Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill would like to see state laws to eliminate Native American school mascots, better healthcare opportunities for Native Americans, and better protection for the state’s natural resources. Hill delivered the 15th annual State of the Tribes address on Tuesday, April 9, at the State Capitol in Madison.
In his State of the Tribes address, also addressed the need to expand Medicare coverage, fight chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the deer herd, the need for better education concerning Native Americans, the opioid crisis in native communities, a need for financing to make home ownership possible, violence against native women and children, and a need to support the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). He introduced tribal leaders present at the State of the Tribes address, including those from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community; the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians; the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin; the Ho-Chunk Nation; the Forest County Potawatomi Community; the Sokaogon Chippewa Community; the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin; the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians; the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin; and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. “Just as we have worked hard to build alliances and friendships amongst each other, we have also built strong relationships with the State of Wisconsin,” Hill said. “Our flags displayed in the rotunda symbolize the mutual respect between the state and our tribal nations and reminds all of us of our common ground as civil servants.”
Hill recognized the significance and economic impact the Native American tribes have made on Wisconsin.
A study found that Oneida Nation contributed three-quarters of a billion dollars and provided 5,465 jobs within Brown and Outagamie Counties. The Nation’s economic impact has increased by roughly $300 million dollars since our last study conducted in 2006. Further, according to the Greater Green Bay Chamber, Oneida Nation is the third largest employer in the area, Hill said. At the state level, Wisconsin tribal nations contributed more than $53 million to the state pursuant to the gaming compacts. He said the state is a magnet for tourism of people interested in learning about Native American culture. Although in recent years, the unemployment and poverty rate has fallen among tribal members and family income increased, some hardships still endure.
“Native Americans in Wisconsin continue to trail behind the general public in many critical areas,” he said. “Our unemployment rate is doubled when compared to the rest of Wisconsin residents. Our median household income is 70 percent of the median income of all households in the state and our poverty rate is almost three times of all Wisconsin families.” Hill said everyone’s presence at the address represents a willingness to learn from one another and work together to overcome challenges. “In my home, we live by the slogan, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work.’” he said. One proposal by the Special Study Committee on State and Tribal Relations is a change to the existing Act 31, which requires all public school districts and pre-service education programs to provide instruction on tribal history, culture, and sovereignty. “For too many generations, children have learned about Native Americans as relics of the past—to be studied in museum exhibits,” he said. “Our amendments to Act 31 must teach that we, as native people, are alive, vibrant and thriving.” Another legislative focus important to Wisconsin’s Tribal Nations is eliminating the use of “Indian” mascots, logos and nicknames in educational facilities supported by the State of Wisconsin, Hill said. As of last month, there are still 31 Wisconsin public schools using Indian mascots, logos and/or nicknames.
“The use of Indian images – stereotypes and dehumanizes our cultures and Native American people for the sake of entertainment. Furthermore, it encourages racist and vulgar behavior in the name of school spirit, which is both socially and academically detrimental to all children,” Hill said.
Hill transitioned to the topic of protecting the environment. Last year, several Native American nations stood in solidarity with the Menominee Nation in their lawsuit opposing the proposed Back Forty Mine. It is well known that the impacts of mining activities are widespread and permanent, Hill said. The proposed mine would sit a mere 150 feet from the banks of the Menominee River, which forms the boundary between Wisconsin and Upper Michigan and flows into Lake Michigan.
“The environmental risks to the Menominee River, adjacent land, and the Great Lakes from the inevitable acid mine drainage is unacceptable,” he said. “The Menominee Nation has a sovereign right to protect their sacred place of origin and cultural resources threatened by the Back Forty Mine, as do other Tribal Nations in the opposition of metallic mineral mining, such as the Lynne Mine, which threatens other treaty rights. Our tribal collaboration is a perfect example of the commitment of our brothers and sisters to preserve and protect our environment for future generations.” Protecting high-quality environmental resources and repairing damage is not a political policy, it is a responsibility, he said.
Hill expressed his concern for the effects of global warming.
“As a result of global warming and its effect on the environment, we could lose essential hunting, fishing, and gathering cultural practices which also affects our treaty rights. Heavy rainstorms are more frequent and they increase the risk of flooding which means more pollutants running from land to water,” he said. “Increased pollutant runoff potentially causes development of more algal blooms, that are already more likely due to increased water temperatures. Algal blooms are unsightly, harm fish, and degrade water quality by creating “dead zones” in our life-sustaining waters.”
He said that shorter and warmer winters threaten Wisconsin tourism for winter recreation like ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing, and snowboarding, which many of people to the north rely upon to support their communities. In 2007, Wisconsin created “The Global Warming Task Force” with a goal to make Wisconsin a leader in the implementation of solutions to address climate change which is a real national emergency. “Now is the time for Wisconsin to confront the threat as a national leader,” Hill said. “I call on Wisconsin to work with our tribal communities to breathe new life into The Global Warming Task Force – our existence as we know it relies upon our action.”
Hill spoke about his concern for CWD, which is an unprecedented threat to Wisconsin’s deer population.
