Whither blow the winds of Northern Minnesota?

Aaron J. BrownI spent my high school years working as an overnight disk jockey for an easy listening radio station on Minnesota’s Iron Range. This experience warped me in many incalculable ways, not least of which will be exhibited in the following analogy.

Earth, Wind, and Fire is more than a 1970s pop supergroup, it’s an accurate list of elements that shaped this region in the woods of Northern Minnesota.

Fire, the cauldron of Earth’s creation that lifted interstellar iron to the surface of our planet at these very coordinates.

Earth, scraped away by glaciers, creating Minnesota’s beautiful forests, lakes and exposing the very same iron atop the Big Man Hills of Missabe country.

Finally, Wind, the cool, crisp Canadian air flowing over our land, creating the clean living and fresh scent that we so often take for granted (unless we’re improperly dressed for winter).

Strained analogy aside, Northern Minnesota has been a hotbed of political, economic and cultural debate for the past decade, continuing into next week’s election. It feels new, but it isn’t. Since WWII, the region has lived and died by the comfortable social constructs won by the labor movement and American economy of the 20th Century, a steady (if bumpy) sense that “we’ve always done it this way, and if we keep doing it, everything will work out in a few years.”

Politically, the belief has been that if the right people got elected at every level of government, good times would be around the corner. Economically, we wait. The new mines will save us. They gave a bunch of money to that company on the edge of town; that ought to help. Culturally, we protect and trust our own, no matter what. The result has been isolation: good times good but never as good as we hope, bad times very, very bad.

One of the brewing political battles in northern Minnesota is the well-worn debate between “jobs” and the “environment,” a choice that I’ve come to describe as misleading. Nevertheless, the way we’ve wired Iron Range culture since the early ‘80s has come to embrace the “yes” and the “no,” the “us” and the “them.” So if you’ve heard this debate, you’ve probably heard the terms “Twin Cities environmentalists,” “outsiders” and of threats to “our way of life.”

I’ve come to see this debate differently. Case in point: the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is seeking Class I air shed status for its reservation near Cloquet and Duluth. If granted, this would require increased scrutiny for industrial polluters nearby, possibly including the mines near the Iron Range. Predictably, as detailed in an Oct. 12 John Myers Duluth News Tribune story, Iron Range leaders quickly turned this debate into an all-or-nothing brawl for the future of our people.

As pointed out by Fond du Lac chairwoman Karen Diver, whose ancestors were here centuries prior to anyone else, “how ironic.”

We already have several Class I air shed areas throughout the region, including the Boundary Waters and Voyageur’s National Park, so meeting these standards is nothing new to the mines or Minnesota Power. Indeed, the technology not only exists, it’s getting better. And it should, because for myriad reasons it must.

Minnesota’s Chippewa bands have a vested interest in maintaining the standards of air and water quality we have now. This interest might not aways coincide with popular opinion, or the economic interests of the Iron Range, but the people of Fond du Lac are entitled to a justified opinion and will defend those positions in the legislature and in court.

That gets me to my main point: no election, no amount of table-pounding or sternly worded newspaper editorials will change the legal rights of Minnesota’s first peoples. Nor should they. The fact that so many Iron Range leaders view this as an abhorrent miscarriage of justice shows you the unpleasant truth: our current economic plan for the region is built on desperation and will fail, lacking economic diversification and a policy of attracting new people and new economic sectors.

The Iron Range’s only governor, Rudy Perpich, once said of the economic trauma of the early 1980s that the Iron Range would “never, never, never be the same.” He was right. Sitting here amid what the Ojibwe call the Big Man Hills, we see international economics affecting our drive to work and what our children learn in school. With environmental change playing out all over the world, we honestly don’t know what the worth of our water and natural resources will be in decades to come, other than to assume that minerals won’t be the only thing of value in these woods.

We have the technology to mine safely. All mines have to do is pay for it. When society really needs the ore, the money and permits will come. Maybe next year, but quite possibly not. Meantime, the rest of the Iron Range economy relies on our actions, not just our wishes. In this, we find old truths: food, shelter and community require hard work. Together we are stronger than alone. Peace is better than war.

I can hear an old song:

“That’s the way of the world;
Plant your flower and you grow a pearl.
A child is born with a heart of gold.
The way of the world makes his heart grow cold”

I wonder what that would sound like in Ojibwe? Or an Iron Range accent? I have to admit, it’s a pretty good song.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Actually the Ojibway haven’t been here for centuries. This used to be Sioux land and the Ojibway pushed them out. We’ve had the land longer now than they have. The Ojibway, when they were further east, provided warriors for the French during the Seven Years War.

  2. I’m well aware of the history. Ojibwa people have hunted and occasionally occupied the arrowhead for centuries. Dakota had most of present day MN as you describe, but I was using a simpler description to add speed to an already bogged down topic. 🙂

    • I’m not sure the first two sentences fit well together. How many centuries do you think the Ojibwe have occupied the arrowhead?

      • I see what you’re saying. About 3 centuries, in some form. Dakota and Ojibwe shared the area by mutual agreement before the war. There were many communities of blended Dakota and Ojibwe people in northern MN. Your point is well taken. I may revise, but not presently. Occupado!

  3. Although the post presents an interesting academic argument, why so short sighted? Why begin with the Ojibwe / Chippewa & Sioux? Why not go back further as well as extend it…say 500-1000 years hence?

  4. Liane Gale says

    That’s so easy to say: “We have the technology to mine safely.”? What about the projected millions of gallons of polluted seepage that would enter into the groundwater, what about accidents (which happen all the time in mines), what about failure of technology (for example of the reverse osmosis system that Nolan keeps bringing up)?

  5. Nolan’s a liberal arts major Liane.
    I highly doubt his next job (after Tuesdays elections) will be with with Kinetico..

  6. Thence .

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