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Political Matters
Treaty rights today
Friday, October 02 2015
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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Treaty rights today I’ve been thinking about the upsurge in Indian activism over recent years. The sudden rise of the Idle No More movement – which began in Canada and swept through the Western Hemisphere – was quite a surprise, as a new generation of activists made their presence, and grievances, known.

Young Indians, along with graying American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders who brought Indian issues to the world more than four decades ago, also have spearheaded a renewed movement to stop the exploitation of Indian culture and religion by professional sports teams. Thousands of Indians and their allies marched to TCF Bank Stadium on the U of M campus, on Nov. 2, 2014, to protest the continuing racist slur propounded by the NFL’s Washington franchise.

And tribal leaders and activists have been an important factor in the popular resistance to the continuous assault on the land from oil and gas interests, and multinational mining firms. In Minnesota, for example, the White Earth Nation, along with environmental groups, has campaigned against the Sandpiper Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil field in No. Dakota to Superior, Wisconsin. The project received approval from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC); but in September the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a full environmental impact review had to be completed before moving ahead with a certificate of need proceeding.

In the case of proposed copper-nickel mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, the concept of Indian sovereignty provides a legal framework for protecting the natural environment. Specifically, reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded in 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the United States provide the legal underpinning to tribal intervention

When I started as journalist in Indian Country, in the late-1970s, I was fortunate to meet a number of elders who carried knowledge of the lifeways of their peoples: Phillip Deere, of the Muscogee Nation (Oklahoma), David Sohappy, of the Wanapum Band of the Yakama Nation (Washington), and many others.

I also had the good luck to meet Vine Deloria, Jr., of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (So. Dakota). Deloria, a former executive director of National Congress of American Indians, made Indian sovereignty and culture comprehensible to a wide audience through his books, including Custer Died for Your Sins, God Is Red, Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties and The Nations Within (with Clifford Lytle).

In God Is Red, for example, Deloria explains that the lands on which people resided gave birth to the religions that arose: “The chance that lands would be lost meant that religious communities would be destroyed and individual identities forsaken. As sacred mountains became secularized, as tribal burial grounds became cornfields, as tribes no longer lived on the dust of their ancestors’ bones, the people knew that they could not survive.”

In the 19th century treaties between Indian nations and the U.S. government, Indian leaders recognized that an irresistible wave of European immigrants was flooding the land; and, as they relinquished their ancestral land to the new nation, they had the wisdom to reserve their rights to sustenance within the ceded territories.

Of course, after treating with the Indians, the U.S. government often engaged in double-dealing; the U.S., broke treaties at its whim. Such was the case with 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, between the U.S. and the Great Sioux Nation and Arapaho. In 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills, accompanied by miners looking for gold. And when gold miners usurped the Sioux hunting grounds, they demanded protection from the Army. Things came to a head at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn), in 1876.

I happened to be at an Indian gathering in Montana, the 1980 International Indian Treaty Conference, an AIM-led annual summer forum, when the Indian Claims Commission announced that the Sioux would be compensated for violations of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty – with money. A sum of $105 million was awarded; and I was startled to see the Lakota people gathered on the Fort Belknap reservation react to the news of the settlement with anger and with tears.

So I learned that, along with the land, the treaties are sacred, at least to the heirs of the Indians who negotiated these contracts, which take supremacy over all other laws, according to the U.S. Constitution.

I’m not a treaty law expert, but I know that treaty rights have been upheld by the Supreme Court; and this acknowledgment of Indian sovereignty will continue to play a useful role in efforts to beat back energy development schemes and extractive industries that threaten the survival of Indian nations, and of the earth’s ability to sustain life for coming generations of humans and other living creatures.

Political Matters
Thursday, September 03 2015
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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On Aug. 5, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was excavating an old leaking mine in Colorado, when workers using a backhoe were surprised by a deluge that came pouring out. Some three million gallons of waste water from the abandoned Gold King Mine spilled into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River.

An article on the Accuweather Web site noted that the plume of toxic water deposited “dangerous metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury along hundreds of miles [of waterways] through three states.”
The City of Durango and La Plata County reportedly declared states of emergency. The spill turned the Animas River a sickly ochre shade and made its way south to the Navajo Nation, where farmers in the northern part of the reservation face ruin, with a ban on using river water for crops and livestock. “Thousands of acres of farmland could dry up, and hundreds of families could see their primary source of income disappear,” according to New Times, a Phoenix newspaper.

 Of course, it’s ironic that the EPA caused this environmental disaster. But I wondered about the implications for a proposed copper-nickel mining project near Hoyt Lakes, in northeastern Minnesota. In numerous columns about PolyMet Mining’s copper-nickel mine (the NorthMet Project), I’ve noted that hard rock mining in the West has a miserable record in terms of polluting groundwater and surface waters. Many mining firms have gone bust and left the public on the hook to clean up the messes they made.
So, does the Gold King Mine disaster foretell what Minnesota might experience with the advent of copper-nickel mining?

