Former Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw

Former Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw offered a perspective on people’s inaccurate conceptions of Native Americans, the need to protect the state natural resources, the need for recognition of tribal IDs, and charter school education.

Besaw offered these views at the annual State of the Tribes address on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

“We hope to use this opportunity to bring our communities and great state closer. We may not think of ourselves as neighbors, brothers, and sisters today, but just think back to a tragedy that had befallen America or Wisconsin. Let’s remember the days after not the 9/11 tragedy,” Besaw said.

“We were able to show for a few fleeting days and weeks, the beautiful unity of our strength and togetherness that is inside of us. My relatives, we truly are related and on the same team, but sometimes we don’t realize it without that common cause,” he said.

Besaw said that he is an educator, having taught as a K–12 teacher, a vice principal, a principal, a curriculum director, a superintendent, and a vice principal and dean of student services in a college.

“Demographically we are a minority and face many of the challenges of other minorities living in a majority society, but we are not simply a minority group like others. We are different. Native Americans have special interests and perspectives in the issues we all face. But we are not simply another special interest group. We are different,” he said.

Native Americans are citizens of their own nations, as well as citizens of Wisconsin and citizens of the United States – nations that existed long before there was a United States of America or a state of Wisconsin, he said. There are 11 nations in the state of Wisconsin and are about 567 nations in the United States.

Many people don’t understand that Native Americans are present in society today and contribute to the advancement of all people, he said.

His daughter Kara attends UW-Madison and was recently given a test about Native Americans. Some of the true or false questions were like, “Native Americans in the state don’t pay taxes,” “Native Americans have a genetic disposition to being alcoholics, “the Native Americans in Wisconsin are one big tribe.”

“We are disappointed because nothing has changed. I had a class here at the UW in the 1990s and was asked to critically review all native references in the then-current mainstream social studies text. What I found was over 90 percent of the references to us were only in the past tense like they were teaching about ancient Greeks or Romans,” he said.

“So you can see yet another reason why we ask that race-based mascots be removed from our public schools. Not only are they hurtful to our children, a propagate the stereotypes our children must live with every day,” Besaw said.

Back in the 1990s, Besaw had a textbook review that had things like, “Native Americans lived at one time in Wisconsin.” “Native Americans had contributed greatly.” “Native Americans once were great warriors.”

“Well, I’m here to say we are not past tense references. We are still here today,” he said.

Native Americans probably have the highest rate of service of any race, and Menominee County, which shares the most coterminous exterior boundaries with Menominee reservation, is listed percentage-wise as one of the top counties in the entire United States, he said. Wisconsin has the honor of hosting three tribes as code talker units: Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida.

“Most of our languages do not have English equivalents, like for the word “please.” It denotes good manners today but in our teachings if you were asked to do something, it was expected you would do it if you could. No need to beg,” he said.

“The Menominee, and I’m sure other nations, do not have a word for natural resources. To us, everything is alive and is to be respected. To call these living things natural resources needs to commodify them, to demean them, to think about them just as objects for man to use and gain wealth from,” Besaw said.

“No. Our elders taught us different. Now we know that we are a part of a bigger industrial world and were not Luddites,” Besaw said. “We know society must use resources today, but we tried to do that in a more sustainable way. We just see the world differently.”

Besaw offered some successes accomplished this past year.

The first success is Wisconsin has been a leader in model in the development of a state-tribal consultation policy. It is based on Executive Order 39, which was signed in 2004 and continues to be honored by the current administration. It provides a forum for the executive Cabinet agencies to consult with the Native American nations.

“Our second success is with the special committee on state-tribal relations. As you know, this joint legislative counsel serves to provide the legislature with legal advice, guidance, and research on tough issues and to recommend solutions,” Besaw said.

The study committee is a rather progressive legislative form designed to provide tribal nations input into developing legislation or developing recommendations on specific issues that impact tribal nations.

On another subject, Besaw addressed the need to recognize tribal IDs for legal functions.

