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Citizen Voices Matter: In the Penokee Hills

Why Bad River Tribal youth are involved with protecting the Penokee Hills

Since the fall of 2009, young people in the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have been a part of an initiative to prevent bullying, suicide and violence. The initiative incorporates participatory education and art to get young people thinking and talking about how to create a healthy, safe community.

“One of our projects was to have our youth create awareness posters, like artistic Public Service Announcements,” said Jill Hartlev, Adolescent Life Skills Coordinator for the Bad River Tribe. “One poster had the message ‘To Respect the Environment Is to Respect Each Other. No Bullying. Be Respectful’ and we talked a lot about how our community and our environment are all the same thing. We have to treat our whole community with respect: peers, elders, and the natural world that sustains us.” 

Around the same time, the Bad River community heard the news of a proposed open-pit iron mine and Tribal members of all ages were concerned about the impact taconite mining would have on their water and land. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribal nation is located at the bottom of the Penokee Hills, between the proposed mine and Lake Superior. Then in 2013, Wisconsin state legislators passed a law that exempted the iron mining industry from environmental protections and greatly reduced people’s ability to voice their concerns about the impacts of iron mining on the health of their land and water.

“Our youth have never been left out of Bad River’s work to keep the headwaters of the Bad River watershed intact,” said Hartlev. “We took trips to active mines in Minnesota and youth came with us to testify against the mining deregulation bill in Madison and Milwaukee. Youth who have been most involved range in age from three years old to their mid-20s. It’s the next generation that has the most to lose if an open-pit mine destroys our water.”

Since January 2011, the Native Aspirations program has expanded to include more leadership development and education on environmental justice and the threats an open-pit iron mine poses to the Bad River Tribe. While opposition to the proposed mine is growing, Wisconsin’s Northwoods communities remain culturally divided on the issue. Tribal youth in particular have increased their capacity to explain why an iron mine is a threat to their water, their culture, and their spirituality.