A Florida-based iron-ore mining company, Gogebic Taconite, wants to open a mine in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin. The issue of the mine has been a political football for some time, with Republicans promoting the mine as a job creator and Democrats seeking to block it because of its potential effects on the environment.
The owners claim that the mine will create hundreds of jobs, which Republicans love. The Democrats counter that benefits to the local economy will be minimal and short-lived, and they will not outweigh the potential negative effects on the environment. The Republicans, in turn, rebuke the Democrats for caring more about the environment than the well-being of human beings.
Now there’s a new element in the debate. The Chippewa of northern Wisconsin have been vocal since the start, and as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, tribe members are saying they should have a seat at the table. Bizarrely, no lawmaker seems to care.
Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature have been squabbling over the mine for many weeks now, without realizing they may not even have the authority to decide the issue. The Chippewa signed several treaties during the 19th century that transferred most of their land to the United States, but granted them rights to continue to use the land for hunting, fishing and gathering.
These treaties could give the Chippewa veto power over the mine; if it can be shown that the mine will pollute the land, the federal government may be required to act on behalf of the Chippewa. Furthermore, if it can be shown that the mine will pollute the air or water of the Chippewa’s reservations, they will almost certainly be able to halt the development of the mine.
Neither side has truly considered the opinions of the Chippewa on this issue, but Republicans have been especially dismissive of them. This seems to be indicative of how we as a nation treat Native Americans in general. We like to talk about how America was founded on reason while forgetting that it had already been “found” before the country’s European ancestors were here. Of course, Native American populations have dwindled to numbers that seem miniscule compared to the population of the United States, but this issue will not just go away. Especially on issues such as this that directly affect them, the opinions of the various native peoples of America need to be taken into account. It is hypocritical and wrong to do otherwise.
Republicans like to complain that legislators in Madison have too much authority over matters about which they are totally ignorant. They generally support enhancing the autonomy of local governments at the expense of state power. This is, in itself, not a bad thing. However, they do this, apparently, without even realizing the irony that local governments may perpetuate the very ignorance they are trying to prevent for other groups of people – in this case, Native Americans.
Conversely, Democrats have not done much more for the cause of Native Americans; it just so happens that on this issue their interests coincide with the Chippewa’s interests. The Democrats have also not made a significant effort to incorporate the Chippewa people in the discussion. Moreover, it may well be the case that they are sometimes overly concerned with protecting the environment at the expense of the well-being of people. Our resources need to be conserved, but that does not mean that they should not be used at all.
The mining issue is a microcosm of the plight of Native Americans across the country. We cannot undo what has historically been done, but the least we are obligated to do is honor our treaties with the various native peoples of America and, when applicable, take their opinions into consideration. How can we expect to move forward and treat all of our citizens equally when we do not even take the rights of people seriously who have been subject to considerable harm in the past?
Ryan Plesh ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in philosophy and physics.