What Minnesota’s Mineral Gaze Overlooks

Black and white photograph of two men drying wild rice on sheets.

In January 2022, the Biden Administration canceled the leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper and nickel mine in Northern Minnesota—a decision still subject to appeal despite years of opposition and heated debate. A broad coalition of activists contend that the mineral byproducts (tailings) from Twin Metals and other proposed copper-sulfide mines would pose significant risks to the state’s water bodies and the plants, animals, and people who rely on them.

Some of the most vocal critics of the mines have been citizens of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, a sovereign Ojibwe nation composed of several autonomous bands in the state’s northern region. In Ojibwe culture, water is inextricably tied to traditional subsistence practices. The bands have harvested manoomin (wild rice) and fish on the waters of Lake Superior and in the region near its western shore since long before the area became the state of Minnesota. As a recent report by the Resource Management Division of the Fond du Lac Band puts it, these waterborne resources provide “irreplaceable cultural and nutritional benefits” to the Ojibwe. On the other side of the conflict are the owners of the sites—large multinational mining companies—along with state legislators, local officials, and area residents who support the industry. For its proponents, copper mining is a potential source of jobs and economic revitalization for Northern Minnesota.

Though no commercial copper mines have ever been established in the state, interest in extracting the resource in Minnesota dates to the 1960s. The tendency to favor those interests over the protection of the state’s waters also has deep historical roots. In fact, it was the state government itself that drove this prioritization of copper mining—demonstrated by a 1961 report authored by George M. Schwartz, the director of the Minnesota Geological Survey (MGS). Commissioned by Governor Elmer Andersen after a meeting with several elders of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, the report, titled “Development possibilities of the Indian reservation lands in Minnesota,” was intended to compile information on natural resources that might be of use in “developing additional sources of income” for the inhabitants of the reservations. With contributions from the MGS, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Minnesota Department of Conservation (renamed the Department of Natural Resources in 1971), Schwartz framed the project as a comprehensive study of “all aspects of resources” on the reservations. 

It was a narrow mineral gaze that led state scientists to disregard water resources.

Yet even choosing the MGS as the project’s lead agency betrayed the state government’s underlying assumptions about which resources are worth developing. The report viewed Chippewa lands with a “mineral gaze,” as it considered valuable resources to be only those that could be extracted from beneath the soil—an assumption driven by the decline of Minnesota’s long-important mining industry that was accelerating at the time. In the report, Schwartz and his colleagues imagined a prosperous, revitalized mining future for the state. But this vision conveniently overlooked the mounting evidence of mining’s toxic consequences for regional watersheds. This perspective—and the state agencies that have historically supported it—lies behind both current interests in copper mining and the accompanying indifference to the water resources that are so important for the Minnesota Chippewa.

Seeing with a Mineral Gaze

Guided by the governor’s “particular interest . . . [in] the possibility of undiscovered mineral resources,” state agencies left no stone unturned in their search for resources beneath the surface of Chippewa reservation lands. Maps of each reservation demonstrate just how thorough they were. Map legends list resources that might be found in each land cover type: the peat deposits lying beneath swamps, rock outcrops that might signal mineral deposits, and the glacial moraines offering sources of gravel or sand. But in attempting to account for “all of the natural resources” that the tribes might draw on, the maps overlook the single most important resource in the Chippewa landscape: the lakes themselves, with which many of the bands share their names. They are depicted as empty spaces—inconvenient gaps—in a spatial assemblage that identifies extractable value in every kind of landscape except the waters that formed the center of the Chippewa economy.

A document titled "Surgical Deposits of Red Lake Indian Reservation" with a map showing extractable resources around Red Lake.
Map of Red Lake reservation from the 1961 report. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Digital Library.

