Back Forty Mine

United States
Report By
Fiona McAlpine
June 3, 2019

The Back Forty Mine is a proposed open-pit, metallic sulfide mine that would sit 100 feet from the banks of the sacred Menominee River in Lake Township, Michigan. The project is backed by Canadian development company Aquila Resources and if it proceeds, will threaten the water security of millions of people who rely on Lake Michigan.

The project is opposed by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin for its potentially disastrous cultural and environmental impacts. The mouth of the Menominee River is the location of the tribe’s creation story as well as being an ancestral burial ground. In 2019, Menominee Water Protectors are gearing up for a standoff with Aquila to defend their sacred land and water.

Cultural Implications

The Menominee people have lived in modern-day Wisconsin, and parts of the states of Michigan and Illinois for an estimated 10,000 years. Colonial occupation decimated the Menominee and their lands, however their protected reservation remains on a portion of their ancestral territory along the Menominee River.

Menominee culture and history are deeply connected to the river. The mouth of the Menominee River is where the Menominee Nation creation story is said to have taken place 10,000 years ago and is located within protected treaty territory. The creation story tells that ancestors of the five main clans of the tribe—Ancestral Bear, Eagle, Wolf, Moose and Crane—were transformed into their human forms at the mouth of the river.

The Menominee are the only Wisconsin tribe whose origin story indicates continuous settlement in the area. According to the tribe, the proposed mine threatens burial mounds, places of worship, village sites and 1,000-year-old raised agricultural garden areas.

These sites are of enormous cultural and spiritual importance, but it is the river itself that holds the deepest, inseparable value to the Menominee Nation peoples. As Menominee Nation organizer, Anahkwet (also known as Guy Reiter) explains, the tribe has a sacred duty to protect the river:

“The Menominee River is a part of me; its essence is within my soul. There isn’t a Menominee Indian around who wouldn’t feel connected and unified standing next to the river while gazing upon its sacred banks and water…We, Menominees, were given the responsibility to look after that river and land by the Creator thousands of years ago, and that supersedes any treaty or law.”

The Threat

A Canadian company, Aquila Resources Inc., is seeking approval for the Back Forty Mine, which would excavate an 800-foot-deep, open-pit sulfide mine on the banks of the Menominee River. The mine would extract copper, zinc, gold and silver, processing the ore on site, using cyanide leaching and mercury recovery methods.

Sulfide mining refers to the extraction of metals from sulfide bearing rock and is notoriously hazardous. There are no examples of clean sulfide mines. Rather, they have a perfect track record of causing damage to their surrounding environments. There are multiple examples of sulfide causing harm to sacred indigenous sites.

The Menominee River forms the boundary between Wisconsin and upper Michigan and flows into Green Bay along the northwest shores Lake Michigan. The river is the largest watershed in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and provides habitat to diverse species of flora and fauna, many unique to the Great Lakes region.

The importance of the Menominee and surrounding river systems cannot be overstated. The Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan, collectively provide 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, supplying drinking water to an estimated 40 million people. Lake Michigan alone provides fresh water to more than 12 million people. A sulfide mine 100 feet from the Menominee River poses a clear, serious threat to the water security of millions and to the ecological health of the Great Lakes region.

Environmental hazards are present during every step of the open-pit mining process. Crushing hard rock exposes radioactive elements, asbestos-like minerals, and metallic dust, which contaminate and persist in the environment for hundreds of years. After milling, residual rock slurries known as “tailings” leak these contaminants into bedrock, groundwater and surrounding waterways.

Needless to say, the practice is extremely hazardous, and the Back Forty proposal seems to completely disregard these dangers altogether. According to a technical report from the Center for Science in Public Participation released in February 2019, the Aquila proposal would devastate watersheds—and the threat would last for hundreds of years.

The report found that Aquila is proposing to use the least safe methods for managing tailings, has no wastewater management plan, no plan for safe storage of poisonous chemicals such as mercury and lime, and has used false environmental baselines for its impact estimates.

The proposed mine is likely to cause significant damage to freshwater systems such as rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater that all life depends on. The Menominee background document about the mine puts it this way: “There is no debate on whether the proposed mine, if approved, will contaminate the Menominee River area. The question is not if it will, but rather when it will and to what extent.”

Statement from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin

We are the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, a federally recognized Indian Tribe that is indigenous to the Great Lakes Region, including what is now known as Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Our sacred place of origin exists at the mouth of the Menominee River located near the modern-day border cities of Menominee, Michigan, and Marinette, Wisconsin. 

It was here where the Ancestral Bear emerged from the river and was transformed by the Creator into the first Menominee. The Menominee continued to live in this area for thousands of years resulting in numerous sacred sites and burial mounds up and down the Menominee River—including the area of the proposed Back Forty Mine.

Much like our brothers and sisters in the NODAPL movement we also know that water is essential to life. The Menominee River is, in fact, the very origin of life for Menominee people. It also provides life to Michigan and Wisconsin residents and the natural wildlife within the Great Lakes ecosystem. The Great Lakes and its tributaries, including the Menominee River, are relied on for clean water, religious practices, fishing, economic development, agriculture, and tourism.

We ask you to stand with us today to fight to protect our place of origin, our sacred sites, the environment and the water. We are actively fundraising to support a legal defense to challenge the decisions allowing the proposed Back Forty Mine to go forward and to raise awareness about the proposed mine.

What You Can Do

Keep informed about the Menominee Nation’s fight against the mine on their campaign website:

Support the Menominee Tribe’s GoFundMe campaign to crowdfund their legal opposition to the mine.


Physical Address:
W2760 Chief Little Wave Rd (old Library building)
Keshena, WI 54135

Mailing Address:
P.O. BOX 910
Keshena, WI 54135

Joey Awonohopay, Director

Tel: (715) 799-4849
Fax: (715) 799-7085


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