Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Water protectors canoe, kayak on Menominee River to raise awareness of proposed Back 40 mining project's threats to environment, culture

By Michele Bourdieu
Menominee tribal members Jwin Zillier, left, and Dawn Wilber paddle down the Menominee River during a four-day, 48-mile canoe trip in July 2019 to call attention to public opposition to the proposed Back 40 open-pit mine. Menominee tribal member Wayne Swett, who accompanied them in a second canoe, took the photo. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

Three hardy water protectors, members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, spent the July 4th weekend this year on a four-day canoe trip down the Menominee River, which forms a border between Wisconsin and Michigan. Why?

"The reason why we did it was to bring awareness of opposition to the Back 40 mine from the Menominee people and members of other organizations in the Marinette-Menominee area," said Dawn Wilber, Menominee tribal member.

This map shows the route taken by the water protectors on their trip down the Menominee River. (Map courtesy Protectors of the Menominee River Facebook group)

Wilber and her fellow Menominee tribal members Wayne Swett and Jwin Zillier began their journey near the Menominee cultural sites they hope to protect from Aquila Resources' Back 40, a projected open-pit metallic sulfide mine for gold, copper and other metals -- a mine that could send billions of pounds of pulverized, highly reactive acid-generating rock containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other toxic heavy metals into a pit only 147 feet away from the Menominee River, which is considered the origin of life for the Menominee people.

This ancestral burial mound is one of the Menominee sacred archaeological sites located very near the Menominee River and near the proposed site for the Back 40 mine on the Michigan side of the river. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) -- formerly Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) -- is the regulating agency for the proposed mine; however, the people, water, land and air in both Michigan and Wisconsin would be impacted by the mine if it goes through. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

Wilber, who is a teacher of Menominee language and culture at the Menominee Indian High School on the Menominee Reservation where she lives, also said the three Native canoers wanted "to be able to connect with our ancestors and to travel that river as our ancestors once did."

She said the three were grateful for the concerned citizens who helped them along the way and joined them for parts of the trip, including Tina Lesperance, a member of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, who lives near the river on the Michigan side.

"Tina helped by checking up on us, making sure we were O.K., making sure we had a place to stay or camp for the night," Wilber said.

Menominee water protectors set out on their canoe trip from the location of Menominee sacred sites to the mouth of the Menominee River to call attention to the projected Back 40 open pit gold mine, which could destroy their cultural sites and pollute the river. Dawn Wilber and Jwin Zillier are in one canoe; and Wayne Swett is joined by Anthony J. Corey, videographer, in the second canoe. (Video © and courtesy Tina Lesperance)

Wayne Swett, a resident of Menominee, Mich., said he and Wilber, of Keshena, Wis., had planned the canoe trip for a couple of years before it became a reality in July 2019.

"We picked the week before July 4 because there would be a lot of people on the river and we wanted to spread awareness concerning the Back 40 mine," Swett told Keweenaw Now. "We interviewed people along the way, and they were 100 percent against the mine."

Like Wilber, Swett spoke of connecting with their Menominee ancestors.

"We also wanted to do this canoe trip to honor our ancestors and travel as they had when the rivers were basically the highways and there were no vehicles," Swett said.

Wilber noted the eagles they spotted during the trip were guiding them.

"All along the river we counted about nine sets of eagles," she said. They all had a way of guiding us. One circled over rapids, letting us know there were rapids up ahead."

Videographer Anthony J. Corey captured this video of a bald eagle while canoeing on the Menominee River with other water protectors, calling attention to the dangers of the proposed Back 40 mine. (Video © Anthony J. Corey. Posted with permission)

Videographer Anthony J. Corey of Stephenson, Mich., joined the canoers for parts of their trip and shared his videos with Keweenaw Now.

"As long as I breathe the Back 40 project will never become a mine," Corey said.

Videographer Anthony J. Corey paddles down the Menominee River in a canoe with Wayne Swett. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

On another occasion, the canoers observed an eagle and an osprey near an island in the river that was gifted to the Menominee Tribe by Tom Boerner, a local resident who is involved in a contested case challenging the Part 632 Mining Permit for the Back 40.

Dawn Wilber videotaped an eagle and an osprey as the canoers approached the Menominee Tribe's island. "They had a kind of dogfight," Wayne Swett noted. (Video © and courtesy Dawn Wilber)

Swett said he caught a sturgeon and released it the first day on the river. They saw deer walking along the banks and fish jumping out of the river. At one point a five-foot sturgeon jumped out of the river in front of his canoe. Their diet was limited while canoeing.

"We basically lived off venison jerky," he said.

Tina Lesperance was their support system, Swett noted. She had a trailer and helped them portage around dams en route and arranged for them to stay with fellow members of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River.

Lesperance told Keweenaw Now she felt privileged to help the Menominee canoers because the tribal members and the Coalition are fighting the same battle.

Encouraged by Tina, Jwin and Dawn set out on the second day of their trip. (Video © and courtesy Tina Lesperance)

"They're fighting for their cultural sites and we're fighting for the river and they're fighting for the river," she said. "The river means a lot to them. The river is named for them because it's their place of origin."

