Keepers of the Water
*** 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."
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:
Review of Keepers of the Water
210 Avon Street #4
La Crosse, WI 54603.
Phone/FAX (608) 784-4399
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
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
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
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,
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
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