Copperwood is located firmly in 1842 Treaty Territory; both its development and operation will pose a real and significant threat to multiple treaty resources including fisheries, water, and wildlife. Chief among those endangered resources is Lake Superior, which connects Anishinaabe communities in multiple states and countries.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1850
Like many of Upper Michigan's natural features, the waterfalls of the Presque Isle River have found names in the language of the native people. The largest falls rightfully take their name from the powerful Ojibwa spirit god Manabezho. The Porcupine was known to the Ojibwa as kag; the Porcupine Mountains, Kagwadjiw.
The following information has been adapted from "The Last Porcupine Mountains Companion" by Michael Rafferty and Robert Spruce (2012)
Before the arrival of French explorers in the early 1600s, an amalgamation of tribes speaking Algonkian lived in the Lake Superior region. The various Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Ottawa tribes of this "Algonquin Nation" had been forced from the eastern Great Lakes by the combined efforts of the fierce Iroquois League. The Potawatomi came to occupy large areas of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, and the Ottawa moved north around Lake Huron to the northern shore of Lake Superior. It was the Ojibwa that eventually claimed the Upper Peninsula as their hunting ground.
They call themselves Anishinaabe, "The Original People." It was other tribes who gave them the name Ojibwa. The word was a descriptive term meaning, "those who write." It refers to the picture writing which was a distinctive trademark of Ojibwa culture. Primarily religious records on birch bark, this was possibly the most highly developed written language of any Native American tribe.
The Upper Peninsula Ojibwa were seasonally nomadic and subsisted primarily by hunting, trapping and fishing. They gathered nuts, berries and plants for food and medicine.
Long before the French arrival, a permanent Ojibwa village stood at the mouth of the Ontonagon River. Villages existed, also, at the mouths of the Big Iron and Presque Isle Rivers.
The birch bark canoe made rivers and lakes an asset to transportation rather than an obstacle. Lake Superior itself was a highway, canoes often traveling 40 miles, or more, in a day.
When a canoe was to be constructed, a suitable tree was selected. After appropriate prayers, and with great ceremony, the tree was felled. This was the only time that a birch tree would be destroyed for its bark. Birch bark was plentiful, but it was never wasted. Leftover pieces were stored or carried and would certainly be used later on.
Houses were fashioned using a frame of bent saplings secured with cord made from the tough inner bark of basswood and cedar trees. Bark from cedar or elm covered the sides. Apakwas—pieces of birch bark sewn together in rolls— made the roof watertight. A center smoke hole allowed a small fire to be kept in the wigwam. Around the fireplace, tightly woven mats of basswood bark carpeted the floor. Caribou and bear hides were used for blankets, and for a door. A different wigwam was built for winter use. It was similar, but contained a thick insulating layer of cattail mats. Summer or winter, rain or snow, these dwellings were durable, dry and secure.
As early as mid-March, and once free of winter's grip, people were again on the move. Winter lodges were cheerfully abandoned for the maple groves of the traditional "sugarbush." The maples were tapped for their sap which would then be rendered into either granulated sugar, hard candy-like cakes, or a soft, chewy gum. These were lengthy procedures and necessitated the construction of many birch bark containers, wooden taps and ladles, a rendering lodge, and special granulating troughs. Coming on the heels of winter, sugar-making was a festive time for the woodland people, and sugar was a crucial part of their diet.
During late summer, when various berries and nuts were harvested, the villages were again deserted. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, currants, thimbleberries and acorns— all were taken in season. Each village had its hereditary berry harvest area which was vigilantly guarded against raids by marauding bears, flocks of birds, and even hungry neighbors. Entire villages camped out at the berry patch until the harvest was complete.
Any game whether trapped, speared or shot with arrows was made use of. Woodland caribou, absent from the UP since the 1800s, was particularly valued for its large size and fine hide. Black bear, perhaps the most highly prized animal of all, has always been abundant in the Porcupine Mountains. Bear fat was considered a delicacy, and all parts of the animal were eaten or used. A bear-claw necklace meant that the wearer was a skilled hunter who was favored by the spirits.
