Most of the tribe's weathered houses and mobile homes and its casino, one of the state's smallest, sit in the woods along U.S. Highway 2 about 80 miles east of Duluth, Minn. Per capita income was $12,352, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.
But tribal leaders hold fast to their connection with the natural world. Signs on the reservation's borders inform travelers the land is sacred, and tribal members still rely on the land for sustenance.
"The view you get here is the view your ancestors had," tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said as he scrolled through photos of the reservation's beaches and spectacular sunsets on his laptop. "These things really do matter."
Tribal leaders fear run-off from mine waste will poison the watershed with sulfuric acid and sulfates. Democrats and conservationists agree. A Lawrence University study conducted on behalf of the state's Chippewa tribes concluded that the waste rock could generate acidic run-off, but state officials say there hasn't been an authoritative analysis.
As a sovereign nation under U.S. government treaties, the tribe could ask the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the reservation's own water quality standards if a mining permit doesn't meet them. Under a federal treaty signed in 1837, the state also must consult the tribe about actions affecting its hunting and fishing rights.
The bill's author, Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany, sought a meeting with Wiggins in December, but Wiggins replied it would be pointless.
Republicans have acknowledged the matter could well end up in court. But Tiffany said he believes the state will be on solid legal ground in balancing the economy with the environment.
The locals are growing impatient. Leslie Kolesar, chairwoman of the Iron County local mining impact committee, said the county has been living with mining residue for years and nobody is sick. To illustrate, she filled a Mason jar with water from a stream running near a rock pile and slugged it down.