U.S. Senator Gary Peters hosts Keweenaw Bay Indian Community President Chris Swartz at Senate hearing.
WASHINGTON D.C. — U.S. Senator Gary Peters hosted Chris Swartz, president of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, at a subcommittee hearing in Washington D.C. this week on how to protect Native American lands for future generations.
Peters, ranking member of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, says mining and manufacturing in the Upper Peninsula have resulted in long-term pollution issues such stamp sands, a byproduct from ore processing. He says miles of stamp sands remain on the shore of Lake Superior and have significantly eroded shorelines, devastated fisheries and negatively altered the landscape.
“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.”
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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.