Chantal Norrgard: Wisconsin Mining Legislation and the Fallacy of Jobs vs. Treaty Rights

Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood, by Chantal NorrgardWe welcome a guest post today from Chantal Norrgard, author of Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood. From the 1870s to the 1930s, the Lake Superior Ojibwes of Minnesota and Wisconsin faced dramatic economic, political, and social changes. Examining a period that began with the tribe’s removal to reservations and closed with the Indian New Deal, Norrgard explores the critical link between Ojibwes’ efforts to maintain their tribal sovereignty and their labor traditions and practices. Norrgard shows how the tribe strategically used treaty rights claims over time to uphold its right to work and to maintain the rhythm and texture of traditional Ojibwe life.

Norrgard previously blogged about tribal sovereignty and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. In today’s post, she looks at how treaty rights in Wisconsin have long shaped the economies of both indigenous and settler communities.


The Bad River Watershed is a vast and intricate network of waterways flowing into Lake Superior that has been the economic and ceremonial lifeblood of the Bad River people for hundreds of years and has been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance. Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. recently said that these waterways “represent everything our Tribal People hold dear and sacred on many different levels. Spiritually, the ‘place’ and everything it has, the clean water, the winged, the seasons, the rice and fish, connects us with our ancestors and the Creator. The Sloughs sustain the physical well-being of our community with foods such as wild rice, fish, cranberries, waterfowl, venison, and medicines.”

Unfortunately, the Watershed is currently threatened by Wisconsin mining legislation.

In 2013, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill that would allow the construction of a $1.5 billion open-pit iron mine, the largest of its kind. The mine would be located in the Penokee Hills at the headwaters of the Bad River Watershed. The law would allow the mine to empty its waste into nearby waterways, threatening ecosystems downstream.

Since the legislation was first introduced in 2011, local community members, environmental activists, and Ojibwe Bands from throughout the region have fiercely opposed it. The Bad River Band asserts that the legislation violates their rights to hunt, fish, and gather in ceded territory reserved in treaties with the United States in 1837 and 1842 and that the state has failed to consult with them on the bill. They are currently seeking federal redress. However, Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republican legislators have disregarded this opposition and have received $15 million from mining executives and supporters.

Walker asserts that mining will create more jobs and revive northern Wisconsin’s economy and has implied that environmental protection and treaty rights create barriers to economic development. In March of 2013, he stated that the mining legislation “sends a message, not just to those in the mining industry, but to everyone, that we are going to find a reasonable way to break down barriers that have made it hard to create jobs in the past. We are going to make it easier to create jobs and economic opportunity in the future.”

Jobs versus treaty rights is not a new argument to Ojibwe communities in Wisconsin (or many other tribal nations in the United States). For much of the twentieth century, state officials implemented conservation laws to restrict Ojibwe treaty rights in support of recreational hunting and fishing that fueled the state’s tourist industry. Ironically, the current legislation disregards environmental conservation in favor of mining. However, it rests on the same assumptions about indigenous livelihoods.

This conflict not only centers on environmental protection but also on economic rights. As scholars such as Daniel Usner have pointed out, settler societies, in order to rationalize colonization, have long deployed the idea that American Indians did not work or that their livelihoods did not constitute valid forms labor. Not only does this assumption contribute to the absence of indigenous people in American labor and economic histories, but it also shapes the present-day policy that has a critical impact on American Indian communities.

Walker and other supporters of the law have failed to recognize that the economy of Wisconsin is rooted in the treaties.  In the mid-nineteenth century, the United States negotiated the treaties with Ojibwe and other tribes in order to obtain lands and the lumber and mineral resources on which the state economy was built. The treaties gave settlers and developers access to resources on which they depended for industrial development and dispossessed Ojibwe people of most of their land. The treaties also codified the exclusive nation-to-nation relationship Ojibwe hold with the United States as well as fundamental rights to a livelihood that the Ojibwe have continued to exercise and depend on even under the most challenging conditions of colonialism.

In essence, the livelihoods of settler communities and Ojibwe people in Wisconsin were and are shaped by the treaties, albeit with vastly different repercussions. By suggesting that treaty rights stand in opposition to jobs, state officials not only disregard the valid economic rights of Ojibwe people enshrined in federal law, they also ignore the fact that the state economy itself was rooted in the treaties. As the Bad River Band and other Ojibwe communities in the region seek federal redress, the State of Wisconsin will have to reckon with this history.

Chantal Norrgard is an independent scholar based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her book Seasons of Change: Labor, Treaty Rights, and Ojibwe Nationhood is now available.