Peters Hosts Keweenaw Bay Indian Community President at U.S. Senate Hearing

Peters Invited Keweenaw Bay Indian Community President Chris Swartz to Testify on Protecting Native American Lands for Future Generations

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI), Ranking Member of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, hosted Chris Swartz, President of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), at a subcommittee hearing this week on how to protect Native American lands for future generations. Decades of mining and manufacturing in the Upper Peninsula have resulted in long-term pollution issues, including stamp sands: a hazardous material that is a byproduct from ore processing. Today, miles of stamp sands remain on the shore of Lake Superior and have significantly eroded shorelines, devastated fisheries and negatively altered the landscape KBIC residents rely on.

“In the Great Lakes, communities like the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community have been fishing Lake Trout and Whitefish for millennia,” said Senator Peters. “We need multi-pronged solutions to solve the stamp sands problems, and all Michiganders—tribal and non-tribal, young and old—have a stake in the outcome.”

“I am here today to represent my tribe, but my tribe is not the only one concerned about our subsistence rights and threats to those rights, and interested in demonstrating how international treaties can provide models for intergovernmental co-management, respect, coordination and problem solving,” said Swartz. “Lake Superior is an invaluable resource. The restoration and protection of Buffalo Reef will have long-term benefits for tribes and the continuation of their lifeways, as well as provide broad benefits to the region and all the communities that value the greatest of the Great Lakes, gitchi-gami.”

Click here and here to view highlights from Senator Peters’ opening remarks.

Click here to view Chris Swartz’s opening remarks.

Peters remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and good afternoon to our witnesses who have traveled some long distances to be here today. I am looking forward to taking a close look at Native American subsistence rights to make sure we continue to protect those rights under international treaties.

“First, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome Chris Swartz, President of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, of KBIC. I have had the honor of meeting President Swartz multiple times, including last August when I sat down with him and members of the tribal council just a mile from Keweenaw Bay in Lake Superior. While I was there, the KBIC gifted me wild rice and maple syrup that were harvested locally, which, along with fish, are important traditional foods in the tribal community.

“Chris has shared with me the work of the KBIC and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission to raise the issue of legacy pollution left behind by decades of mining and manufacturing, a legacy that includes stamp sands. I am eager for this hearing as a chance to learn more and raise the profile of this environmental issue and its need for a long-term solution.

“The interaction of international treaties with those that guarantee rights to our Native American Communities can pose several complications. This hearing serves as an opportunity to focus on the most basic of rights and make sure we honor and respect those subsistence rights granted to our Native American Communities. These issues face communities from Alaska to the Great Lakes with various overlapping treaties, and it is important to figure out what we can do to address issues impacting subsistence practices.

“Subsistence rights—whether for whales or fish or other natural resources—are important rights to protect. The definition of subsistence is to “maintain or support oneself at a minimum level”–fulfilling a basic need—not for excess, not for profit.

“Our Native American communities have always been and continue to be stewards of the land. They have traditionally always forged a sustainable relationship with the environment. Through thousands of years of living on and with the land, Native American communities have a trove of information and an incredible understanding of our environment and the inter-relatedness of our ecosystems.

“In the Great Lakes, communities like the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community have been fishing Lake Trout and Whitefish for millennia. They know intimately what parts of the lake are important for spawning sites, for juvenile fish to grow and thrive, and I am sure they know where to find the “big one” along the shores of Lake Superior.

“Lake Superior is a marvel of nature, a freshwater inland ocean, the largest lake by surface area in the world. It is the cleanest, coldest, and deepest of the Great Lakes with enough water to cover all of North and South America with 1 foot of freshwater.

“Despite Lake Superior’s size, it has not proven invincible. Today we will hear about the impacts of human extraction along the Lake’s shores and how it has affected the ability of the Lake to provide sustenance to all communities both tribal and non-tribal along and beyond its shores.

“Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—or as we call it in Michigan, the UP—has a history of mining and copper production that built up communities throughout the northern reaches of the state. Historic mining, from before the establishment of the EPA, has left a host of legacy impacts across the UP. One of these is literally miles upon miles of stamp sands, the waste created from crushing rock to extract valuable copper ore.

“I have seen these sands firsthand, and the extent of shoreline they cover is immense, but they are more than an eyesore. They contain trace amounts of heavy metals that harm the most sensitive parts of Lake Superior’s environment and food web.

“Unfortunately, these sands do not remain in one place but are moving into one of the most important habitats for fish in all of Lake Superior, the Buffalo Reef in Grand Traverse Bay. As the sands erode, they smother productive spawning areas and habitat for juvenile fish.

