For the past month, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa has eagerly opened its doors at the Fortune Bay Resort Casino in northeast Minnesota while receiving a flood of phone calls and emails from politicians, trade unions and pro-mining groups seeking to cancel events.
Enrolled tribal members say they are opting not to talk about the ongoing boycott out of fear they will fan the anger in this explosion of displeasure toward the band’s business on the Iron Range.
At the root of the snub is the growing resentment at the Bois Forte for being one of six Ojibwe bands part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s decision to announce its support of a bill, H.R. 5598, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum to permanently ban new copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest, near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Though the local band did not take a solo stance on the matter, the Bois Forte Chairwoman Cathy Chavers signed the letter dated Jan. 31 as the MCT president. The letter expressed opposition to Twin Metals Minnesota, a company owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, which seeks to build an underground copper-nickel mine near Ely.
Several days after the letter came to light, State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, sided with his “so many friends” in the trade unions and canceled his annual fundraiser at Fortune Bay. Chuck Novak, the mayor of Ely, soon took to Twitter to express his support for Bakk’s decision and called on other groups to follow his lead. And just last week, the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce, representing Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron and Virginia on the Iron Range, “decided to postpone the annual dinner event and change the venue location,” according to the Laurentian’s Board of Directors, which sent a letter dated Feb. 21 to The Hibbing Daily Tribune after a request. The dinner was set to take place Friday, Feb. 28, at Fortune Bay, but was rescheduled for April 3 at the Mountain Iron Community Center. “We believe this decision will allow time for dialogue in the community that fosters a supportive business environment for all chamber members and local industries. Most importantly, the postponement will ensure the annual dinner remains focused on its purpose of celebrating chamber members and the success of our community.”
The Laurentian is currently searching for a president/CEO. When asked follow-up questions, the chamber’s marketing and social media specialist told the HDT that Chairperson Rick Crum would not comment and referred to the emailed “media statement” on Friday. The 24-member board includes employees of several mining and steel companies, such as ArcelorMittal, Cleveland Cliffs and U.S. Steel. There is one board member from PolyMet Mining Corp., a Canada-based company which proposes to build a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes.
Minnesota State Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, is also a member of the board. He is listed on the Laurentian website as part of Mountain Iron-based Lakehead Constructors, Inc., a contractor for mining and steel industries. When asked for comment on the Laurentian canceling the dinner at Fortune Bay, Lislegard’s spokesperson replied to the HDT via email, saying the legislator referred to the chamber’s statement.
MCT takes a stand
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is comprised of about 41,000 members of six bands: Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth. The Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands have publicly challenged proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the state. But the Bois Forte, with about 3,500 enrolled members, has not yet announced an exclusive opinion on the Twin Metals and PolyMet proposed mines in an area that directly affects 700 members residing across three sections of the nearby reservation in Deer Creek, Nett Lake and Tower. (The HDT reached out to the Fond du Lac since the reservation also lies partly in St. Louis County, but did not immediately receive a call back as of press time.)
This is the first time the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe publicly stated their position against copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters. But the Bois Forte have been isolated in the boycott. While the six Ojibwe bands have differing means of earning revenue, the Bois Forte heavily relies on the money generated from locals and regional events and tourists. That means the boycott largely affects the economic health of the local band.
When it comes to economic contributions, the communities on the Iron Range do benefit from the band’s hiring more than 500 Native and non-Native employees at Fortune Bay. Business at the resort and casino help the band inject more than $300 million into the regional economy. “The total amount of property taxes paid by the Bois Forte in 2019 was about $45,852,” wrote Brandon Larson, the deputy auditor of the St. Louis County Tax Division Manager, in an email to the HDT on Friday. “The rest of the lands that they own are exempt as they are held by the USA in Trust for the Bois Forte Band.”
As first reported by The Timberjay, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s letter was heard in a congressional hearing earlier this month in front of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. (McCollum is the chair of the federal House Interior Environment Appropriations.) If passed, the measure would expand the “mining buffer zone around the Boundary Waters by an additional 234,000 acres” and essentially stop copper-nickel mining on the lands. As written, it would not prevent iron ore, taconite, gravel or granite projects.
The letter addressed to a trio of Democratic members of Congress says that the bands are “concerned with the prospect of a series of copper-nickel mines being developed in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed.” The watershed of the Boundary Waters, in the 1854 Ceded Territory, “is comprised of vast area of pristine interconnected waterways that have been used by the Chippewa for centuries [and] low buffering capacity of water and soil and the interconnection of lakes and streams, make the BWCA watershed particularly vulnerable to the impacts of mining.”
In the letter, the tribe cites possible impacts that the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine could have on fish and wild rice in northeast Minnesota — while ”having wide reaching impacts” on the Bois Forte’s way of life.
“Three MCT Bands, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage and Bois Forte, retain hunting, fishing, and other usufructuary rights that extend throughout the entire northeast portion of the state of Minnesota under the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe,” the letter reads. “In the Ceded Territory, all the Bands have a legal interest in protecting natural resources and all federal agencies share in the federal government’s trust responsibility to the Bands to maintain those treaty resources.”
Cancellations spike rhetoric
After canceling his fundraiser at Fortune Bay, Bakk, a retired union carpenter who served as president of the Iron Range Building, told the HDT that he lives 10 miles down from Lake Vermilion in his northeast district that includes the Bois Forte Reservation. He talked about being friends with Chavers, how their families played softball together, and that he gave her the heads up over the phone before rescheduling his event from August at Fortune Bay for a later date at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
At the time, Bakk said he was “not going to personally boycott the Bois Forte” and blamed backlash from the trade unions on the letter from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. “It’s the MCT,” he told the HDT. “The problem for Cathy is she’s the chair of the Bois Forte and she gets implicated by association.” When asked whether his decision to relocate his fundraiser gives the impression that it is fair to hold the Bois Forte solely responsible for the letter, Bakk replied, “I just want my golf event to be successful and people have to come. It’s the only fundraiser event I do and it’s election year. Events aren’t successful if people don’t come.”
