been moving forward on a $2.8 billion underground copper-nickel mine near Birch Lake in northeastern Minnesota.

Dayton expressed concern that mining activities might pollute lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), which he called “a crown jewel in Minnesota and a national treasure.”

Dayton’s move followed the DNR’s decision that the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for Polymet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbit was adequate, and that project could move into the permitting phase. I have written numerous columns about the potentially catastrophic environmental impacts from sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

I have noted that the Ojibwe bands (Fond du Lac, Bois Forte and Grand Portage), which retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, have been raising objections to the PolyMet mining scheme for years.

How can Minnesota sign off on PolyMet’s mine and then object to the Twin Metals project? Regarding Dayton’s decision not to authorize state mineral leases to Twin Metals, Nancy Schuldt, the water protection coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band, said that action was “at least, a step the governor could take to help protect important natural and cultural resources in the 1854 ceded territory, because there is a quite a lot of overlap between the Superior National Forest and the 1854 ceded territory.”

However, Schuldt remains troubled by “the comments that have been made about how we need to protect this ‘jewel’ of the Boundary Waters, as this federally-protected protected wilderness, and somehow it’s okay to let PolyMet destroy the Lake Superior Basin? I’m not sure I understand… that position, which seems to be what the governor is insinuating: that PolyMet’s one thing, but we can’t let sulfide mining destroy the Boundary Waters. I have a hard time with that.”

Incredibly, as Schuldt mentioned, “the governor has not met with the tribes at all on this issue, on either the Twin Metals leases or the PolyMet project.”

On this point, I called Dayton’s press secretary, Matt Swenson. “I do know that the DNR commissioner and all the folks who are working on the PolyMet issue communicate regularly with the tribes, and have met with them numerous times,” Swenson responded. “I would have to go back and check as to whether the governor has met with them.”

Swenson called me back after consulting with Dayton’s scheduler. There have been no meetings between the governor and Ojibwe band officials about copper-nickel mining. As far as the DNR’s decision about the adequacy of the PolyMet environmental review, Nancy Schuldt said that tribal officials determined that “it would not be particularly strategic” to appeal the DNR decision, because such a challenge “would be heard in a state court, and we’re not really interested in trying to argue with the state over the adequacy of the EIS, when they haven’t listened to us for the last eight years.”

Instead, the tribal “cooperating agencies” in the EIS process have formally objected to the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision (ROD) approving the land exchange, which is a crucial part of PolyMet’s NorthMet project.

PolyMet would get access to land in the Superior National Forest for its open pit mine, and provide other land in exchange. Schuldt said that tribal officials “were a little disturbed” that the Forest Service rushed its draft ROD on the land exchange, and published it before the final EIS on the PolyMet mine was approved by the DNR.

The tribes also are meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must decide on whether or not to issue a wetland permit for the PolyMet mine. PolyMet’s project involves “almost a thousand acres of direct wetland impact and untold thousands of acres of indirect wetland impacts that have not had mitigation proposed for them,” said Schuldt, who added that issuing a permit to allow “this much wetland destruction” would be unprecedented in the lower 48 states.

Schuldt also hipped me to Water Legacy’s petition last summer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which calls for a review of Minnesota’s negligent actions vis-à-vis the federal Clean Water Act. In short, some 25 mining facilities in state are operating with expired permits, imperiling our water resources, wild rice, etc.

In early April, the EPA launched an investigation pursuant to Water Legacy’s petition, and requested permit files from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on all of the mining operations. The EPA investigation will be the subject of a future Political Matters column.

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