“Native communities rely on deer as a cultural food source, but the deer population is important as sustenance, both nutritionally and economically, for all of Wisconsin. Further, tourism officials indicate hunting is a one billion dollar industry in Wisconsin,” he said.
He suggested a four-fold approach to the CWD threat. He recommended the state require more responsible deer farming practices; to require proper disposal and treatment of infected deer and carcasses; to provide fast and free testing of all harvested animals, and to provide greater investment in additional research related to CWD. Hill addressed the health disparities of the people through a discussion on healthcare, substance abuse, and adequate and affordable housing. Wisconsin Tribal Nations face a disproportionate amount of health disparities when compared to the general public. Data collected by the National Indian Health Board demonstrates Indians in Wisconsin have nearly twice the rate of health disparities than all other races.
“Wisconsin Tribal Nations continue to strongly support full Medicaid Expansion in the State,” Hill said. “Moving to full Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for an estimated additional 5,700 Tribal citizens in the State. This would result in an additional $38 million in federal health care resources coming into the Indian health system – all at minimal to no cost to the State of Wisconsin.”
The opioid epidemic represents one of the greatest public health threats in the modern era – having devastating impacts on all communities and families throughout the entire country, Hill said. Nationally, the drug overdose death rate of American Indians and Alaska Natives has exceeded the general population every year since 2001. In 2017, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths of any race in Wisconsin at almost three times the rate of the general population.
Substance abuse is often an attempt to avoid painful feelings through self-medication so it should be no surprise the opioid crisis has roots in historical and intergenerational trauma for our community. Tribal communities, social workers, psychologists, and many other professionals recognize how historical trauma has far-reaching effects across generations as it can negatively impact emotional, social, physical, and spiritual well-being.
“We are grateful the State of Wisconsin, along with our federal and local partners, are assisting in current efforts to address this crisis,” he said. “One crucial component is the Native American Drug and Gang Initiative, also known as NADGI.”
NADGI is one of the first law enforcement initiatives focused entirely on Native American communities and specific threats to respond to illegal drug distribution, criminal gang activities and all associated crime and victimization.
“Many of our tribal communities have created Tribal Action Plans to work towards comprehensive prevention and treatment programs for alcoholism and other substance abuse,” Hill said. For the inpatient treatments that do exist, many fail to incorporate the native cultures into the healing process.
“We learned in analyzing our AODA treatment data that our people are more successful in treatment when cultural healing is incorporated and we must translate what we have learned to this epidemic,” he said. “I am pleased to say Wisconsin’s Tribal Nations, through the Great Lakes Intertribal Council, are pursuing the development of an inpatient adolescent treatment facility. We thank the State of Wisconsin for its support of and contribution to this endeavor in the last biennium budget.”
Hill addressed the lack of affordable housing in native communities.
“While I acknowledge the majority of tribal housing resources are provided through the federal government, there is work to be done in Wisconsin through grant offerings and other incentives to make housing development more affordable,” he said. “I am asking the state to help us to provide homes for our families.”
His two final topics — women and children — are the heart of homes and their future legacy, he said. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic (MMIW) is an issue currently affecting Indigenous people in Canada and the United States and the threat to the ICWA working its way through The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit are two issues specific to the Native Communities of national importance. MMIW is devastating to Native American communities across all of North America, he said.
According to research funded by the Department of Justice, Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at an extremely high rate — in some communities, more than 10 times the national average. In many communities, jurisdictional and enforcement gaps play a large role in allowing these violent crimes to go unpunished. In Wisconsin, Public Law 280 criminal law applies to reservations, with the exception of the Menominee Nation. Therefore, Wisconsin tribes do not share as many of the same jurisdictional challenges, he said.
“Violence against women not only destroys families, it means time away from work and the development of related healthcare issues, such as substance abuse. Further, a threat against our women is a threat against our children and future generations,” he said. “I call on the State of Wisconsin to work with our tribal communities to do better for our life-givers.”
This can be done through increased funding for women’s programs, including but not limited to programs for identifying sex trafficking, teaching self-defense, providing trauma-informed care, and housing and transportation for domestic abuse victims, he said. ICWA is currently under attack in the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit where it is alleged to be unconstitutional. The law was passed in 1978 and aimed to counteract generations of policies that separated Native American children from their communities. A finding that ICWA is unconstitutional would have far-reaching implications on Native American children and families. An unconstitutional decision could also have sweeping consequences overall Indian law that governs the relationship between Tribal Nations and the federal government.
“Today, I thank the State of Wisconsin for standing with native children and families,” he said.
In closing, Hill stressed working together for solutions affecting Native Americans.
“To my fellow leaders of tribal nations — We must all work to embrace our ways, old and new— Being mindful of the past and hopeful for the future. It is only then, we will be able to foster better communication and understanding— across the aisle, across the state, and across our communities.
“We are better when we stand together. I have a final call to this team. May we continue to work toward a shared vision and goals. May we continue to move the State of Wisconsin forward — together. May we keep a good mind, a good heart, and a strong fire when faced with challenges along the way. “Nurture the fire within yourselves. Encourage the fire in all others.”