“The impact to fisheries is horrific, but it is critical to recognize that these eroding sands are also disrupting and damaging the beautiful beaches and shores that make Lake Superior a “Pure Michigan” destination. The legacy pollution is something that every Keweenaw resident has to live with.

“Our tribal communities were some of the first to recognize the problem caused by stamps sands and raise the profile of this issue. The impacts to the Lake Superior ecosystem range from the local communities both tribal and non-tribal to international as the Lake is shared between the United States and Canada.

“We need long-term solutions. This past summer dredging to remove the sands most imminently impacting Grand Traverse Bay is providing a temporary fix and giving us 3 to 7 years to figure out what to do.

Swartz remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Good afternoon Chairman Sullivan, Ranking Member Peters and members of the sub-committee. My name is Chris Swartz and I am the President of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

“The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is located on the L’Anse Indian Reservation, Michigan’s largest and oldest reservation. We live on the shores Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before you today.

“I am here today representing my tribe. But we are not the only federally recognized tribe that is deeply concerned about the protection of or natural resources so we may exercise our treaty rights. The threats to those rights, and intergovernmental co-management are important to all eleven tribes who are members of an organization called the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.

“The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission is an extremely important organization made up of eleven Ojibwa tribes that retain treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather in territory ceded to the United States in the mid-1800s. Vast portions of Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan were ceded in the Treaties of 1836 and 1842.

“These treaties were and are made between nations and are as relevant as the treaties with our Canadian neighbors. Over the years, Federal and state courts have affirmed our treaty-reserved rights to hunt, fish and gather off our reservations on these ceded lands around the Great lakes.

“These rights were not granted in the treaties without purpose, they were reserved by our ancestors to provide for the continuation of our way of life. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, as well as all other tribes with reservations on the shores of the Great Lakes depended on a healthy and robust Great Lakes fishery for thousands of years.

“Today, we struggle to maintain this culturally significant practice to provide the extremely important food source we need. This sustenance resource is not only physical it is also spiritual, culturally important and medicinal.

“As I sit before you Mr. Chairman with my fellow witnesses from Alaska who are able to feed their communities while the fisheries in Alaska do so much to feed the world I have to be honest with you and the rest of the subcommittee.

“The truth is that after they clear cut our forests and mined copper, iron ore and other metals across our ceded territory to build Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and many other cities our ability to thrive as a fishing tribe was decimated. While those cities were being built our fish fed the occupants of many of those rapidly growing cities. Had that not taken place I assure you we would be competing with Alaska on the commercial fishing front.

“Today, as a result of mining activity in our ceded territory there is an ever-increasing direct threat to the fishery resource on Lake Superior, especially to lake trout and whitefish. A highly important whitefish and lake trout spawning reef near Grand Traverse harbor is being literally smothered by mining waste.

“This threat, if left unaddressed, would undermine the progress made in restoring a “self-sustaining” lake trout fishery in Lake Superior. In addition in failing to uphold our international agreement with Canada in these regards, this threat further undermines the ability of my tribe and others to sustain themselves through the harvest and sharing of fish. Mining waste called stamp sand was dumped along the eastern shore of Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The stamp sands destroy the spawning reef by filling in the cobble substrate where the fish lay eggs. The stamp sands also contain high levels of copper, mercury, arsenic and other contaminants toxic to aquatic life. As such, juvenile fish are not found in shoreline habitats that are covered in stamp sands along this reef.

“The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission were pioneers in identifying this problem and have been more than just advocates in identifying solutions. My tribe and the other Great Lakes Ojibwa tribes will depend on the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission to work with many others to solve this problem and fulfill the obligation of the international treaties and agreements with Canada.

“We are taking action – federal, state and tribal managers have coordinated to take immediate steps to protect the viable portion of the reef. This past summer, dredging of stamp sands occurred in Grand Traverse Harbor and the adjacent beach area. In addition, funds were committed to dredge a trench, or trough, that has protected the reef, but which has now filled up with stamp sands.

“This dredging is estimated to provide 3-5 years of protection for the reef, but the trough will refill and stamp sands will again encroach upon the reef. A federal, state, tribal Task Force is now being established to explore longterm solutions to the problem and identify sources of funding. There is no one partner that can accomplish this work. A commitment and cooperation by all affected governments will be necessary.

“In closing, I respectfully request Congressional support of the intergovernmental task force created to develop locally driven solutions. Much of this effort comes from funding made available through Congressional appropriations for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative  including and especially funding for the appropriate and legitimate role of tribes as full partners.”

“With this effort we can prevent the damage occurring at this spawning reef and actually make some semblance of progress in restoring the tremendous potential for the Great Lakes to become on par with Alaska in feeding an ever-growing world.”