Keepers of the Water
38 mins.

*** A stirring account of how grassroots America took on the big boys...A powerful, engrossing document of what it means for each of us to be keepers of the water."
Video Librarian

Best Environmental Program, Red Earth American Indian Film & Video Competition, Oklahoma City, 1997

Finalist, 22nd American Indian Film Festival and Video Exposition, San Francisco, 1997

An Indian-environmental alliance against Exxon/Rio Algom's proposed mine in Wisconsin

Purchase price: $52 (U.S.); $52 (Canada); $60 (overseas). Make check payable to "Mining Center." Prepayment required. To order: contact:

Al Gedicks
210 Avon Street #4
La Crosse, WI 54603. 
Phone/FAX (608) 784-4399
E-mail: info@wrpc.net
Review of Keepers of the Water

From: Greta Gaard, Fairhaven College, Western Washington University, Organization & Environment 10:4:441-442. December 1997.

 "Why video?" I asked Al Gedicks, the sociology professor at UW-La Crosse who had scripted and produced this documentary. Clearly, his book The New Resource Wars (1993) offered thorough documentation of the multiracial coalitions against mining in Wisconsin and contained more information than could ever be conveyed in a video. "Simple," Gedicks replied. "Maybe a couple thousand people will read the book, but tens of thousands will see the video. And someone needs to document the fact that there is this developing alliance between environmentalists and native people. The mainstream media isn't doing it. Instead, they're going along with the corporate version of events--downplaying the alliance between tribes and environmentalists, even pretending that it doesn't exist. It's up to us to reconstruct this story from the point of view of those who participated in the struggle" (A. Gedicks, personal communication, March 1997).

Gedicks is clearly the person to do it. In 1990, Gedicks produced a documentary examining the first Exxon battle in Wisconsin, fought over a decade from 1976 to 1986; this video shared the title of his book, The New Resource Wars (1993) and drew parallels between copper mining in Wisconsin, uranium in New Mexico, and coal in Wyoming. In 1993, Gedicks focused on the Kennecott-Rio Tinto Zinc mine in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, foregrounding the emerging grassroots alliance among natives, environmentalists, and local citizens against mining. Whereas Gedicks obtained grants to fund the first two videos, Keepers--his third documentary in the series--is funded entirely from the proceeds of the first two videos, and Gedicks is working to distribute it himself. Yet he has maintained the same professional quality in shooting and editing, the same reasoned presentation, and certainly the same urgency in his message.

Gedicks begins the video with a focus on the subject in dispute:water. Exxon and Rio Algom of Canada have proposed to build a copper-zinc metallic sulfide mine and toxic waste dump on the banks of the Wolf River near Crandon, in northern Wisconsin. Currently designated as an outstanding natural resource water (ONRW), the Wolf River offers fresh water for drinking, habitat for numerous species of fish and wildlife, and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors; the lower half of the river is protected as a National Wild and Scenic River and is enjoyed by rafters, kayakers, and canoeists alike. Exxon's proposed mine threatens the purity of the water, the livelihood of the local tourist and recreation industries, and an entire way of life for the Sokaogon Chippewa tribe. The mine and tailings sites lie just 1 mile upstream from Rice Lake, a vital source of food, water, and spiritual renewal for the Chippewa.

To document the viewpoints of those not represented in the mainstream media, Gedicks accompanied a few Chippewa friends as they collected wild rice on Rice Lake. He sat in the canoe bow of a Wisconsin environmentalist and listened to the stories of the Wolf River Conservation Club. He went to protests, marches, and pow wows. He talked to activists, such as Zoltan Grossman of the Midwest Treaty Network, Carl Zichella of the Sierra Club, and Louis Hawpetoss, a Menominee tribal judge. What you see in this video is a collectivity of citizens fighting a battle they have been told they cannot win. "Exxon would like us to believe that citizen action will have no impact on their decisions," Gedicks told me. "They want citizens to believe we can do nothing to oppose these giant multinational corporations."

But the people refused to believe it. At a rally in Madison, a diverse cross-section of natives, environmentalists, sportsmen, and social justice advocates came together to protest Exxon's plans. In spite of the petitions--in spite of the overwhelming community opposition--the mine was going forward. Why?  The video image cuts away from the protest on the capitol steps to focus on the headquarters of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Citizen activists have discovered that the mining industry has hired lawyers and lobbyists to write the mining laws in Wisconsin. There is a press conference with activists presenting a new Mining Moratorium Bill and facing off with the corporate spokesperson. The bill is "typical misinformation from the environmental community," according to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. "Have you read it?" asks Carl Zichella. Actually, they had not--but they are convinced that it contains "half truths and misinformation." Zichella is not surprised. "The mining industry cannot point to a single example of a successfully reclaimed metallic sulfide mine," he emphasizes. "They want us to trust that it will be done for the first time in the Wolf River watershed."

