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State of the Tribes address takes bold stance on range of issues

From climate change to voting rights to de-colonizing Native American education

By Isiah Holmes

Wisconsin Examiner

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A message of peace, unity, ecological preservation and the acknowledgment of a painful history was conveyed through the 2022 State of the Tribes address. Held in the Capitol prior to the Assembly floor session on Tuesday, the annual address began with an invocation and remarks by Sokagon Chippewa community Chairman Robert Van Zile. Speaking both in English and his native language, Zile honored indigenous veterans, and called for calm in Ukraine, where tensions are growing over a potential Russian invasion. Thereafter Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, rose to deliver the formal State of the Tribes address.


Holsey described the address as “an opportunity to examine the current state of our union, and how we can collectively forge a better nation by examining the self and moving forward through triumphs, tragedies of the violence and the inequities involved in continuous evolution of forging a better union, educational foundation, environment and healthy state of mind.” Recalling some of the many lessons her elders imparted to her, Holsey said, “I was taught that we are not given a good life or a bad life. We are given a life, and it is up to us to make it good or bad.”


She paid particular respect to indigenous youth, “at a time when the nation’s dialogue about identity [is] more divisive than ever.” The Stockbridge-Munsee Band president praised indigenous youth for “using the strength of their cultures to come together and reach out to others and mobilize towards meaningful community change.” For Holsey, youth movements represent a legacy held by Wisconsin tribes, “in the story of how indigenous peoples transformed themselves from anthropological curiosities into politically influential voices on both domestic and global issues, in one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in history.”


Holsey’s address took an upfront, vocal approach as it cruised through numerous topics affecting indigenous communities. “As we struggle with [the] COVID-19 pandemic and economic revitalization, indigenous communities are no longer content to wait for others to make decisions for us,” she stressed. “These days are gone.” Lessons can be learned from how tribes responded to the pandemic, she said. Holsey declared that many of the 1.5 million American lives lost due to the pandemic were “unnecessary due to the politicization and failure to take seriously the worst global health crisis in over a century.” She noted that “tribal nations chose a different path.”


Drawing on a history of contending with epidemics, Holsey described some of those strategies. “We moved quickly to organize task forces, coordinate a rapid response through clinics, epidemiologists, law enforcement, housing and other departments to create plans for our employees, citizens and communities to remain safe during necessary shutdowns and until a vaccine could be developed.” Tribal communities also coordinated with the National Guard to fill shortages in testing and vaccine clinics.“Because in our small tribal communities, the loss of any citizen is too high of a price. And losing an elder, as it’s been described, is like a library burning down, and with it the loss of our culture, our traditions, and teachings soon also go with that.”


The pandemic wasn’t the only thing weighing heavily on the president’s mind. “The conversation of our democracy is also at stake,” said Holsey, “for almost three years in which our nation has endured a global pandemic, economic hardship and a contentious election, now is not the time to further inflame division.” She spoke of “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.” That force, Holsey said, would “destroy our country.” “But while democracy can be temporarily delayed, it can never be permanently defeated,” she said.


Her comments alluded to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as well as to recent legislative and legal efforts to restrict voting access. Highlighting that Native Americans weren’t given the right to vote until 1924, Holsey decried efforts to weaken voting rights. “Legislation suppressing the right to vote purports to be neutral,” said Holsey, “however, in many instances it undermines the basic right to participate in our democracy. The loss of the right to vote is the loss of the voice in the democratic process.”


She also called for the honoring and protection of Wisconsin’s natural resources, particularly the Great Lakes. “Respecting and caring for the Great Lakes is an inherent responsibility passed on for generations,” said Holsey. “Food impacts all parts of our daily life. It isn’t about feeling full and satisfied. It’s also about feeling connected to community, and belonging.” The president underscored tribal food sovereignty initiatives, which promote indigenous health with foods grown locally to meet indigenous needs. She praised agricultural programs that now include more indigenous input on how to transform the food system. Holsey called for building new revenue streams for farmers, and “historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural areas, and committing to equity by removing systematic barriers and building a workforce more representative of a diverse Wisconsin.”


