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Wisconsin tribes asserted their presence and their philosophy in Madison yesterday and challenged Scott Walker. The occasion was the State of the Tribes address to a joint session of the legislature.
The annual speech given by a leader of one of Wisconsin’s eleven Native Sovereign Nations has typically been delivered by younger tribal leaders in recent times. But this year the seasoned Chairman Gordon Thayer, who also served as Lac Courte Oreilles chair in the 1980s, was selected to address the Republican-dominated legislature. He went out of his way to stress collaboration with the state government, but he held firm on the issues of fishing rights and mining.
After acknowledging state legislative leaders and constitutional officers, Thayer introduced thirteen tribal leaders who had traveled to Madison for the event. He then acknowledged the inter-tribal drum and the group of eleven singers – one from each Wisconsin tribe – who sang honor songs three times in the Capitol: Once in the rotunda before the event, once in the Assembly before the session convened, and once on the Assembly floor after the presentation of flags and tribal staffs.
The drumming and the prayer delivered by Dennis White, teacher and administrator of the Lac Courte Oreilles K-12 Ojibwe language immersion school, set the stage for the substance of Thayer’s speech.
In it, Thayer firmly asserted tribal sovereignty grounded in treaties with the federal government as the basis for government-to-government relations with the State of Wisconsin, and he conveyed an eagerness on the part of the tribes to cooperate with state agencies and officials in matters of mutual concern such as natural resource management, education, law enforcement, and economic development.
The bulk of the speech focused on successful collaborations in these areas of mutual concern, including dealing with prescription drug abuse and other law enforcement actions with local units of government, education, contracts with state agencies, gaming compacts, and a recent decision by Wisconsin’s Attorney General to sign on to an amicus brief in an Indian Child Welfare Act case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
While examples of collaboration took up the bulk of the hour-long speech, most of the energy in the address was concentrated in the two major failures on the part of the state to consult with tribes. Thayer characterized mining and spearfishing as “some of the more difficult examples of the tribal-state relationships.” He cited “the breakdown of communication, a disregard to seek advice from all affected parties.”
Speaking of recent inflammatory press releases by DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp regarding recent fishing declarations by tribes, Thayer said, “It’s a sad commentary when political propaganda appears in the press.” He added, “Who wants to come visit Wisconsin when slanted press releases are designed to raise tensions and provoke concern among sportsmen about our very own resources? It’s time for this propaganda to stop and for true leadership through communication to begin.”
He went on to explain how declarations by the tribes of how many fish they will take are guided by treaty rights and at most affect only 13% of the total fish population in Northern Wisconsin. He further stated that the DNR sets their own bag limits, which are adjusted after the tribal harvest is completed.
“This propaganda parade through the press may sell papers but it can possibly recreate the tensions we had here in the 1980s,” said Thayer. He reminded lawmakers of the ugly, racist confrontations between tribal spear fishers and extremist groups who gathered at boat landings to intimidate tribal members with threats of violence and hate speech like, “Save a Walleye, Spear an Indian.”
“Propaganda notwithstanding, we will continue to work alongside the DNR to ensure all residents of Wisconsin can enjoy the fish, game and natural resources we all share,” said Thayer in conclusion. “Let us at least agree to a peaceful fishing season and no political violence or racial tensions.”
Tensions in the Assembly ran high when Thayer moved on to the topic of mining. “Much has been said on both sides of this important issue but none has involved open and honest dialogue between the Tribe and the State,” said Thayer of the recently passed law that deregulates iron mining activities in order to ease the way for a 21-mile-long open pit mine on the shores of Lake Superior.
At that point, Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer (R-Waukesha) got out of his seat, mouthed the words, “this is bullshit,” and walked out. Kramer was later reported to have said that Thayer was “talking out of both sides of his mouth,” claiming that Republican legislative leaders approached the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to discuss the mining bill but they refused.
None of the media outlets that reported that story bothered to fact check the claim. If they had, they would have discovered that there was never an official government-to-government consultative process, only a letter informing the tribe of plans to pass a bill that was already written and well on the way towards passage.
Chairman Thayer was unequivocal in his support for the Bad River’s stance on mining, since their water, air, and land stands to be destroyed by the proposed strip mine. “Make no mistake, eleven Tribes in Wisconsin oppose the proposed mine and its permitting process, and we stand unified with our relatives Bad River Reservation in protecting the waters -- the water that sustains us, it purifies us, it’s the gift the Creator has given to all.”
Thayer further decried the corporate interests behind the mining bill. “We should never let outsiders make our laws for us, or let outsiders make laws that benefit them first and we pay the price,” he said referring to the oft-repeated statement that lawyers for the out-of-state mining company Gogebic Taconite drafted the original bill. “We cannot cash in our natural resources for corporate profit, temporary job creation, or traded like some asset or commodity.” That statement was met with an extended standing ovation from people in the public galleries and the Democratic side of the aisle. Reluctantly, some Republicans also stood up.
The largest, rowdiest round of applause came after Thayer went off-script and mentioned his disappointment in Governor Walker’s behavior toward the tribes during his State of the State address. “We can’t be dismissed as a subgroup of people in Wisconsin,” said Thayer to hoots, hollers, whistles, and thunderous applause. “We’re here - that’s all,” he concluded.
Tribal power wasn’t just verbally asserted at the Capitol yesterday; it was embodied and enacted. Despite the presence of dozens of Capitol Police officers -- usually present to harass and intimidate members of the noon-hour Solidarity Sing Along -- no arrests were made, no citations were written, and nobody was thrown out of the galleries for “outbursts” or for carrying a camera or bag or for wearing pins and articles of clothing with political messages written on them.
Without a permit, the Great Lakes Intertribal drum group brought their enormous drum into both the rotunda and on to the Assembly floor, singing and drumming for extended periods of time without so much as a warning. All of that flies in the face of the Walker Administration’s intensifying crackdown on political dissent in the Capitol.
At a recent event discussing treaty rights in Ceded Territory, Lac du Flambeau Chairman Tom Maulson remarked that white people have asked the tribes to provide a buffer zone for them in terms of protecting the environment. This is based in the recognition of tribal sovereignty and the rights tribes have under federal treaties, aside and apart from the State of Wisconsin’s political apparatus. Yesterday the tribes provided that buffer for everyone’s freedom of speech and assembly.
In his speech, Chairman Thayer invited the audience to take their families camping in the Penokee Hills – the area slated to be bombed to smithereens for the sake of low-grade iron ore. What he didn’t mention is that anyone visiting the Penokees this summer is likely to find other people camping there – folks who have committed to putting their bodies in the way of any bulldozer, drill rig, or explosive crew from the mining company in order to protect the land and the water from the devastating impacts of strip mining.
Up in those hills this summer is where you will find true collaboration amongst and between all manner of Wisconsin citizens, tribal and non-tribal, rich and poor, old and young.
For more information, contact the Penokee Hills Education Project, which just opened an office in downtown Ashland.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.