Indigenous Religious Traditions190
November 21, 2012
A Spiritual Battle in Michigan’s U.P
Eagle Rock, Michigan: A sacred site in believers’ eyes; a “cash cow” for those who want to develop it. Kennecott Mineral company under its parent corporation Rio Tinto and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), with support from other tribes, battled over the land rights in order to use Eagle Rock or, as Native Americans refer to it, Miji Zii Wa Sin. (Pryor) Kennecott believes the land under Eagle Rock should be mined for its massive natural resources while the KBIC and other Native American groups stress the sanctity of the land must be protected. The State of Michigan’s controversial decision to award the land to the Kennecott mineral company enflamed both Native Americans and environmentalists alike. At first, it seems, here lies just another story of economy vs. environment, government vs. religion, and indigenous people vs. non-indigenous people. Only this battle at Eagle Rock in Michigan’s upper peninsula has became so much more. This has became a battle over the sacred, and the possible desecration of one of the indigenous people’s holy sites.
Eagle Rock has a long standing tradition as a holy site for Native Americans. Charlotte Loonsfoot, one of the first natives to occupy the rock and a member of the KBIC, explains “I’m here because this is a scared spot to our people.”(Pepin) She explains in another article that at the rock “we have done ceremonies before recored time…our stand at Eagle Rock is not only to protect our water, but the spirt in Eagle Rock.” (Pryor) The idea that the rock has a spirit in itself is central to the idea of preserving its holy nature. During the protest, people planned for a sacred fire to be lit on top of Eagle Rock.(Pepin) This fire would be the center of ceremony, and at that moment a powerful spiritual symbol representing the sanctity of the rock. Jessica Koski, a member of the Ojibwa tribe, confirms in her strategy paper at American University, “The Proposed ‘Eagle Project’ plans to blast a mine portal directly into Eagle Rock which will prohibit tribal members from accessing the site and physically destroy the natural features and spirit of Eagle Rock.” (Koski) Destroying the natural features, while limiting natives access to the site takes away from its functionality as a beautiful place of worship for the native tribes. It seems that in the KBIC’s eyes extracting natural resources from the rock could also drain the rock of its spiritual power. Eagle Rock has been identified as holy for its natural beauty and years of history in which indigenous people conducted prayers on it, and altering the rock’s interior could be interpreted as altering the spiritual energy Eagle Rock creates. Previously, Loonsfoot had mentioned that she had great concern over the protection of the water. In her culture’s traditions, women are protectors of the water and concerns over possible contamination from the sulfur mining into the Salmon Trout River enraged indigenous people even further.(Pepin) Concern over the water also became commonplace for the local citizens who live by Eagle Rock. These Michiganders enjoy how Eagle Rock is located in very remote and beautiful Northern Michigan, far away from any big city light and noise. Because of this location, the tranquil ambiance has been identified as worth preserving by Native Americans and environmentalists alike.
The strong alliance formed by environmentalists and Native Americans was equally matched by Kennecott Minerals and its parent company Rio Tinto. These two alliances met head on April 20, 2010 as environmentalist and Big Bay resident Cynthia Pryor was arrested for sitting at the bottom of Eagle Rock with her dog, and refusing to move for the Rio Tinto company.(Caplett) Pryor’s actions inspired Loonsfoot, who brought with her a fellow member of the KBIT named Chelsea Smith, to come and camp at Eagle Rock.(Caplett) Loonsfoot, Smith, and Pryor all were inspired to protect this land that, under treaties of 1842 and 1854, were given to Ojibwa leaders in order for their people to hunt, fish, and gather on the lands. (Caplett) Apparently, the mineral rights were never awarded though, and therefore Rio Tinto was able to mine under the land if the proper permits were seeded to them, and after years of battle they eventually were awarded in 2007 (Anderson). In 2009 after much legal battle, Administrative Law Judge Richard Patterson found that Eagle Rock had spiritual importance to the KBIT and that Kennecott should move the mines entry point away from the rock. (Shertow) Then in 2010, The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality declared that Judge Patterson’s ruling was “unnecessary” because Eagle Rock wasn’t a building and therefore didn’t function as a true place of worship. (Shertow) Here lies the massive disconnect between the mining company and Native Americans. Deb Muchmore, a spokesman for Kennecott, stated, “We’re searching for solutions” and that an invitation for a cooperative relationship with the Native Americans is on the table. (Pepin) This means nothing though if Kennecott doesn’t even recognize Eagle Rock as sacred simply because it isn’t a building. The sacredness of a place must not be determined by “outsiders ”(State of Michigan and Rio Tinto), but nonetheless this is exactly what happened at Eagle Rock. Can one say that having mass in one’s basement doesn’t make it sacred because it was not built to be a place of worship? Is Eagle Rock not sacred because it wasn’t built to be a spiritual place? People must not judge the sanctity of a place by the intentions with which it was built. Similarly, people must not declare places in nature sacred or not while they have never even worshipped there. This complete disconnect between Kennecott and the KBIT would prove impossible to bridge, and the State of Michigan’s decision to award construction rights to Kennecott was the final straw of the KBIT’s fight against mining in Eagle Rock.