In that light, Holsey emphasized the “continued threats of climate change, pipelines and extractive mining.” Holsey called the environmental reviews done for the Enbridge Line 5 reroute “inadequate,” stating, “it does great injustice to frontline tribal communities.” Earlier this month, the Department of Natural Resources public hearing on the project lasted 10 hours, and drew 140 people who spoke out against the pipeline. “The pipeline crosses over 280 rivers and streams that flow indirectly into the Great Lakes waters that supply drinking water to over 40 million people,” Holsey said. While the reroute avoided the Bad River Band’s reservation, it still goes through the Bad River watershed.


Climate change also remains a pressing issue for indigenous communities, she said. “Failing to act quickly, and leaving the climate crisis to manifest unchecked will continue to wreak havoc in Wisconsin and across the nation,” said Holsey. “Wisconsin’s climate is changing. These changes affect the stability of Wisconsin’s economic sectors, as well as human health and safety. Immediate action is necessary, that also includes our continued protection of our relative, the wolf.”


Wolves are of significant spiritual value to many native tribes. During controversial wolf hunts last February, tribal communities in Wisconsin opted to not hunt the wolves allocated to them by a quota set by the state. Hunters outside of those zones exceeded the quota with significant losses the wolf population.


“We have to ask ourselves what kind of Earth we are giving our children and grandchildren,” said Holsey. She spoke of the rights of nature, which are often associated with human rights such as to clean and healthy environments. “The rights of nature law recognizes that an ecosystem has the right to exist, flourish, regenerate in its vital cycles and naturally evolve without human-caused disruption.”


Shifting gears, the tribal president directly condemned efforts to quell the teaching of certain parts of American history in schools. Republican officials in Wisconsin have put forward bills to protect conservative speech and to ban so-called “critical race theory” from college campuses. These bills, which passed the Assembly Tuesday, cast the teaching of systemic racism in American history as un-American and unnecessarily unsettling to some students.


Holsey admitted that Native American history is a difficult history to tell. “The policies of the United States including genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced removals, and brutal assimilationist polices have significantly impacted our communities to this day,” said Holsey. “But our discomfort in sharing this painful collective history pales in comparison to the lived experience that so many native people endured in the past 530 years.” While true reconciliation for those crimes remains elusive, Holsey stressed the importance of teaching a balanced account of U.S. history which accurately incorporates Native American culture.


Holsey denounced legislation in Wisconsin which would ban the teaching of that history in classes. “American Indians are not a people of the past,” she said. She called for more teaching and sensitivity to native culture. Holsey highlighted efforts to remove derogatory depictions of native people from sports culture The public demeaning of Native Americans, she said, contributes to high rates of suicide among indigenous youth nationwide. “Words and images do matter,” Holsey stressed. She decried “acts of the Western patriarchal violence,” and pressed to “de-colonize racist educational curriculum, practices, and mascots.”


It was just one of several points during the address where applause from the GOP side of the hall fell entirely silent. Holsey wasn’t dissuaded, however, by the stoney lack of applause by Republican legislators. She went on to call for continued support for overdose and addiction-prevention efforts, and support for K-12 education. Holsey excitedly noted that the tribes are close to opening a culturally appropriate adolescent treatment center. Completing the project, however, will take further support from the state government. She stressed the importance of tackling mental health needs, especially of indigenous youth. Holsey also praised tribal housing support services, highlighted the need to support tribal economic growth including the tourism industry and called for broadband expansion for rural and tribal communities.


As her address wrapped up, Holsey invoked the resilience, spirit and struggle of native peoples. “Once thought of as remnants of humans past that disappeared in the fog of history, indigenous peoples and their ancient wisdom are more relevant than ever,” she said. “And against all odds, we are still here today.”