Occupation of Eagle Rock grows, draws supporters - Native Americans to hold tribal council meeting at site of contested nickel mine
By Eartha Jane Melzer - May 04, 2010
Hundreds of people, including members of several regional tribes, have visited Eagle Rock over the last 11 days to show their support for a Native American encampment aimed at protecting the sacred site from mining by the Kennecott Minerals Co.
Eagle Rock, a bedrock outcropping on the Yellow Dog Plains 25 miles west of Marquette, has been visited by humans for thousands of years according to historians, and is a sacred site of ceremony for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and other tribes. But it also sits atop a rich vein of nickel, and according the Kennecott Minerals Co, which has leased the area around the rock from the state for mining, the rock provides an ideal location for a portal into what they plan to develop as the only primary nickel mine operating in the US.
Those who are camped out around the rock say that actions by Kennecott violate environmental law, discriminate against Native Americans and threaten to poison Lake Superior with acidic run-off.
Levi Tadgerson, 23, a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member and a senior in Native American studies at Northern Michigan University, said that he has never felt as spiritually fulfilled as he has during this action.
"We are out here celebrating our Anishinabe heritage at Eagle Rock. I wish that anyone who feels the need to come out here does. We need to show how much we love this place. Water is sacred to everyone."
"[Lake Superior] is the largest, healthiest body of freshwater left in the world," he said. "If this mine goes in it's over."
The group has constructed a kitchen wigwam out of boughs and tarps, he said and will begin work Wednesday on a longhouse, a traditional structure that will be used for gatherings and ceremonies, as well as a sweat lodge.
The birch bark traditionally used to cover the structures normally cannot be harvested until late June, he said, but this season's warm weather may mean the bark will be ready at the beginning of June.
And there are signs that the tribe, which has voiced support for the encampment, is mobilizing to support the project with more resources.
On Saturday the KBIC Tribal Council will hold a meeting at Eagle Rock.
According to Tadgerson tribal officials are considering making a vehicle available to the people at Eagle Rock and they are discussing making some deer tags available so that people may ceremonially hunt and feed the people of the camp.
The KBIC tribal police have a conservation department which focuses on the hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering rights reserved under the 1842 treaty that ceded most of the area to the federal government.
Kennecott's record of human rights abuses have made some of the people at Eagle Rock nervous about the constant surveillance and visits by the company's security company, Tadgerson said.
Periodic visits by the tribal police have helped those at Eagle Rock to feel safer, he said, though the tribal police do not have enough staff to keep an officer posted at the site permanently.
There is no cell phone service available at the remote camp and the area is dusty from the mining company's nearby tree removal and road construction activities. But according to those who have visited the camp, the mood there is jubilant.
Members of the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Lac du Flambaeu tribe, and tribal members from as far away as the Dakotas and Canada have come to support the occupation of Eagle Rock.
The encampment began in response to the trespassing arrest of mine opponent Cynthia Pryor in the area on April 20. Pryor spent two days in jail. So far, the company has avoided calling for further arrests.
Kennecott claimed that it had the right and duty to secure the area it had leased from the state. Pryor and others have argued that the company's lease was not in effect because it had no yet received all of the necessary permits for operation. The EPA is still deciding whether the company's claim that it no longer needs a wastewater permit is legitimate.
Spokespeople for Kennecott and its parent company Rio Tinto did not respond to questions for this story.
"The bottom line is that it it's a standoff right now and what everybody is holding their breathe for is whether Kennecott is going to call for people to be arrested," said Greg Petersen, a Negaunee-based journalist who visited the camp last week and produced a video about the situation.
"This is a tough location. There were rumors that they might try to fence them in. If I were the company I would not arrest Native Americans, though, because what is that going to get you?"
According to Tadgerson, Kennecott's approach to people at the site has changed as the encampment has gained community support.
"At first security tired to say that only natives could be there and wanted to see tribal cards," he said. "Security said that they would search everybody's car, that no cameras were allowed, and that they would escort everyone through on a country road."
However, as non-natives kept coming, with supplies and with cameras, this arrangement proved to be unmanageable, he said. "Finally Kennecott gave up and let everyone through."