“It’s pretty different,” said John Coleman, environmental section leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), which provides natural resource management expertise, conservation enforcement and legal and policy analysis to 11 Ojibwe bands in Minnesota,Wisconsin and Michigan.

“That was primarily gold mining,” he added during a recent telephone conversation. “I mean, it’s a lot of the same geochemical processes that generate contaminants; but every mine site is different.”

Regarding the “same geochemical processes,” Coleman points out that PolyMet, with its planned open pit mine, would be “digging into sulfur-containing rock, and that will generate acid and release heavy metals – and there’s a lot of water. So there are a lot of similarities.”

He concludes, as far as the Gold King “containment and remediation effort” that went bad, that PolyMet’s project presents “a different scenario than what you have in Colorado.”

This question was one part of our phone chat; I called Coleman mainly to discuss what’s called the Preliminary Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the NorthMet project. And while waiting to connect with him, the Timberjay, the Iron Range newspaper, put out a story that seems to seriously undermine one crucial aspect of the EIS.

The issue is loaded with hard to understand technical terminology; but, basically, the environmental review process – a collaboration among the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – botched the model for determining water flow through the area of the proposed mine, in the view of GLIFWC’s Coleman.

In a June 18 letter to agency managers responsible for the NorthMet EIS, Coleman wrote: “Since before 2008, GLIFWC staff have consistently raised concerns about the quality and validity of the groundwater modeling at the mine site. Most recently it has come to our attention that the mine site MODFLOW model was incorrectly calibrated and unlikely to provide the hydrologic characterization of the site that is needed in order to perform adequate project impact evaluations.”

The EIS has looked at a flow of water to the south of the project; but Coleman has pointed out that contaminants from the mine likely would run north, into the Peter Mitchell pits, a series of taconite pits that were used by Northshore Mining. The pits are located high on the Laurentian Divide, where water either runs south, toward the Gulf of Mexico, or north, to Hudson Bay.

This area of concern raised by GLIFWC should be addressed in the final EIS, which is due for release in November. “We feel that [the EIS] shouldn’t be released until they get some analysis done on what the impacts might be from contaminants going north toward Birch Lake,” Coleman said, who added, “There are a lot of implications related to things like dewatering and wetlands; but they’ve been very reluctant to look at interaction between this PolyMet project and the adjacent taconite mine.”

Political Matters: Water runs downhill
Thursday, August 27 2015
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
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mordecai_specktor_some.jpgWater runs downhill

On Aug. 5, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was excavating an old leaking mine in Colorado, when workers using a backhoe were surprised by a deluge that came pouring out. Some three million gallons of waste water from the abandoned Gold King Mine spilled into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River.

An article on the Accuweather Web site noted that the plume of toxic water deposited “dangerous metals, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury along hundreds of miles [of waterways] through three states.”

The City of Durango and La Plata County reportedly declared states of emergency. The spill turned the Animas River a sickly ochre shade and made its way south to the Navajo Nation, where farmers in the northern part of the reservation face ruin, with a ban on using river water for crops and livestock. “Thousands of acres of farmland could dry up, and hundreds of families could see their primary source of income disappear,” according to New Times, a Phoenix newspaper.


Political Matters: PUC approves Sandpiper
Friday, July 10 2015
 
Written by Mordecai Specktor,
Average user rating    (0 vote)

mordecaispecktor-web.jpgPUC approves Sandpiper

In early June, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) granted Enbridge, Inc. (enbridge.com) a certificate of need to build the Sandpiper pipeline from the Bakken oil patch in No. Dakota to Superior, Wisc.

Enbridge, based in Calgary, Alberta, still face many months of deliberations over the path of the pipeline. As I reported in this column last November, the PUC previously decided that six pipeline routes should be considered for Sandpiper — alternatives to the preferred Enbridge route. The route of Sandpiper purposely skirted reservation land; however, it would still run through the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory, where members of Ojibwe bands have retained their rights to hunt, fish and gather.

So, Ojibwe bands in Minnesota (White Earth and Fond du Lac) have expressed concerns about the environmental threat posed by Sandpiper, as has Honor the Earth, a group founded, in 1993, by Winona LaDuke, and Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, of the Indigo Girls.

I watched some of the live webcast of the PUC’s Sandpiper hearing last month; and my heart goes out to the environmental activists who have to sit through such deadly dull proceedings. Like Winona.

“Fracked oil from the Bakken poses a serious risk to the North Country — particularly in light of the… 800,000 gallon oil spill in a remote area of North Dakota [in 2013],” Honor the Earth notes on its website (honorearth.org). “That spill, on a six-inch Tesoro line, went unmitigated for almost a week due to an understaffed Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and all figures presently released come from Tesoro, the owner of the pipeline. The Sandpiper would carry that same oil, which has proven to be very volatile. In northern Minnesota a lot of our towns are 15-20 miles apart, with fire departments and rescue squads being even further apart. Response times are not quick and sometimes oil spills go days before discovered.”


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