An Artist Starts a Mine Tour Company

This article first appeared on MinnPost and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

"The town of Tamarack, Minnesota, in Aitkin County is named after a kind of pine tree that turns yellow in the fall and loses its needles in the winter. They often grow in wet areas like bogs or swamps, which there are a lot of in Aitkin County. The whole area used to be a giant proglacial lake. Tamarack sits on Ojibwe land and is 1855 and 1854 treaty territory.

Last weekend, artist and activist Shanai Matteson helped organize a tour of the area as part of a new project called Talon Mine Tours.

Matteson grew up in Palisade, which like Tamarack, is in the north part of Aitkin county. “Out in the swamp,” Matteson said, describing the ecological vibe.

Matteson is the granddaughter of a miner. Her grandfather was from Croatia, and migrated to the United States and worked for the mining industry. “My grandpa never talked about it a whole lot,” she said. “I got the sense that his time working in industry was not something that he was really proud of.”

Matteson’s grandmother has told Matteson stories about living near the mining company town, Nashwauk. “She said, the red dust was everywhere— on her teeth— it was everywhere,” Matteson said. Her grandma insisted they move back to Aitkin County, and her grandfather would drive to work in the mine from there.

After attending Perpich Arts High School, Matteson then moved to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota where she was based until 2020. There, she started the Water Bar with Colin Kloecker, her former husband.

The Water Bar started in 2014 as a pop-up project and eventually grew into its own nonprofit organization. Essentially, it used the conceit of a bar to foster conversations around where water comes from and the environmental issues around it.

“The goal was really simple,” Matteson says. “We just wanted to talk to people about the source of water and do it in a really creative way.” 

The Water Bar became a platform for engagement and education. “Depending on who you put behind the bar, depending on what you talk about, or where you have the water bar, it leads to all different kinds of conversations,” she said.

In 2020, Matteson moved back to Palisade, in Aitkin county when the COVID-19 shutdowns were happening and she was in the midst of a divorce. She got involved in the movement warning people against Line 3 and was charged with conspiring, aiding and abetting trespass on the pipeline and two misdemeanors for unlawful assembly, all charges that were eventually thrown out in the courts. Now, she’s focusing her art and activism on a proposed new nickel mine planned near her home. 

President Biden has made clear he wants the U.S. to invest in clean energy and specifically electric vehicles, but that push comes with what Roopali Phadke, Environmental Studies professor at Macalester College, calls “The Green Bargain.” Essentially, the problem is that electrification is going to require a lot of metals like lithium and nickel.

In Aitkin County, Talon Metals’ Tamarack Mine has already received millions in federal funding for their proposed project to mine high grade nickel. In September, they were awarded $20.6 million by the Department of Defense. This was after the firm won a $114 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop an ore processing plant in North Dakota. 

Talon Metals also has an agreement with Tesla.

Matteson is using her skills as an artist to fight back against the mine, which she believes will destroy the water and natural resources in her community. Similar to the Water Bar, she’s using the idea of a service business to open up conversations. 

Talon Mine Tours is a tour company and guide service, essentially. The project offers free public tours of the Tamarack Mine sites, and also does custom tours for groups. Matteson acts as a facilitator for the group, working with a group of collaborators— among them Leanna Goose, from Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and Chris Baldwin, a former engineer for a gold mine company who makes hand drums. 

Last Friday, Talon Mine Tours held an event where about 30 people showed up. “Not bad for a town that has about 50 people in it,” Matteson said. 

The tour started in the town center of Tamarack, where Talon Metals has their offices, and went up to the proposed drill site. For the tour, Matteson worked with a handful of community members to come up with a list of questions they wanted to talk about with the community. 

The discussion ranged from the proposed timeline of the new mine, Indigenous rights and environmental justice issues. 

For Matteson, the purpose of the tour is to create a kind of cultural storytelling space. But she’s also an organizer and advocate for environmental justice. “It is an art project but it’s also an organizing project,” she said.

Talon Metals provided the following comment on Matteson’s Mine Tour company:

“It’s great to live in a place where people are engaged and care about the environment,” said Jessica Johnson, a spokesperson with Talon Metals. “We do too, we just disagree with the Mine Tour folks that society has to make a choice between the minerals required to make clean energy systems and protecting the natural environment. We can do both, while also creating good union jobs and broad economic benefits for the region at the same time. We have been offering tours of our mineral exploration operations for a few years now, people are always welcome to reach out and schedule a tour with me to meet our local team members and get to see some high-grade American nickel.”

It also feels right to be centering her art practice in the community where she grew up. “A lot of what I learned growing up in that community was always part of my art making,” she said. “It’s a place where relationships are everything.”

For the next event, Matteson will be showing a sculpture she created called “OVERBURDEN / OVERLOOK,” supported through funding from Forecast Public Art. It’s based on a number of overlooks you find across the Iron Range and other communities that have had active mining, built for people to look at the mine. “I built a mobile mine view on the back of the trailer, so that we can take it wherever we wanted to tell stories, and really focus on the overlooked stories,” she said. “The idea is to not just focus on the actual extraction, but really focus on the impact on water or on workers. Mostly those narratives are pretty dark.”

She’ll be showing the sculpture at Talon Mine Tours’ next pop-up event from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 29th in the afternoon (see here for details).

Talon Mine Tours plans additional tour events on July 20 in the town of Emily, where a manganese mine is being planned, and another one in August during the Tamarack Hey Day festival. Plus, anyone who wants to do the tour can contact the group through their website

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This article first appeared on MinnPost and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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