“Each tribal citizen today holds a tribal – issued photo identification card that is recognized by the federal government. A proposed bill, which you will be voting on later today in the assembly, will allow tribal members to use their tribal IDs for certain similar purposes to that of a Wisconsin drivers license – things like picking up prescription medications at pharmacies, using it for registering to vote, and using it for alcohol or cigarettes purchases,” he said.

Besaw also recommended passage of the TAD bill, or treatment and divergent grants. This bill will clarify that tribes are eligible for TAD grants, even though we know that tribal eligibility has already been recognized.

“The Indian burial mounds bill is something tribes have been working with the legislature on during the past two years. It’s an issue very important to tribes in Wisconsin. AB – 118 is the product of many months of work by another study committee, the study committee on preservation of burial mounds. The committee membership included the tribal historic preservation officers from Menominee and Ho-Chunk,” he said.

A new law that was not initiated by a study committee, but is important to tribes is Act 100, or the hemp bill. Under Act 100, DATCP is mandated to, and is currently finalizing, administrative rules that may allow for planting of hemp crops as early as this spring, he said.

In the last state budget, funding for a tribal adolescent treatment center was discussed.

“We are not walking alone in this effort to fight the alcohol and drug abuse crisis in our communities. Whether tribal community or small-town Wisconsin, or big-city Wisconsin, we know that drugs know no boundaries,” Besaw said. “The state budget included $200,000 for a feasibility plan for a tribal Nations adolescent treatment and wellness center, one centrally located, shared center.”

On another issue is Act 31.

“You will hear us refer to Act 31 as it relates to public school education regarding our 11 tribal nations. The tribal nations are developing recommendations to strengthen Act 31 without adding on to extra work for teachers in public schools. We hope to have legislation ready for the next session to address the history, culture, sovereignty, and treaty rights of the 11 tribal nations,” Besaw said.

“Remember, an educated child is a child ready to contribute to a just society, to compete with or grow the economy with their neighbors. These amendments provide the tools to do that. The Wisconsin Indian education Association, a group of volunteer professionals from across the state, are working hard on these improvements,” he said.

Besaw thanked the legislators for their support in 2015 when they expanded charter school authorization to the two tribal colleges in the state colleges of the Menominee Nation and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, to sponsor up to six total charter schools between them.

The tribal colleges have been approached about planning for potential requests for charter schools with many different themes, all aimed at improving cultural identity and improving the quality of education, he said.

“Menominee is piloting a daycare birth to two language immersion classroom as we develop more adult speakers to be teachers. Other tribal immersion schools today include a kindergarten through grade seven school in Lac Courte Oreilles, Ho-Chunk Immersion Daycare, and Lac Du Flambeau Headstart Immersion,” he said.

Safe Haven bill amendments, AB 113 is the biggest disappointment with bills recommended by the special committee on state-tribal relations, he said. They have worked diligently to improve the Safe Haven law to ensure that Wisconsin’s Safe Haven law maintains anonymity, but is consistent with the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act or WICWA and the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

The growing drug epidemic is creating real problems within the tribes, something that needs more effort and help.

“We asked the legislature to help us by providing assistance and cooperation in our tribal action plan efforts to combat drug abuse in our shared communities. Many of our tribal action plans use trauma-informed care as a component of these plants. We are seeing preliminary good results from these efforts,” he said.

Besaw is concerned that the animals, plants, soil and waterways also need some attention.

“Closely related to our health, is environmental health. This is part of the reason, I believe, that Menominee was requested to provide this speech. The two-legged, four-legged, finned, winged, and the plants, are all our relatives. We are all related.” he said.

“When I first was voted onto our tribal legislature, several of my aunts and uncles took me aside, and reminded me of my responsibilities. I was told when I vote that I am to remember that I’m not just voting for humans, and also voting for all those who cannot vote. The deer can’t raise a hoof and say ‘Vote respectfully, Mr. Chairman, I vote no on this item.’ No fish or bird or otherwise can vote directly either. It is through our vote that we consider their welfare and vote for what is in the negotiated best choice for us all,” he said.

