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State of the Tribes Delivered by Potawatomi Chairman

Isiah Holmes

Wisconsin Examiner

Crawford delivers the State of the Tribes. Photo by Baylor Spears/Wisconsin Examiner.

“Hello to all my relatives,” said Forest County Potawatomi Chairman James Crawford, whose Native name means “Thunderbird that watches over and protects us,” as he greeted the audience assembled for Thursday’s State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin Legislature. “It’s an honor, and a privilege to be speaking before you today,” said Crawford, thanking Gov. Tony Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and other elected leaders.

Strengthening the cooperative relationship between the state and the tribal communities was the theme of  Crawford’s address. “Opportunities like this to give you a better understanding of tribal people and cultures is appreciated by all of us,” said Crawford, who opened with remarks speaking in the Potawatomi language. Wisconsin has 11 tribal communities. Among those attending the address Thursday  were leaders from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Lac de Flambeau Chippewa Indians, Oneida Nation, Ho Chunk Nation, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Stockbridge Munsee, and Menominee Indians, and others.

While he celebrated collaboration between the tribes and state government, Crawford also  emphasized the importance of tribal sovereignty. “Tribes have been governing how their own people live, act and rule for countless generations,” he said. “And each tribe in Wisconsin is its own sovereign nation, and has its own distinct challenges and opportunities. Tribal sovereignty is not something we have been ‘granted,’ but is something that we have always inherently held. This inherent sovereignty is what tribes continuously work to preserve, protect and enhance for our future generations.”

Each tribe, Crawford stressed, has its own unique history, story, and cultural identity. “For the Potowatomi,” said Crawford, “the remembrance of our ancestors and the ties to our treaty lands is especially important. While the Forest County Potowatomi have reservation lands in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, that is not our treaty land. Like the other tribes in Wisconsin, the Potawatomi were forced off their lands. The Potowatomi’s home in Wisconsin stretched south from Potawatomi Lighthouse in the Potowatomi State Park in Door County, along Lake Michigan through Milwaukee, and just west to Walworth County near Big Foot Beach State Park, which is named after Chief Big Foot.”

Many cities including Kenosha, Muskego, Waukesha, Sheboygan, and Manitowoc have names derived from the Potawatomi language, he added. “So when the Potowatomi talk about ‘our home,’ that is what we mean,” said Crawford.

“Despite our differences,” he added, “Wisconsin’s tribes and our state leaders can and must continue to collaborate and work together for the greater good.”

Crawford celebrated several policy achievements that were products of collaboration. He pointed to federal medical reimbursements totaling more than $60 million, calling them the most significant financial gain for the tribes since the advent of tribal gaming. He also praised a program that ensures that tribal elders have access to traditional foods including bison, fish, corn, squash, wild rice and white corn flour. Crawford said that $3 million in gaming funds were allocated to the state budget to continue this program across all of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes.

Crawford praised the passage of bipartisan bills aimed at expanding housing access for working families, which have helped tribal communities struggling with a lack of affordable housing and difficulties recruiting skilled labor. He noted that tribes are often the largest employers in the counties where they are located. He praised Evers along with Republican l Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Born (R- Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) for passing the affordable housing bill and for a  tuition reimbursement program for pharmacy school graduates in rural communities, including those run by tribes.

Crawford also extolled  the work done by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. “In tribal communities all across Wisconsin, including right here in Wisconsin, Native women and girls are being exploited, trafficked, and subjected to violence at disproportionately high rates,” he said.

“I have provided just a glimpse of the positive ways that you have worked with Wisconsin’s tribes,” said Crawford. “And while we have been able to do some positive things together, there is still much more that needs to be done. There are still issues lingering that are too important to ignore. So we need to continue to have a dialogue to find solutions. And while these problems are difficult, we appreciate the efforts you have already undertaken to address some of these important issues, like foster care and adoption.” Crawford —  who, with his wife has fostered five children over the last 12 years — thanked the Legislature for passing a law  that provides support for Wisconsin’s Kinship Caregivers program. “Because of this legislation, children will be able to be placed more easily with those who already know and love them,” said Crawford, “and who they know and love in return. And those caregivers will receive needed financial support.”

Crawford urged the Legislature to continue its work with the tribes.

In closing, he pondered the challenge of  delivering a “State of the Tribes address” when each tribal community is a unique, sovereign nation. “We have our own languages, our own governments, our own wants and needs,” said Crawford. “In many ways, we find common ground and can work together for a common goal. In other instances, we have an individual purpose that is only relevant to our nation. And there are times when goals and circumstances cause us to be at odds with one another. Yet, through our differences, we share with one another in our powwows, and our traditions where we feast together. We bring our drums and sing and dance together. Republicans, Democrats, I ask that you don’t forget to find the time to set aside your differences and to not be afraid to reach across the aisle and take purposeful time to feast together. To dance together. And to sing together.”


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