by Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner
The annual State of the Tribes address was held in the Capitol Tuesday, a two-decades-long tradition that provides Wisconsin’s indigenous communities with a special platform in the Legislature. Elected members of the state Assembly and Senate attended the address, which was delivered by Robert VanZile, chairman of the Sokaogon Chippewa community in the town of Nashville, nestled in Forest County.
“About 500 tribal members live on reservation,” in his community, said VanZile, noting that the area is near Rice Lake and Mole Lake. “And an additional 1,000 members live off the reservation.” There are 11 distinct tribal communities across Wisconsin, all of whom are represented in the State of the Tribes address. Many of those community members gathered in the Capitol on Tuesday, joining in traditional prayers and welcoming elected officials. A young Chippewa boy, Alexander VanZile Jr., dressed in traditional clothing stood at the speaker’s podium and led the room in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Preserving their culture and ancestral lands are goals shared among indigenous communities. “This administration has recognized and reinforced the treaty rights that our ancestors sacrificed blood, property and even their lives to ensure further security for Native people,” said VanZile. “Your efforts have reminded people across the state of our rights to hunt, fish and gather. These rights apply not only on our reservations, but across millions of acres of ceded territory.”
Those acres, VanZile noted, “were entrusted to the United States by the ancestors in exchange for our treaty rights.” Over time, Wisconsin’s tribal communities have faced challenges and tribulations which diminished their populations. VanZile also said that many tribal members still encounter bigotry in the form of physical, and verbal abuse but that this hasn’t reduced pride within indigenous communities.
“Our existence is reflective of our resilience,” said VanZile, who stressed that Native communities work to ensure the security and health of those around them. “Tribal nations provide regional economic, cultural, social and natural resources investments benefiting all people,” he said. “Tribal members are both U.S. citizens and members of their own sovereign nations.” The chairman pointed out that Native Americans serve in the armed forces at some of the highest rates of any group. This includes Native American women. “We cherish tradition,” said VanZile. “We take pride in our tribal nations, and we love our country.”
The chairman hopes that cooperation and loyalty will be returned by the state. VanZile urged legislators who are involved in the budget process to keep engaging with the tribes.
A tapestry of challenges for tribal communities
VanZile outlined numerous issues confronting tribal communities across Wisconsin. Health care access is a top concernMany tribal members live a long distance away from the nearest hospital. Tribal communities also find it difficult to offer competitive pay to doctors and other medical staff. Law enforcement is in a similar situation, with officers leaving for higher-paying jobs in nearby counties. VanZile called on the legislature to join the tribes in accepting the federal expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to fund health care on tribal lands.
Mental health support is also in short supply and is tied to other issues including lack of housing, substance use disorders and lack of employment. VanZile highlighted the work of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes, which all contributed funding towards a mental health facility for youth. Still, more support is needed, and the chairman hopes it can come from the Legislature.
Illegal gaming is also at the top of the chairman’s mind. VanZile noted that tribes were promised exclusive gaming rights in Wisconsin. He also pointed to the revenue losses the state experiences through illegal gaming, including tavern gaming machines. Gov. Tony Evers has proposed tribal gaming grants, but those were stripped from the last budget. VanZile hopes that a newly proposed $15 million in gaming funds will be approved this time around.
Environmental issues also featured prominently in the address. “We continue to be presented with false choices,” said VanZile. “We do not need to choose between having economic prosperity and breathing clean air, clean drinking water and cultivating uncontaminated land.” He paused after that line to allow the applause to die down. “Practical environmental policies and protection create sustainable economic progress and encourage innovation that supports a better tomorrow,” he continued. “Without a healthy environment, much like a healthy body, everything else is meaningless.”
VanZile shared his vision of an interconnected world. “What you see is a world that is slowly poisoning itself,” he said, addressing Wisconsin’s growing problem with contamination by PFAS (per and polyfluroalkyl substances) that have been linked to chronic diseases including cancers, birth defects, high cholesterol, and thyroid disorders.
Tribal communities work with the Department of Natural Resources to help raise stock fish and resupply lakes. Fishing is important to tribal communities and has been praised as a statewide tradition. VanZile wondered what would happen if the water wasn’t clean enough for the fish to survive. He also stressed that increasing numbers of fish are contaminated with PFAS and other chemicals and can’t be consumed. VanZile implored action to protect water and the environment, noting that the state’s tourism and outdoors industry depends on it.
VanZile also took on the Enbridge oil company, and its controversial Line 5 pipeline. In November, a federal judge ordered the company to meet with the Bad River Band to discuss ways of mitigating dangers associated with the pipeline. VanZile said that in its history, the pipeline has had 29 spills which have released over a million gallons of oil into the environment. “Why do we allow systematic slow poisoning of our resources?” he asked.
Although legal action has rerouted the pipeline away from the Bad River Band’s reservation, problems persist. VanZile called on the state government to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline’s rerouted path. He also called for more attention to be paid to mining activity, demand for which has been increasing in recent years.
Moving on to other forms of violence against tribal communities, VanZile called for support in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. The Legislature does have a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force, which recommends policy and offers affected citizens a platform to share their experiences.
The removal of school mascots depicting Native Americans is also something the chairman hopes the Legislature will address. VanZile suggested that tribal communities could work with the state to help raise funds for schools that can’t afford financially to replace their mascots.
VanZile stressed that it’s important for the state to maintain its relationship with the tribes. “Tribes have a unique relationship and a long history of interacting with the federal government,” he said. “But the reality is that we are much closer neighbors to the state.”
This story was written by Isiah Holmes, a reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.