MARQUETTE - Native American activists were setting up a tent camp at Eagle Rock Saturday, expecting to stay indefinitely peacefully protesting the Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company nickel and copper mine on the Yellow Dog Plains.
"I'm here because this is a sacred spot to our people," said Charlotte Loonsfoot, 37, a Keweenaw Bay Indian Community member from Baraga who organized the stand at the rock. "They're going to drill underneath that rock. I've seen the spot, it's like feet from the rock and it's huge - the hole is huge."
Loonsfoot and Chalsea Smith, 20, another KBIC member from Baraga, arrived Friday as the sun was setting, driving a small car packed with provisions up a dusty Marquette County Road AAA to Eagle Rock.
"We're going to try to sit here and protect it for as long as possible until maybe we can do something like stop them," Smith said, referring to Kennecott. "They don't care about the land or anything that happens. They just want the money. As long as they get the money, who cares? 'Cuz they don't live here. They won't be living here all the time. So they'll just pack up and leave and go to the next project because they get paid. Money drives people."
Kennecott officials said they were open to talks with the KBIC.
"The invitation for a cooperative relationship for discussion of issues and working together to address both parties' interests - that is an open invitation that we hope the tribe will accept," Deb Muchmore, a Kennecott spokeswoman in Lansing , said Saturday. "We're looking for solutions."
Kennecott recently sent a letter to the KBIC informing them construction at the mine site was to begin and stating they wanted to talk with tribal officials about access to Eagle Rock. According to Muchmore, the primary goal for Kennecott is to ensure safety for tribal members while at the site.
Red-lettered signs saying "No Trespassing" had been put up by Kennecott this week after anti-mine activist Cynthia Pryor of Big Bay was arrested Tuesday for trespassing. Pryor, who was freed from jail Thursday on a personal recognizance bond, allegedly stood in the path of a bulldozer, hoping to stop its work. Pryor is scheduled to appear in Marquette County District Court May 6.
Loonsfoot and Smith had been to the site the day after Pryor was arrested.
"We were here before and there was no signs here," Loonsfoot said.
The bulldozer was preparing the site for erecting a fence and Kennecott beginning to construct surface facilities for the mine this summer. Kennecott is leasing 120 acres from the state. Long swaths had been cleared through the jack pine and stumps.
Loonsfoot and Smith slept in their car near the base of Eagle Rock Friday night. They climbed the tree-covered outcropping Saturday morning to pray. Loonsfoot leading the ceremony, Smith learning the traditional ways of her elders.
Many more people were expected to gather at the site over the weekend. Loonsfoot said she sent e-mail invitations to all tribal members and the tribal council. She also posted word of the gathering on her Facebook page.
"Everybody that I know knows that I'm coming out here," Loonsfoot said.
Smith said she knew of others who were packing up food or other items and were en route to the rock, which is located within 10 miles southwest of Big Bay.
Loonsfoot said those coming to the site plan to camp and hold ceremonies. A sacred fire is expected to be lit and a tribal medicine man is set to visit the gathering Sunday from Minnesota, offering advice.
"Something will happen," Loonsfoot said. "I trust the creator's going to help us because we feel like we're doing the right thing."
Kennecott is apparently not planning to try to prevent the gathering.
"They have an interest in expressing their viewpoint on the project," Muchmore said, "And we're not going to interfere with that."
National and Upper Peninsula members of the American Indian Movement in Republic, Trout Creek, Baraga and other places were also invited.
"Most of the big ones are in Arizona and word is out to them and hopefully they'll be coming up," Loonsfoot said. "We want people to come and help us if they believe in this and are strong with it."
In her invitation, Loonsfoot told her fellow Native Americans, "The time is now. We have to go protect what is right and true to our people and our future."
In addition to tribal rights to visit the site, those Indians gathering are also concerned about potential damage to the environment from the mine, including the Salmon Trout River.
Loonsfoot sighed deeply and turned away from the winds gusting into her face as the sun sank Friday.
"That's such a beautiful spot and they're blocking it from us to go and do our fasts, our spiritual ceremonies and everything else that we do up there," Loonsfoot said. "And I don't believe that they should be doing that to us because we are connected to the earth. The whole water thing, you know. Women are protectors of the water - and this is our main reason why we're here."
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His e-mail address is email@example.com