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Concert helps Menominee River advocates

Singing, stories relate tribe’s love for ancestral land
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Denise Sweet, right, a former Wisconsin poet laureate, talks about the importance of protecting rivers during Sunday’s concert at Veterans Park in Keshena prior to reading a poem about water. Standing behind Sweet is Colleen Dodge, one of the concert organizers recognized by Sweet for her tireless efforts.

Residents in and around Keshena enjoyed an afternoon of singing and storytelling Sunday at Veterans Park, where the tales centered around a valuable resource — water.

Musicians Wade Fernandez, Skip Jones, Dan Robinson and Missy and Bob Tucker kept people’s spirits up with singing and spoken word alike. Audience members also heard poetry from Denise Sweet, an Anishinaabe poet who teaches at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, as she spoke of her love for the water.

Colleen Dodge, who helped organize the event, said the Menominee community had done a similar concert five years ago. But that one took place in May, and the weather was less than ideal.

“I’m glad we’ve got a beautiful day today,” Dodge said. “We’re reviving it (the annual concert), so hopefully we’ll keep it going.”

Cherie Thunder is an organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Menominee community rebuilding organization. She said there are a number of water initiatives that her organization and others like it are working on, including the ongoing effort to stop Aquila Resources from starting the Back Forty Mine. Back Forty would be an open pit sulfide mine located along the Menominee River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, upon land the tribe considers sacred.

Thunder noted many reservation residents were joined by people in far northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at a June 25 public hearing about the mine to speak about dam safety, mining and air quality permits. She said there were 150 people there to speak about the mine.

“It was a really great night,” Thunder said. “The women of Menikanaehkem started out the evening with a water song honoring the water. This is something that we’re doing to protect our waters, celebrate our waters.”

Dawn Wilber, a high school teacher, took a refresher course in the Menominee River’s beauty and significance when she and others completed a four-day canoeing trip along the river last week. Wilber told about seeing deer and eagles watching and guiding her on her travels.

“It was so beautiful being on that river, knowing that we were the first Menominees in I don’t know how many years on that river in a canoe,” Wilber said. “I think that we set something in history to start that. We want to go again, and we want more people to come with us.”

Guy Reiter, another activist trying to stop the mine, said a lot of work has been done to try and protect the river, but there is still a long way to go.

“We’ve been involved, I would say, a good seven or eight years, doing lots of things like water walks,” Reiter said. “We’ve been doing all kinds of things in order to protect our antiquity up there along that beautiful Menominee River.”

Reiter recounted the fight in the 1990s to stop the Crandon Mine and how it took numerous allies to stop that project. He said more allies will be needed to stop the Back Forty.

“We’ve been doing a lot of advocating to Gov. (Tony) Evers and our legislators to try and get more support,” Reiter said. “We’re never going to allow that mine to dig up our ancestors.”

Jones, one of the musicians sharing his talent for the community, echoed Reiter’s sentiment that a coalition will need to be built to stop the Back Forty. He knows the joys of natural river beauty firsthand, noting that he lives on the banks of the Red River in Shawano County.

“Something’s happening to the water, the land and the air, and we’re going to need to take care of it,” Jones said.

Sweet, who served as Wisconsin’s second poet laureate from 2005 to 2008, said the human impacts to the waters of Wisconsin, including Lake Superior, worry her.

“It brings tears to my eyes that people disregard this body of water; it is, by surface area alone, the largest body of fresh water in the world,” Sweet said. “How do we ignore that?”

She added that she feels blessed to live so close to the Menominee Reservation and seeing how much the people are willing to fight to protect their ancestral lands and waters. Sweet wants to see more of that from all of the tribes.

“People think that we are vanishing, that we are invisible,” Sweet said. “Now, at such a critical time, we need to be heard. We need to be seen. We need to be at the table, and we need to be a part of that dialogue. We have always been there, and we need them to recognize that.”