2012 State of the Tribes

Leaders of the Wisconsin Indian Tribes. From Left: Stewart Bearhart, (St. Croix) Bob Chicks, (Stockbridge-Munsee) Ed Delgago, (Oneida) Craig Corn, (Menominee) Mike Wiggins, (Bad River Ojibwe) Mic Isham, (Great Lake Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission) Front: Tom Maulson (Lac du Flambeau) and Harold "Gus" Frank, (Forest County Potawatomi)
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Although I grew up in Wisconsin, I knew very little about the American Indian population here until I started the fellowship and was placed part time with the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center (GLITEC), based in Lac du Flambeau. GLITEC is an Indian Health Service-funded data center serving the 34 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Eleven of those tribes are in Wisconsin – Oneida, Forest County Potawatomi, Stockbridge Munsee, Menominee, Ho-Chunk, and six bands of Ojibwe, including St Croix, Red Cliff, Lac Courte Oreilles, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Mole Lake Sokaogon. The population of each tribe ranges from roughly 1,000 to 20,000 members. Each tribe is a sovereign nation and has a government-to-government relationship with the State.  Each tribe has a legislature and a chair or president elected every 1-4 years.

Since 2005, all 11 tribes have come together to deliver an annual State of the Tribes address before the Wisconsin State Legislature. I was fortunate enough to attend the 2012 State of the Tribes on March 13, 2012. It began with drumming and an outside procession. This was followed by an unofficial smoke break, thanks to the tobacco industry and religious restrictions that made commercial tobacco more common than traditional tobacco in Indian Country.  The formal ceremony then took place in the Assembly Chamber. One tribal leader is selected each year to deliver a speech on behalf of all tribes. This year, Jon Greendeer, President of the Ho-Chunk Nation, based in Black River Falls, delivered the speech. Some of the issues he highlighted included:
  • Caring for veterans and returned soldiers;
  • Being stewards of the land for future generations and protecting against environmental contaminants;
  • Tribal governments are often the largest employers in their area and help balance the state budget through gaming tax revenue, employee taxes, and buying power;
  • With budget cuts, tribal communities are often the first to feel the effects, especially those physical and mental health concerns;
  • The importance of education in alleviating poverty; and
  • The need for adequate access to health care
President Greendeer noted the shift in diet among many American Indians to high fat and high sugar foods and shared that he was able to lose 140 pounds thanks to effective health programs. New initiatives like the Indigenous Games, the Community Transformation Grant, and Let’s Move! in Indian Country help to address this, too.
Greendeer also mentioned Act 31, a state law that passed in 1989 to ensure that Wisconsin students learn about American Indian history. This is a small but important step in increasing awareness of the diverse but often hidden cultures in Wisconsin. The State of the Tribes was a good reminder for me that even as an adult, there is always something new to learn. I look forward to continuing my learning this summer, as I prepare to move from Madison to Lac du Flambeau for a few months to work with GLITEC full time.