[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
The campaign to stop the proposed Crandon Mine from poisoning the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin is one of the great recent environmental victories in North America. It is also one of the least known struggles. For 28 years (1976-2003), activists in Wisconsin organized to prevent a zinc and copper mine near the Wolf River. The movement was extremely diverse and described itself as Native and non-Native, rural and urban, environmentalist and trade unionist, and hunter and sport fisherman. The coalition organized against tremendous odds. Both corporate power and then-Governor Tommy Thompson supported the mine, and a procession of multinational mining giants, including Exxon, Rio Algom, and Billeton, marched into Wisconsin yet were defeated by the grass roots movement. As a result, Wisconsin has become known as unfriendly to mining interests and in 2003, the threatened land was purchased by Wisconsin tribes—the Sokaogon Mole Lake Ojibweand the Forest County Potowatomi.
Susan Simensky Bietila, a Milwaukee-based artist and Registered Nurse, was invited to join the movement in the mid-1990s as a street medic. She instead became involved as an artist and created giant puppets, creative signs for marches, and a series of over 30 tombstones that were placed at the State Capital in Madison and other locations, memorials to rivers that had been poisoned by mining. Her last tombstone read “R.I.P. Crandon Mine”—celebrating the proposed mine’s defeat and the tremendous victory that was won by a people’s movement.
The interview took place in July 2009.
When did you first get involved in the Wolf River campaign and in what capacity?
In 1997, I was approached by Milwaukee members of the Wolf Watershed Education Projectbecause of my experience with direct action and as a street medic. They anticipated things heating up and invited me to help them transition into a new phase of activism. They were very committed to anti-mining environmentalism and supporting indigenous rights, but had little experience at militant demonstrations. Their role was educational-doing presentations for community groups and schools, as well as lobbying.
It was not inconceivable that armed self-defense could come into play if there was an attempt to mine. They were well aware of the history of Native American militant actions in Wisconsin—blocking train tracks, building takeovers, and sit-ins lasting months. I thought, however, that there would be a resolution without things coming to a desperate standoff. This is what transpired. It didn’t hurt that Exxon’s name was infamous due to the Valdez oil spill in Alaska. This certainly made people skeptical of their promises not to pollute the water table.
My first project, in 1999, was a combined “road trip” radio interview and compact tutorial, to get up to speed on the movement. On the way to a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hearing in Door County, I taped an interview for the Milwaukee pirate station Radio Bob—The Wireless Virus. Three longtime activists recounted the effects of sulfide mining and the history of the truly unique movement. Environmentalists, indigenous activists, hunters, fishermen, labor activists, academics, students, tourist industry business people, and small town government people were all working together. To me, it was a model of critical thinking and creative direct democracy and I was hooked.
Tell us about your involvement as an artist. Were street puppets a medium that you regularly employed at the time?
Yes. In 1996, I went to the Active Resistance gathering in Chicago, where my son had gone to help build giant puppets with San Francisco artist David Solnit for an Art & Revolution parade during the Democratic Presidential Convention. Shortly thereafter, David and Alli Shagi Starr did a presentation in Milwaukee at the Riverwest Art Center, where David presented a slide show that documented decades of using puppets during protests and Alli led a contact dance improvisation workshop. It spurred the reunion of people who had done street theatre in Milwaukee in the late 1980s, against the U.S. involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
In 1998, we built a wood and backpack frame for a giant flat puppet, in David’s style, of then Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, whose main advisor was a former Exxon lobbyist. We sewed a suit and made him a fools cap emblazoned with the words, “FOR THE WOLF RIVER,” with the Skull and Crossbones for poison on one peak and “FOR MINING COMPANIES $” on the other. The puppet was loaned to anyone who wanted to use it, and it traveled for years.
What other visual tactics did you use on the Wolf River Campaign?
David gave me a color photo of Pacific Northwest indigenous people demonstrating for the restoration of the free running rivers to bring back the Salmon. They were carrying large cutouts of salmon drawn in traditional Northwest Coast style, held aloft on sticks like picket signs. This gave me the idea of making screen prints of trout with one side as a live trout and the flip side as a trout skeleton, the ultimate result of sulfide mining in the Wolf River watershed. These were distributed throughout at a rally at the Wisconsin Capitol. People wanted them. They were attractive items and told the whole story, no words needed.
Tell us about the origin of the gravestone project.
The idea evolved collaboratively during the Milwaukee-area meetings of the anti-mining group. The idea was to create a cemetery of dead rivers—grave markers, each with the name of a river poisoned by mining. I was amazed at how many rivers had been polluted worldwide. I stopped after more than 30, and could have continued.
Local activists and Wobblies assisted with the prep work. We scavenged bicycle boxes and the wires from yard signs used during elections and attached them to each piece. I designed and painted most of the them. Claire Vanderslice did a few. Like the giant puppet, they were made to travel and could be packed into a car trunk and set up wherever people were fighting the mine.
In April 2000, I brought the tombstones to a march and rally in Madison and started to set them up on the Capitol lawn. There were marchers, including the Tommy puppet; and tribal drummers coming in from campus to the west; and farmers against a long distance power line threatening their farms with eminent domain marched from the power company to the east. The police confronted me right away and told me that I could not set them up on the lawn. So I duct-taped them up along the walkway leading up to the Capitol building where the rally was to take place. People and passersby walked along and read them intensely.
In the years that followed, they traveled as an installation to the Riverwest Art Center in Milwaukee and also to rural roadsides and then, in the end, to the victory celebration on the Mole Lake Reservation.
What was it like to take part in such a diverse movement?
I was drawn to this movement because people were going about things in the way that pre-empted the usual marginalization of radical activism by the powers-that-be and the corporate media. The activists were absolutely impossible to stereotype—people from small towns all over Wisconsin as well as from cities, all professions and ages. I never imagined being in an organization with people from hunters and fisherman’s groups, retired Chicago police officers, and others from all walks of life. The idea of standing up to some of the most powerful corporations in the world with a group that was so diverse had great promise. It was not a surprise that the campaign succeeded.
How did people in the movement accept you as an artist? Was there an appreciation for what artists could add in the movement?
I agree with David Solnit who describes our function as “animators” rather than organizers—giving people the form to express their ideas and feelings.
Although no one discussed the role of artwork in the movement per se, every piece of artwork I did was used over and over again. My artwork was posted on the group’s website and I had enthusiastic help with research and production in each project. Other people wrote and performed poetry and others made music and guerilla theatre. I did not expect that this would be a movement like the anti-globalization demonstrations where puppets would play a major role.
Did projects arise after the victory?
Yes. I had already been drawing a graphic history piece, A Wolf River Story, for World War 3 Illustrated magazine. Also, in 2008, I was invited to do a mural as part of the Milwaukee art show Seeing Green. The 8 x 24 foot mural was seen by thousands of people every day.
Lastly, tell us about your experience as an urban activist and artist in a rural campaign. What did you bring with you from the city to the Northwoods and what did you take back home with you from the experience?
Although I have always lived in cities, I have family members who have been iron miners in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I have sympathy for the dilemma of jobs vs. environment for rural communities. Doing artwork for this movement, I gained a concrete understanding of the vast potential to unite people from disparate cultures against multinational corporate exploitation. It was indeed possible.
For me, it was a learning experience, coming from the city, looking at multinational corporations’ impact on a rural area and on indigenous people firsthand, for the first time. By firsthand, I mean going there, seeing the river, the wild rice lakes and the forest, talking with people, over years of involvement. Tribes have the right by treaty to hunt, fish, and gather in roughly one third of Wisconsin, a legal right to protect water quality and maintain the forest—of great long-term importance to us all. ◊