See more of the story

A local chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association is the latest group to cancel an event at Fortune Bay Casino & Resort and the Wilderness Golf Course, as tensions over copper mining simmer in northeast Minnesota.

The Iron Range businesses are owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, one of the six bands in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

The backlash targeting the Bois Forte Band began after the collective tribe wrote a letter Jan. 31 to U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from St. Paul, and two other Democratic lawmakers in support of McCollum's proposal to ban copper mining on 234,000 acres of federally owned wilderness near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Such a ban would kill the mine Twin Metals wants to build near Ely just outside the Boundary Waters, and the tribe's support for it aggravated mining proponents.

First, state Sen. Tom Bakk moved a large annual DFL fundraising golf tournament from the Wilderness at Fortune Bay to Giants Ridge. Then the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce — which represents Eveleth, Gilbert, Mountain Iron and Virginia — canceled an annual dinner at the resort and took it to Mountain Iron. The United Way of Northeastern Minnesota, too, yanked its golf fundraiser.

On Monday, the Lake Vermilion chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association canceled its annual banquet at the resort, an event that was expected to draw about 200 people.

Chapter President Tim Mattson, who said he works for U.S. Steel's Minntac operation, said he made the call because he felt like the Bois Forte Band was taking a stand against an industry that helped support the band's business.

"Most of the people that are in our chapter, we're all miners or affiliated with mining," Mattson said. "Why would you take a stance against the people that built your business?"

The Bois Forte Band broke its silence on the situation Monday, expressing frustration.

"It is unfortunate that we're facing this type of backlash, especially for all of the good we've done in our communities," said Fortune Bay spokesman Brian K. Anderson, director of sales and a Bois Forte tribal member. "We are strong supporters of numerous chambers of commerce, not to mention sponsoring countless community events."

Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers said area business leaders have been contacting her with support.

"Other tribes are reaching out to us, as are our neighbors who we do business with — it feels good to have their support because they understand our commitment to the land, waters and Mother Earth through our cultural beliefs," Chavers said.

Fortune Bay general manager Jenna Lehti said she's disappointed, but that the business will move forward "and be a good neighbor to our local communities as we always have been."

Last month, Ely Mayor Chuck Novak tweeted out his support for Bakk's decision to change venues, and urged the trade unions and the IRRRB, the Range's economic development organization, to "follow suit."

In an interview, Novak said he has never used the word "boycott."

The matter will be taken up at the Ely City Council meeting Wednesday, where the council is slated to vote on a resolution supporting the two copper-nickel mines planned for Minnesota.

Becky Rom, national chairwoman of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and other opponents of copper-mining have asked to speak to introduce a resolution of their own — one that says the city of Ely does not support a boycott of the Bois Forte Band's Fortune Bay Casino "or any other business."

"They can ask for it," Novak said. "The council will decide what it wants to do."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683