The report’s text betrays a similar myopic focus on the value of extractive resources. When filtered through Schwartz’s geologic perspective, the waters of the Chippewa lands not only lacked value but were “representative of the problems of Northern Minnesota.” The vast tracts of water left “very little hope of anything worthwhile” in the form of easily extracted minerals, presenting nothing of significance “other than gravel.” Upon determining that the reservations had little to offer, Schwartz suggested, with a clear sense of disappointment, that tourism and forestry would be the only viable sources of economic improvement available to the bands. One brief paragraph discusses the possibility of wild rice cultivation as an economic opportunity, but Schwartz and his colleagues were unable to recommend it because they were unsure whether “scientific information [was] available on the culture of wild rice.” For the Chippewa, the value of water and the resources it supports are engrained in traditional subsistence culture. Wild rice and other waterborne resources fell into the purview of traditional Ojibwe knowledge—not state scientific knowledge. As a result, state scientists failed to grasp the potential of a landscape they deemed bereft of resources.

Minnesota’s Mineral Economy

It was the narrow mineral gaze guiding the report’s analysis and recommendations that led state scientists to disregard water resources in favor of those that could be extracted from the ground—the same vision guiding both proponents of copper mining in Minnesota today as well as historical colonial extractive projects. Yet the logic of the report is not solely a result of Schwartz’s position as director of the MGS, nor the whims of one of Minnesota’s governors. It reflects the economic priorities of a state long reliant on mineral extraction.

Precious metals first attracted enterprising individuals to Minnesota in the 1860s, when gold was discovered in the state’s northeastern mountains. While most prospectors left empty-handed within a decade, those who remained hoped to mine the region’s vast iron reserves. Not only was the so-called “Iron Range” rich in ore, but its proximity to Lake Superior’s western shore provided easy shipping to the East, where it would be transformed into steel. By the 1920s, investment by the Carnegie business empire and other mining giants transformed the region into a key supplier of raw material for the expanding nation. High demand for steel during the Second World War carried the industry through the mid-twentieth century, but by this time deposits of the high-grade hematite ore upon which the industry was built began to wane. Mines switched to the less concentrated but bountiful taconite ore as an alternative. But due to a more intensive refinement process that yielded smaller amounts of pure iron, the industry never recovered to its previous level of profitability. While the rest of the country experienced new heights of postwar prosperity, the decline of Minnesota’s iron industry left the state government that supported it desperate for a new industrial path.

The vision of Minnesota’s revitalized mining future overlooked the mounting evidence of mining’s toxic consequences.

It was during the twilight of this once great industry that Schwartz and the MGS, at the behest of the state government, undertook their enthusiastic survey of the potential mineral deposits lying dormant in the reservation lands of the Minnesota Chippewa. The report is pervaded by the desire for a renewed mining future for the state. The fact that “mineral resources other than iron ore are not abundant,” was, according to Schwartz, “a problem not only for the reservations but for the state at large.” Likely remembering the recent copper boom in nearby Michigan, and excited by the small deposits of copper-nickel ore discovered on the Grand Portage reservation (though themselves insufficient for use by the band), his report called for “intensive work” by the state to find “those [minerals] which have remained undiscovered or whose value has not been sufficiently recognized.” 

Indeed, growing in interest in copper, along with the declining confidence in iron after the war, led the federal government to approve the state’s first lease for a copper mine only a few years later in 1966. When the passage of federal environmental protections in 1970 delayed breaking ground on the mines, the state government doubled down on its commitment to the pursuit. From 1970 to 1974, Minnesota’s legislature appropriated a total of $1.49 million (roughly equivalent to $10 million today) to the MGS for “ore and geological research” into “the beneficiation of industrial minerals and non-ferrous [iron] deposits.” Renewed leases in 1974 made copper-nickel mining a near certainty, but a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency assessment delayed operations until 1979, when declining copper prices stymied interest. Demand has only returned in the past two decades with the increasing use of copper and nickel in electronics and, most recently, electric cars—offering renewed potential for Northern Minnesota’s mineral economy.

Photo of a waterfront in Duluth, Minnesota. In front of large docks and a barge are large piles of iron ore minerals.
Iron ore docks fill the waterfront of Duluth, Minnesota. Photo by Gary Todd, 2017.