Currently at Eagle Rock mining is well underway. Drilling of the 1,000 foot hole with an 18- foot diameter into Eagle Rock began in 2010 and was just completed within the last two months. (Anderson) Dan Blandiue, Eagle Mine advisor of communications and media relations, explains, “Between now and early 2014 when we start to get ore, we’ll be developing other chutes and other structures down below for when we start pulling ore out.” (Anderson) The destruction of Eagle Rock’s core appears to have just begun. With 24/7 mining, the company plans on extracting three hundred million pounds of nickel along with two hundred fifty million pounds of copper over a lifespan of seven years. (Anderson) Rio Tinto’s permits allow it to keep mining until their 24/7 operation ends at which point they are instructed to remove all equipment from the site and return the topography back to exactly how it was. (Anderson) Blandiue tells how they have “had several visits from (KBIT) members and other tribal members over the past year…we don’t touch a tree, bush, or anything on that rock, to protect that rock.” (Anderson) This seems very ironic to claim to be protecting the rock, considering they are draining the rock of its natural resources, its very core. It appears the tribal members who visited also saw the irony and didn’t approve of what they saw happening at the rock, as Blandeau states, “As we build better communications with the KBIC (implying they aren’t there now) and other tribes, we’ll be working to get people up on the rock to worship.” (Anderson) One must wonder how the religious workers at Eagle Rock would feel if their place of worship was indefinitely blocked because of mining construction happening within it. They would likely feel about the people profiting from their holy site similar to Chelsea Smith who says “They (Kennecott) don’t care about the land or anything that happens. They just want the money…They wont be living here all the time. So they’ll just pack up and leave and go to the next project because they get paid. Money drives people.”(Anderson)
Money, not respect or love, obviously is driving Kennecott and Rio Tinto. They showed no love or respect when just initially searching the lands for minerals. If one truly comprehends the way in which minerals were found in Eagle Rock, concern over its spiritual power to native americans wasn’t even considered an issue. Kennecott understood that Michigan’s economy has been horrid and the jobs provided to the state would be well received by government officials and locals alike if people could be convinced the rock would be mined in a responsible fashion. Endicott accomplished exactly that, and through a tour of the facilities garnered support from government officials such as the Portage Township Supervisor who stated he thought the plant was “extraordinarily well- run.” (Anderson) Also, citizens such as Harlan and Betty Fish said, “We’ve heard so many rumors that we wanted to find out first hand what was going on, and I’m very satisfied with the process going on there.” (Anderson) Kennecott’s agenda has played out exactly how it wanted it to, despite years of battle over the land with the indigenous people. At first glance, it seems that here lies another case of the economy’s precedence over the environment, government’s control over native people’s religion, and non-natives control over indigenous peoples land. Instead, one is compelled to see that no matter what money can buy, the perseverance and integrity of the KBIT and other native tribes was never compromised. The spirt to fight for what they deem holy never died, and as Loonsfoot explained in 2010, “I feel I have a reason to be here…and here I am.”(Caplett) Loonsfoot’s spirt, connection, and love for Eagle Rock, shared by so many in her tribe, surely is greater than any economic profit Rio Tinto and Kennecott will ever mine.
Anderson, Stephan. “A Closer Look at the Eagle Mine.” MiningGazette.com. N.p., 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://www.mininggazette.com/page/content.detail/id/527023/A-closer-look-at-the-Eagle-Mine.html?nav=5006>.
Caplett, Gabriel. “”Taking a Stand”: Sacred Site Celebrated Despite Citizen Arrest.” Headwaters. N.p., 24 Apr. 2010. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <http://current.com/1cdug4c>.
Donahue, James. “Tribal Politics.” Warehouse E. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://perdurabo10.tripod.com/warehousee/id96.html>.
“Eagle Mine Project.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eagle_mine_project>.
Innes, Robert Alexander. “”Wait a Second. Who Are You Anyways?”” American Indian Quarterly; University of Nebraska Press, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.
Koski, Jessica L. “The Need for Stronger Legal Protection of Native American Sacred Places.” Thesis. American University, 2009. Print.
“Michigan American Indian Standoff: Tribal Camp at Base of Sacred Eagle Rock to Stop Kennecott Acid Mine.” Current. N.p., 1 May 2010. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://current.com/community/92408388_michigan-american-indian-standoff-tribal-camp-at-base-of-sacred-eagle-rock-to-stop-kennecott-acid-mine.htm>.
Pepin, John. “Native American Activists Protest at Eagle Rock.” MiningJournal.net. N.p., 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://www.miningjournal.net/page/content.detail/id/543341.html>.
Pryor, Cynthia. “A Sacred Fire Is Burning at Eagle Rock.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 07 May 2010. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cynthia-pryor/a-sacred-fire-is-burning_b_567652.html>.
Schertow, John Ahniwanika. “Dept. Rules against Native Rights, Says Eagle Rock Isn’t Sacred.” Intercontinental Cry. N.p., 21 Jan. 2010. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://intercontinentalcry.org/dept-rules-against-native-rights-says-eagle-rock-isnt-sacred/>.