Fishing was another activity heavily engaged in by Upper Peninsula tribes. Credited with independent invention of the gill net, the Ojibwa ate fish whenever it was available, and often speared fish through holes in the ice during winter.
During long winter nights, when families were confined to their lodges, story-telling was a major pastime. Importantly, stories allowed parents to pass on to their children the legends and customs of the Ojibwa people. Though many of these legends have been lost, a large number have been recorded and preserved. The oldest collection is "Algic Researches," published in 1839 by Henry Schoolcraft, husband to the granddaughter of Waub Ojeeg, chief of the Porcupine Mountains and Apostle Island Ojibwa.
A poet, inspired by Schoolcraft's writings, based a popular work upon them. Using the mythological figure, Menaboju (Manabezho), as his focal point, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow created an epic poem, "The Song of Hiawatha."
During the 1780s, several treaties were made whereby natives ceded tribal lands to the American government. In 1793, a group of representatives from Great Lakes' tribes refused to discuss treaty terms with the United States. This led to the conflict at the rapids of the Maumee River in Ohio where General Anthony Wayne defeated the confederation of tribes.
Remaining lands in what could now properly be called Michigan were ceded by Chief Buffalo and others at La Pointe in 1842. The Treaty of La Pointe opened to development that portion of the Upper Peninsula known as the Mineral District. Preliminary surveys had been completed by Douglas Houghton, and the district was believed to contain vast deposits of iron and copper. Within a few short years, mining activity would be seen in every part of the region, and the Ojibwa villages at the mouths of the Ontonagon and Presque Isle Rivers would quietly disappear.
"From this time," wrote Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway), "I shall date the dissipation, misery, and ruin of this part of our nation." The Ojibwa author, writing eight years later, went on to say that the treaty induced speculators, vagabondsm and other "unprincipled men" to visit just after the annual tributes had been paid. These men took advantage of the Indian, he said, selling him goods and whiskey at enormously inflated prices.
Removal of the Ojibwa population from Michigan and Wisconsin was at last authorized by President Zachary Taylor in February of 1850. The order was met with determined opposition by both native tribes and by area whites who employed the tribesmen as fishers, sailors, guides and hunters. A groundswell of support for the Indian cause arose and was carried east by newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, by the time a petition to abandon the removal order arrived in Washington, president Taylor had died, and plans to move the annual annuities payment farther west were already under way. The debacle that resulted came to be known as the Wisconsin Death March.
The autumn annuity payment of 1850 required the Ojibwa to journey 300 miles west of La Pointe, to Sandy Lake, on the Mississippi River. There the tribes were forced to endure inadequate conditions for six weeks only to find that congress had failed the appropriate funds. Ojibwa families had no choice but to head back home midwinter, and on foot as most had, by now, been forced to burn canoes and belongings as fuel. Over 400 perished en route, an estimated 12% of the tribal population.
The descendants of Michigan's Ojibwa Nation are still here. The Death March aside, there was never any Indian War, Trail of Tears or any other official relocation of Native Americans in Upper Peninsula. The Ojibwa tended to find work out-of-doors, in industries such as logging and commercial fishing. They continue to live close to the land.
There has never been a metallic sulfide mine which did not contaminate water, and the proposed Chopperwood Mine would be the closest metallic sulfide mine to Lake Superior in history. It's not difficult to put those two facts together and see the horrible implications.
Lake Superior connects Anishinaabe peoples in multiple regions, states, and countries. They are not a people of the past, confined to museums and history books— their culture remains vibrantly alive, and they still maintain the right to fish, hunt, and forage in the territory as defined by the 1842 territory. But the Chopperwood Mine would erect a Tailings Disposal Facility holding 50+ million tons of waste-rock on topography that slopes towards Lake Superior — can you imagine the devastation that would ensue if the dam crumbles?
Even if the dam holds, there is a certainty of acid mine drainage and untold quantities of exhaust on the wind, which will infest the waterways and air with heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, selenium, and lead. Heavy metals bio-accumulate to toxic levels in mushrooms and fish.
Can you think of a worse way to show we have learned from the errors of the past than by permitting such an operation?