Soon Ely Mayor Chuck Novak, a longtime supporter of the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mining project, took to Twitter to show his support for Bakk’s decision and suggested that other groups, including the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, should follow his lead. “Thank you Senator Bakk for canceling your annual event at Fortune Bay and moving it to Giants Ridge. IRRRB and the trades should follow suit. The Fun Run should follow suit.” During a separate interview, he told the HDT that he approved of boycotting the Bois Forte business. “If they’re going to support Betty McCollum on this bill, that means they are against Twin Metals for sure,” he said. “We want people to get good jobs and spend their money. Why would they go and spend their money to profit an organization that doesn’t support their way of life?”
Novak’s talking points in favor of the boycott were reminiscent of Iron Rangers having cut off Bent Paddle Brewing Co. for being part of the decision from the Duluth Downstream Business Coalition in the fall of 2015 to oppose the proposed PoyMet copper-nickel mining project. In response, liquor stores in St. Louis County and across the Iron Range stopped carrying such products. The boycott remains in effect in cities like Hibbing and Virginia, but Bent Paddle representatives say they are financially unaffected and have been gaining support from customers in Ely.
After talking with Bakk over the phone, Chavers sent a comment via email to the HDT, saying, “Tom Bakk and I have been friends for over 40 years and I look forward to being his friend for 40 more,” she wrote, according to the email from Brian Anderson, director of sales and public relations at Fortune Bay. “We have agreed on many issues and when our positions have diverged we have always had an open and honest discussion.” (Both Chavers and Anderson declined to comment for this article. Also, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe did not return phone calls as of press time.)
At the time, Bakk said the Bois Forte “took a position on the bill that’s never going to happen.” His comment was similar to those of other politicians on the Iron Range, who have been framing the subsequent boycotting of Bois Forte as a result of the band being part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. “We’re in this spot over something that will never happen,” Bakk said. He acknowledged that it was the tribe’s right to express such views, but concluded “the Bois Forte made a mistake.”
Two days after Novak’s comments were published in the HDT, he found himself “in the hot seat” during a city council meeting last week in Ely, where “several residents and local business owners chastised the mayor over comments he recently posted in support of a boycott against Fortune Bay Resort Casino,” according to an article published in The Timberjay. Novak initially said the HDT misquoted him and characterized the reporter for being relatively new to the region.
An Ely resident named Carol Orban then asked the mayor, “Did you say that people shouldn’t spend their money to profit an organization that doesn’t support their way of life?” according to reporting from The Timberjay. Novak responded, “Maybe something like that. I’ll stand behind a statement like that. If I’m working in the mines and you don’t support the mine, I’m not spending my money there. It’s as simple as that.”
Another resident named Becky Rom asked the city of Ely to make a public statement showing that they do not support the mayor’s personal views that it is alright to boycott businesses. “I don’t think we want the head of our city government promoting and advocating for the boycotting of any business, in particular, with a tribe that has a government-to-government relationship and is exercising its treaty rights,” according to The Timberjay. Yet another resident named Peta Barrett said the mayor had made a “racist move” to support boycotting the Bois Forte. “They have a right to state their opinion, too. They have lands to protect, too.,” she said. “Not 100 percent of this community agrees with you, Mayor Novak, on copper-nickel mining.”
For their parts, Bakk and Novak are among the regional leaders Twin Metals officials who have long promised to not only mine safely but also hire 700 people at an underground mine and create 1,400 indirect jobs in neighboring communities. The company has submitted an operating plan to state and federal regulators for environmental reviews. But there remains no expected timeline for that to finish. PolyMet’s permitting process took nearly 15 years, and both projects remain in limbo.
Banking on the ability to reinvigorate the regional economy, many Iron Rangers are openly supportive of Twin Metals and PolyMet. But the opinions of others elsewhere in the state and even in the Northland are not as homogeneous as once imagined.
Data from a Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio political survey released earlier this week shows that 60 percent of registered voters say they oppose building new mines near the Boundary Waters, while 22 percent support doing so. “The level of opposition did not change greatly by region, age, income or education, with opposition ranging from 54 percent to 69 percent in different parts of the state,” according to the Star Tribune. “However, there was a sharp divide along party lines. Among Democratic voters, 80 percent were opposed, while only 37 percent of Republican voters said they were opposed.”
The political opinions regarding copper-nickel mining correlate to the differing of beliefs on the boycott from McCollum, a DFLer representing the Fourth Congressional District encompassing St. Paul, and Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the Iron Range and the Bois Forte in the Eighth Congressional District.
“We know that northern Minnesotans overwhelmingly support our mining way of life,” Stauber wrote in an email to the HDT on Friday. “However, folks are free to do business wherever they prefer just as they are free to oppose or support legislation.”
“According to Mr. Bakk’s own public statements, he does not believe H.R. 5598 will be signed into law,” McCollum wrote in an email to the HDT on Friday. “If he does not see it as a threat, then why economically harm friends and neighbors in the Bois Forte tribe? I am proud to stand beside the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the majority of Minnesotans who agree that sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters is a bad idea and that it should be protected.”
Editor Jerry Burnes contributed reporting to this article.