At the Mouth of the Menominee River: A Conversation with Anahkwet (Guy Reiter)

Wolf River on a sunny day with a large stick in foreground and green treeline in background

The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin attests that their history begins at the mouth of the Menominee River 10,000 years ago. As a result of treaties and colonization, the Menominee Reservation is today located just under 60 miles from the mouth of the Menominee River in Marinette. Today the river acts as a political border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for settlers of the Midwest region of Turtle Island. But activists like Anahkwet (Guy Reiter) remind us that the river is so much more than a border between two states—it is paramount to the culture of the Menominee people who have been resisting mineral sulfide mining on its banks for decades.     

Anahkwet (Guy Reiter) has been working to protect the Menominee and Wolf Rivers and revitalize the culture and language of the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin through his work at Menīkānaehkem Community Rebuilders. We spoke virtually in late April about his role as a water and community activist in Wisconsin and how allies can support and get involved in water protection efforts.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Justyn Huckleberry: You are the executive director of the Menominee Indian community organization Menīkānaehkem Community Rebuilders, and you have also led water protection efforts around the Wolf and Menominee Rivers in Wisconsin. Could you share more about this work, what you’ve been up to recently, and how you got involved?

Guy Reiter stands outside
Anahkwet (Guy Reiter) is a traditional Menominee and the executive director of the Menominee Indian community organization Menīkānaehkem. Photo courtesy of Ahahkwet.

Anahkwet (Guy Reiter): We as Indigenous people are brought up to look at things differently and view our surroundings, our environment, in a whole different way. I grew up listening to stories from my grandma and grandpas, my great grandma and grandpas, talking about when our tribe was terminated and some of the activism that went around that and the community rebuilding that happened. The restoration of Ojibwe fishing and hunting rights was in the late 80s and the Exxon mine fight as well, that was here on the reservation and surrounding areas. So, I’ve been around that sort of activism or protection for a long time.

The current work that we’re doing right now is still the same work that was being done 30, 40 years ago, but there are some major threats to us. One is the Back Forty Mine, which is located on the Menominee River that creates the natural border between upper Michigan and Wisconsin. That river is in our oral history; the birthplace of our nation is at the mouth of that river. We were forcibly removed from that area and put on our current reservation in 1854, where we’ve been since, but our history with that river and with that location goes back thousands and thousands of years. It’s the origin of us as a people and it always will be.

The Wolf River is a major river that flows through the heart of our reservation, and there is some exploration for mining being done to see where gold deposits are. Last year, Badger Minerals, which is another conglomerate of Aquila Resources (who’s proposing the Back Forty Mine on the Menominee River), was doing some exploratory drilling that we opposed. Our legislators rescinded the mining moratorium law here in Wisconsin that protected a lot of us. It’s the “prove-it-first” law: basically, as a mining company, if you say that you’re not going to pollute our land, then show us where you haven’t done that. It’s a no-nonsense law. I understand why the mining companies don’t like the laws because they can’t prove that [they haven’t polluted], and they’re always going to pollute.

Menominee Treaty Lands map with proposed Back Forty Mine site. Image by Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, 2018.

At Menīkānaehkem here on the Menominee Indian Reservation, we do lots of things—from building tiny homes for our people to help address the housing crisis to growing our own food—and we have big plans for some animals coming here this year. We do language revitalization, cultural revitalization, and now energy sovereignty—we have a good array of solar panels right now and are looking to expand into our community more and more with solar panels and going green. We’ve helped to create an MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) task force here in the state to address that issue, which is very prevalent in our community and is somewhat attached to pipelines and fossil fuel extraction.

JH: One of the things that you’ve mentioned before about your work in water protection is that it’s not about mineral sulfide mining, it’s about the water and the living things that depend on it. Could you talk about this framing and how it shapes your activism?

If you slow down and really feel that beautiful earth beneath your feet, no doubt you’ll know exactly what it is you need to do or where you need to be.

GR: My culture and my language really define my involvement. I try to rely as much as I can on our cultural understandings and our identity as Menominee people to guide me and do what I feel is correct. It really is a completely different outlook on life. We don’t see ourselves as separate from creation, we see ourselves as a part of it, and our language speaks to that. If you know where a plant comes from and how it got its name, and you know the long history that we had with it, it’s no longer just a plant, but you can see it in its being and its essence. The earth has her own story, and we were brought up being told about how she came to be and how much we depend on her and how big of a role she plays in our life.

JH: You’ve done such a great job connecting with a wide range of people in Wisconsin and getting them involved in water protection. Can you share a little bit about the groups of people that you’ve worked with and how you’ve connected with them?

GR: I’m willing to work with anybody that can appreciate our world and appreciate each other’s point of view. We may not agree on everything, but that doesn’t mean that you’re an enemy of mine. I think our diversity is our strength. I don’t need help being a Menominee or an Indigenous person, and I would never want anybody to be something they’re not.

Menominee Recreational River, Wisconsin. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, 2017.

JH: My last question for you is what can listeners in Wisconsin and all over do to be in solidarity and get involved in this work of water protection and all of the great projects you’re doing at Menīkānaehkem?

GR: The best thing that anybody can do to be an ally or compatriot or whatever word you want to use is to make sure that you take time to slow down. An elder one time said that when they wash their face in the morning, they take that time to acknowledge the water and ask the water to wash those things away from their eyes so they can see whatever it is that needs to be seen. If you slow down and really feel that beautiful earth beneath your feet and know that you’re connected like that, no doubt you’ll get a message and no doubt you’ll know exactly what it is you need to do or where you need to be. There are always things you can do online and see all the many fights that are happening all over, from the Boundary Waters to the Back Forty Mine to Line 3 and Line 5. But I think that time with the earth and that connection with her is so important because that’s where it begins, in my opinion.

We’re going to have to ride this out together, and we should probably think of seven generations down the line, those future descendants of ours and what’s going to be here for them. There are things that we can do in our everyday today life that will help the ones that are coming, and we should always give gratitude and honor to those that have passed before us. I am very appreciative of the Menominee Indian Tribe and all the ancestors that came before me and all those ones to come.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Featured Image: Wolf River. Photo courtesy of the Wolf River Action Committee.

Anahkwet (Guy Reiter) is a traditional Menominee who resides on the Menominee Reservation. He is the executive director of Menominee Indian community organization Menīkānaehkem. He is a community organizer, activist, author, amateur archaeologist, lecturer, and a member of the Menominee Constitutional Taskforce. Website. Contact.

Justyn Huckleberry is a Ph.D. candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and an editor for Edge Effects. Her current research focuses on how people experience conservation and extractive-industry development and displacements. She holds an M.L.A. in Environmental Planning from UC Berkeley. TwitterContact.