 Adding to the testimony of natives and environmentalists, Gedicks gives us visuals explaining why the mining industry is not to be trusted. With footage from the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill of 11 million gallons in Prince William Sound, images of acid mine drainage from an abandoned mine site in Helena, Montana, and graphics illustrating the relationship between tailings ponds and water tables, Gedicks makes his point. Already, there are 52 abandoned mine sites on the Superfund cleanup list. Rice Lake and the Wolf River need not become number 53.

Environmentalists and native activists in Wisconsin know this. In the state's 1997 legislative session, Rep. Spencer Black will reintroduce the Mining Moratorium Bill, which prevents the state from issuing mining permits to any corporation until it can find a mine in the United States or Canada that has operated safely and has been closed for at least 10 years without polluting surface or ground waters. Earth First! activists in Madison have already begun touring the state with Gedicks's video, informing communities of the impending legislative struggle for clean water and native rights. The Mole Lake Chippewa tribe has bought 200 copies of the video to distribute, and Gedicks is making copies available to activist groups to raise funds and mobilize resistance.

Keepers is a documentary whose relevance will last beyond the immediate struggles around the Wolf River. By giving us visual proof of citizen activism, Gedicks offers us a vital supplement to the one-eyed vision of the mainstream media. The potency of citizen activists saying "no" to corporate control--the growing multiracial alliances between natives and environmentalists--these give us hope that democracy will not be bought by the corporations. Gedicks' video is news from the underground. It lets us know we are not alone.

More Praise for "Keepers of the Water"

From  Nancy Paul, Library Journal 122:7, April 15, 1997.

The northern woods and marshes of Forest County, Wisconsin, are the cherished homeland of the Sokaogon Chippewa. Exxon and Rio Algom have their corporate eyes on the mineral deposits that lie beneath. Their proposed mine and accompanying waste dump would threaten the headwaters of the Wolf River, one of the last wild and clean rivers left in the Midwest. This video documents the tribe's opposition to the plan and presents evidence that the metallic sulfide mine would result in toxic runoff that would have a disastrous effect on fish, wildlife, and human life in this unspoiled area. Longtime white residents of the area have joined the tribe to protest what they feel is a shortsighted plan that will result in ruin, no matter what the short-term economic gains. Tribal leaders, local white residents, and independent environmental scientists all present a troubling picture of what leach fields can do to pristine waters. This nicely produced work presents a balance to the ad campaign that the mining companies are running to convince us that they're just good folks hoping to bring an economic boost to Wisconsin's north country. The video suggests the price to pay may be way too high. Recommended, especially for Wisconsin libraries and Native American collections.

From J. Reed, Video Librarian 12:4, July-August 1997

A stirring account of how grassroots America took on the big boys, bringing their cause to the shareholders and emerging victorious. Since 1970, Exxon has been eyeing the wilderness of northern Wisconsin as a mining site. It has recently renewed its efforts, zeroing in on the pristine waters of the Wolf River, whose headwaters lie in the springs and wetland resources of the Sokaogon Chippewas, creating a direct threat to the waters that sustain this tribe. But this is not an ethnic issue--as we learn from a cross section of people who speak out: tribal leaders, fishermen, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary citizens all bear witness to the need to preserve these waters. Most eloquent of all is the silent testimony of nature delivered via the exquisite scenic photography which links the various spoken segments of the program. Exxon is given its day in court but comes off badly, both through the words of their executives and their track record in incidents such as the Valdez oil spill, thus making the conclusion--in which the Exxon plan is defeated by the shareholders--all the more gratifying.  A powerful, engrossing document of what it means for each of us to be keepers of the water.

From Sue Erickson, Masinaigan ("Talking Paper"), Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Winter 1996.

"Keepers of the Water" is a recently released video produced by Al Gedicks which presents the issue of metallic sulfide mining in Wisconsin in human terms, meaning terms which cut across ethnic barriers and are understandable and close to the hearts of Wisconsin's people. As one speaker, Fran Van Zile states "The issue is not mining, the issue is water." Concern for the continued health of Wisconsin's water as the very source of all our lives and those to follow is obviously at the core of citizen resistance to Exxon's proposed mine portrayed in the video.

The video's power lies in the voices of people, a cross section of people, who express clearly their concerns about Exxon's proposed copper sulfide mine near Crandon. Speakers include Indian people from Mole Lake and Menominee as well as non-Indian fishermen, resort owners, property owners, politicians, religious leaders and lay people.

Through their voices the dangers inherent in the mining process are defined in simple, clear language. It teaches in an easy, story-like way. The video is thankfully devoid of technocratic jargon which so often surrounds discussion of mining and effectively drowns the lay person in a sea of acronyms.