“Further, we are told we have a compact of sorts, or an agreement, that we made way back when humans and animals could still communicate. That compact was that we humans could harvest these animals and fish and other beings, but only take what we needed for us and for our young to survive, and we would, in turn, help protect the survival of their homelands and their young – a trade-off, a compact,” he said.

Besaw said that the DNR and DATCP need to provide strong protections for the wild herds of deer in Wisconsin from Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). One of the major concerns is the inadequacy of game farm regulation.

“But the question comes next, what about stricter actions after we get CWD positives? The Ojibwa enjoy court affirmed treaty hunting, fishing and gathering rates in the northern one-third of Wisconsin and other tribes enjoy those same rights on our trust lands. Our treaties, signed for ceding this beautiful land, allows for certain rights forever and the lack of an aggressive common sense prevention and intervention plan regarding stopping CWD puts our court affirmed treaty rights, as well as the Wisconsin publics tourism and hunting, in peril,” Besaw said.

Next was his perspective on mining. He said certain types of mining, as such as gravel mines, seemed okay. When the mining moratorium law was passed in 1998, it included a common-sense provision that any metallic sulfide mining attempts in Wisconsin must first prove that the same type of mining it was operated for 10 years and then closed for 10 years and there was no environmental degradation or pollution emanating from it.

“So basically, when technology caught up with mining and could prove it could happen and what hurt us or our environment, Wisconsin would agree to monitor it and allow it. But this year the mining moratorium law was repealed. This reversal of much of the protections of the law goes against all knowledge and common sense,” he said.

“We aren’t allowed, ethically, to put our future babies’ world at high risk. We must look at alternatives such as recycling or no mines near water. “We are no one’s enemies when we oppose this law change and still do believe it was a mistake and should be amended,” he said.

He has the same concerns over reducing state regulations over certain types of wetlands and has concerns over altering the balance of wildlife by removing the alpha predators, the wolves, from their rightful role in keeping the balance.

“Finally, we are disappointed at our states in actions regarding the potential permitting of the Aquila Back 40 open pit sulfide mine along the Menominee River in Menominee County, Michigan. Because this is an interstate, inter-commerce boundary waterway, we believe the federal government mistakenly is giving regulatory authority to the state of Michigan. The state of Wisconsin seems to have given away the concerns of its citizens to either another state. The waters of this interstate dictate mandatory federal authority,” he said.

Last month, the Menominee tribe sued the federal government over an open-pit mine, which would be located close to the Menominee River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Besaw said Wisconsin tribes are disappointed in Wisconsin’s inaction regarding the potential permit, as well as the repeal of Wisconsin’s so-called “mining moratorium” law.

For the Menominee, construction of the mine means desecration and destruction of burial mounds, graves, and sacred sites, along an extended ancient village setting.

“We urge our legislators and agencies to heed a warning. If allowed, this open pit sulfide mine, located just 50 yards from the Menominee River, will put, either now or by accident, toxic sulfuric acid into the groundwater that will pollute the Menominee River, Green Bay, and Lake Michigan. Wisconsin homes and businesses in tourism along the river and lake shore will be harmed. Would you sit back if a risky action were being taken on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River or the St. Croix River that could impact your Wisconsin district? Would you sit back if Lake Superior were threatened by some action again in Minnesota or in Ontario, Canada?”

When the state legislature reconvenes for its 2019–2020 session, he hopes they will reconsider this and other environmental concerns, he said.

“It’s a hope. My relatives were told this path we walk is hard, and, as humans, we are not alone. We should see ourselves as strands in this beautiful environment here for a fleeting minute, and join in it, not put it at risk,” Besaw said.

“We just must see the world differently. As tribal leaders, we have inherited different non-negotiable responsibilities to our great-grandchildren. It’s how we lived on this land for almost 15,000 years. Seven generations ago, my ancestors believed in this rule and here I stand, benefiting from their sacrifice and wisdom. If every generation follows this rule, we are guaranteed a good world forever,” he said.

“So the tribal nations invite you to visit our lands to learn about our businesses, our laws and our cultures,” Besaw said.

In reaching out to everyone, he quoted Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, elder Sitting Bull, who lived from 1831–1890.

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”