Yet even while the 1961 report advocated for the engagement of state scientists in the expansion of mining, the dangers the industry posed to Minnesota’s waters were already becoming clear to the Chippewa and other residents of the state. As the iron industry tried to stay afloat in the midcentury, the switch to more plentiful taconite iron ore required vast amounts of water to refine, again enabled by the proximity of Lake Superior. Tailings from the purification process, high in toxic sulfates, were dumped directly into the lake. The state’s regulatory agencies received reports of waters contaminated by tailings as early as 1948, and wild rice populations along the St. Louis River estuary of Lake Superior began to die off in the 1950s.

Yet the Department of Conservation—a partner on the 1961 report—continued to support the creation of new taconite mines throughout the 1960s, making favorable reports about new projects despite mounting evidence of the dangers of mining. The situation was not addressed until growing opposition by commercial fishers and mainstream environmental groups pushed the newly created Environmental Protection Agency to sue one of the largest taconite mining companies—a federal measure needed to fill the vacuum of inaction by state agencies. The resulting 1973 Reserve Mining Company v. United States federal case, a landmark legal victory in the early years of the environmental era, banned the dumping of tailings in Lake Superior, but only after a decade of litigation and a quarter century of polluting the lake.

Like other governments in the second half of the twentieth century, Minnesota’s pursuit of economic growth through mineral extraction depended on the expertise of scientists employed by its public agencies. With the explicit mission of economic improvement through mineral extraction, the MGS was key to this project. But this vision so pervaded the state’s governance that even the Department of Conservation—the agency tasked with protecting the state’s natural resources—was unwilling to impede mining projects. Despite their supposedly objective procedures, Minnesota’s public scientists, too, were susceptible to the mineral gaze. As a result of their role in state resource extraction, the disregard of water resources in the MGS report extended to the ecological deterioration of those waters through the toxic byproducts of mining—impacts which those agencies still struggle to adequately address.

Restoring Chippewa Resource Sovereignty

Growing concern over this toxicity likely informed the decision by the Chippewa bands not to conduct the further surveys of copper on their lands as recommended by the 1961 report—a decision in keeping with the tradition of opposition to colonial resource management that continues among the Minnesota Chippewa today. In the second half of the twentieth century, Ojibwe nations throughout the Great Lakes region used growing political influence and an ability to navigate settler-state structures to assert their treaty rights. In the case of the 1961 report, the Chippewa appropriated the same apparatus of scientific resource extraction that had played a part in poisoning their waters for the preceding decade to build their own economic security. Yet when that report recommended destructive (though lucrative) copper mining, Chippewa leaders spurned state interest in the toxic economy of mining in favor of protecting their waters.

Photograph of a lake surrounded by pine trees. In the foreground, the surface of the lake is covered with wild rice plants.
Manoomin in Northern Minnesota. Image from the Superior National Forest, 2021.

This legacy of resistance was evident in 1988, when the Grand Portage Band secured resource sovereignty on ceded territory for the Minnesota Chippewa through legal action against the state of Minnesota. In the past few decades, Chippewa opposition to commercial mining has taken the form of public comment and advocacy campaigns, but in recent years has built on this legacy through major legal victories against proposed mines. At the same time, in the aftermath of the 1988 settlement, several bands have undertaken manoomin and fishery restoration projects to reverse the damage dealt by taconite tailings. Most recently, Chippewa activists carried on this tradition by advocating for the decision in January to cancel the Twin Metals leases—the same leases, as it happens, that began Minnesota’s fraught history of copper mining in 1966.

Current efforts to establish copper-nickel mines in Minnesota are the most recent manifestation of the mineral gaze that has driven the state’s government since the mid-twentieth century. But where the state pursued an economic path that endangered the region’s waters, the Minnesota Chippewa have continued to fight for a way of life built on sustainable traditional practices. This tradition of opposition has just as long a history as the state’s interest in copper mining—and with major recent victories, it only continues to grow stronger.

Featured image: Drying wild rice. Image from BiblioArchive/Library Archive, 1921.

Andrew Hoyt is an M.A. student in history at Trent University in Ontario. His interests lie at the intersection of environmental history and the history of science. He is currently conducting research in the Midwestern United States on the development of ecological restoration, the role of knowledge and institutional authority in its different forms, and its use as a land management strategy in the region. LinkedIn. Contact.