Exposure of Exxon duplicity is well done, both in an interview with Exxon's James Buchen, who criticizes Spencer Black's proposed mining legislation without having read it, and through Wesley Andrews, who was hired by Exxon as an ethnologist to research issues related to sacred and culturally significant sites.

As Andrews states: "I had to write the lies they (Exxon) wanted me to write, or write the truth and resign."  He chose the latter.

Plenty of footage of the Wolf River and the Wisconsin River bring the viewer close to the issue--Wisconsin's water resources.

The video not only presents the issues confronting Wisconsin today, but also looks at the performance of mining elsewhere and in times past. The legacy speaks for itself.

Beyond an education about the mining issue and the people involved in assuring that mining will not damage the water resource, the video is clearly a challenge to viewers to join those who have actively been "keepers of the water" since Exxon first took interest in Wisconsin's copper resource in the 1970s.

The responsibility to be "keepers of the water" lies within all of us who depend on it for life, whether young or old, rich or poor, Indian or white, sportsman or housewife. The video runs about 39 minutes, is nicely accented with original music, and appealing to an audience from junior high level on up.

From: John Callewaert, Society and Natural Resources 11:4:425-426, 1998

 Keepers of the Water chronicles an environmental justice struggle in northern Wisconsin, where a broad coalition is fighting to stop an underground metallic sulfide mine and toxic waste dump at the headwaters of the Wolf River.  The coalition, which is made up of grassroots citizens, Native Americans, and outdoor sports enthusiasts, is reported to be the largest, broadest, multiracial environmental alliance ever formed over a single issue in Wisconsin. However, its opponents are two powerful multinational corporations: Exxon and its Canadian partner, Rio Algom.

The Wolf is classified as a "wild and scenic" river, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has spent $6.5 million on shoreline acquisition to protect the river. In 1995, American Rivers, a national conservation group, named the Wolf as one of the most endangered rivers because of the environmental threats from the proposed mine.

While clearly an issue that concerns many in the region, the mine and waste facility would affect significantly the homeland of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe. The waters that flow through the Chippewa's Rice Lake and into the Wolf River are threatened by treated wastewater that would come from the proposed mine. The tribe fears that the contaminated water will destroy the lake, the wild rice that it harvests from the lake, and its way of life. For generations, the wild rice has been important to the tribe as a source of food and also is understood as a spiritual gift important  in its ceremonies.

Mine developers claim that the mine and wastewater will be safe, but protestors counter these claims with concerns about weak Wisconsin mining laws and the legacy of mine pollution in western regions of the United States. Originally, the mine would have dumped the wastewater into Swamp Creek only 1 mile above Rice Lake.  More recently, mine developers have offered a plan that would transfer the wastewater through a 40-mile pipeline for disposal in the Wisconsin River. This new plan also has met stiff opposition.

Keepers of the Water could be seen as another documentary of a broad grassroots response to a local environmental threat. A unique contribution of this video, however, is that it helps expand the notion of environmental justice and environmental activism to include the protection of spiritial traditions and sacred sites. A clear concern of all the protestors is the effect that the mine and wastewater will have on their health and recreation, but an equal--if not more important--issue for many is that the mine threatens their way of life, their traditions and, most importantly, their "precious water." This spiritual dimension is evident in the protests and in the determination of those engaged in the struggle against the mine.

Another significant issue presented in the video is the story of Wesley Andrews, a project ethnologist hired by an Exxon consulting firm to identify sacred sites and traditional cultural properties as required by the federal mine permitting process. Andrews notes that mine developers were worried about how such information could be used to delay or stop the mine. Rather than write false information, which he was pressured to do, Andrews reported the truth on the spiritual and cultural significance of the site, and then resigned. This segment of the video raises the importance of professional responsibility and the potential misuse of cultural information.

The video also includes footage of several citizen protests and rallies, interviews with local leaders and organizers, and scenic vistas of the Wolf River and its tributaries. The only time that Keepers of the Water falters is when a weak and unclear link is made between the mining interests of Exxon in northern Wisconsin and the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. While both ventures concern Exxon, the video offers insufficient information on the connection, if any, between the two events.

Keepers of the Water would be an important addition to any list of successful environmental struggles. It could be used in an undergraduate course on environmental activism, or by anyone seeking to learn more about the issue in order to help their own struggle. It is a well-filmed and well-produced video that offers a comprehensive presentation of the subject


Wisconsin Resources Protection Council | MAIN OFFICE: Box 263, Tomahawk, WI 54487 
Chapter Offices:  2610 Log Cabin Drive, White Lake, WI 54491 | 210 Avon St. #4, LaCrosse, WI 54603
Phone/FAX: 608-784-4399 | info@wrpc.net