Lesperance noted she believed the three Menominee canoers had their ancestors and the eagles taking care of them on the trip, since everything worked out so well for them.

"It was an emotional journey of the heart for them, but they also had a lot of fun," she said. 

The three were able to stay at Tina's friend Sue Tasker's cabin near the river one night instead of camping at Tina's father's place, so they enjoyed dinner, breakfast and a shower.

The three Menominee canoers -- from left, Jwin, Wayne and Dawn -- are relaxed and refreshed at Sue Tasker's cabin before setting out again on the river. (Photo courtesy Wayne Swett)

On the third night, after missing a campground where they had planned to stay, the three stayed with Tina's friends Gail and Roger Meyer, who served them a hearty dinner and breakfast and also joined them in kayaks for the final day of the trip.

Gail and Roger Meyer, at their residence on the Wisconsin side of the river, hosted the three Menominee canoers on the third night of the trip and fortified them with a generous dinner and breakfast. (Photo © and courtesy Wayne Swett)

In addition to the Meyers, several supporters joined Wayne, Jwin and Dawn in canoes and kayaks on the fourth and final day of the trip, heading for the Ancestral Bear in Marinette, Wis.

Members of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River -- including activist Regina Chaltry and her daughter, Gracie -- join Menominee tribal water protectors for the fourth and final day (July 6, 2019) of a trip on the Menominee River to call attention to the dangers of the proposed Back 40 mine. A flag with the Great Seal of the Menominee Nation flies alongside the American flag on the canoe paddled by Regina and Menominee tribal member Wayne Swett. Nathan Lesperance, Tina's son, pulls his son and kayaker, Harold. Tina and Sue Tasker join in their canoe. (Video by Anthony J. Corey. Used with permission.)

As the group passed large vessels on the river, the water was sometimes a bit rough in the wind, but little Harold Lesperance kept on paddling, pausing only to enjoy some natural wonders.

Harold Lesperance, the youngest kayaker, with help from his Dad in the paddle boat, participates in the final day of the Menominee River canoe/kayak trip in July 2019 to call attention to potential threats from the proposed Back 40 mining project. (Video by Anthony J. Corey. Used with permission)

The paddlers happily approached their destination, the symbolic Ancestral Bear in Marinette, Wis., where other supporters  would welcome them.

Supporters Gail and Roger Meyer in their kayaks are seen in this video following Jwin, Dawn and Tony as they head for one more bridge and their arrival at the Big Bear. (Video by Anthony J. Corey. Used with permission)

Jwin Zillier told Keweenaw Now what she learned from the canoe trip.

"I did the canoe ride down the Menominee River for my ancestors, who paddled this river years before me," Jwin said. "While riding on the river, seeing all that nature has to offer us and not taking more than we need only confirmed for me how greedy Aquila is to strip mother earth of her natural riches. They will never realize our need to conserve and protect the water, trees, animals, etc. We have enough of these metals on earth. We should just recycle and think of others."

Jwin Zillier expresses her joy at reaching the paddlers' destination. Supporters wait near Big Bear to welcome them. (Video by Anthony J. Corey. Used with permission)

Greeted by activist Mary Hansen (in wheel chair) of the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, participants in the final day of the July 2019 canoe trip on the Menominee River land their canoes and kayaks and visit with other supporters on shore. Menominee tribal members Wayne Swett and Dawn Wilber celebrate the end of their four-day, 48-mile trip, by embracing the Big Bear, symbol of their tribe. (Video by Anthony J. Corey. Used with permission.)

The Bear in Marinette, Wis., is a replica of the original sculpture on the Menominee Reservation (in Wisconsin), which is 60 miles west of the Menominee River mouth.

Wayne Swett explained the significance of the Bear placed at the Marinette location.

"That's where the Menominee were supposed to have originated from a bear that climbed out of the river," he said.

After landing their canoes and kayaks, paddlers join their supporters for a group photo with Big Bear. (Photo © and courtesy Anthony J. Corey)

According to Menominee culture, their sacred place of origin is located at the mouth of the Menominee River in the border cities of Menominee, Mich., and Marinette, Wis. It was here that their ancestral Bear, Eagle, Wolf, Moose and Crane (their five major clans) were transformed into human form and thus became the first Menominee.*

After their arrival on the fourth day, Wayne Swett pauses for a photo with fellow canoers Jwin Zillier, left, and Dawn Wilber. (Photo courtesy Wayne Swett)

"The trip was an amazing voyage," Dawn Wilber said. "It would be an absolute crime to ruin that absolute beauty."

Wilber noted since the trip others have told her they would love to do a similar trip, even if only for one day.

"I know next summer I want to do it again," she added. "After this trip I went out and bought a canoe!"

* Read more about the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin on their Web site.

Editor's Update: We have corrected a few names and details since first posting today. Thanks to Tina Lesperance and Dawn Wilber for corrections.

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