In the 17th annual State of the Tribes Address yesterday at the Wisconsin State Capitol, Lac de Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa President John D. Johnson addressed issues among Indigenous communities in Wisconsin, including how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Indigenous communities, where vulnerable people are suffering including elders and those susceptible to health conditions.
“We cherish our elders and care for our community members,” Johnson said. “As you will hear in this address, our communities reflect the culture of taking care of each other.”
Johnson spoke about the serious health crisis of opioids exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It’s an increase of drug overdoses during the pandemic,” Johnson said. “Fentanyl and meth remain an issue that impacts our entire region. Drugs are killing people in northern Wisconsin and across the country. Drugs don’t discriminate.”
Johnson talked about some of the negative stereotypes about Indigenous people, including those related to their casino businesses. Casinos operated and owned by Native people allow them to generate revenue. This is contrary to what is commonly said about their businesses and Johnson talked about the importance of being able to generate revenue within their communities.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about tribes involves the impact the Casino has on the health and wealth of the tribe,” said Johnson. “Tribes do not have a traditional tax base to generate government revenue.”
Indigenous communities in Wisconsin survive by using profits from their businesses to support them and the people around them. They fund the services and resources their community needs. The money from these businesses benefits Indigenous communities and those who live in surrounding cities in Wisconsin.
“But most people fail to realize casino revenue supports much of the tribe’s government services,” Johnson said. “Many of those services like roads, bridges, public safety, sewer, water and others are enjoyed by Native people and non-natives alike.”
Throughout the address, Johnson focused on the significance of natural resources to their overall lifestyles and well-being. They eat the fish they catch from surrounding lakes and he said mining is a current threat to their lives. Sustaining natural resources in their community helps future generations of their tribes.
“We make decisions, for example, based on the impact our actions will have on descendants seven generations from now,” said Johnson. “This drives our determination to preserve, protect natural resources. Not only for Native communities, but for all who live, work and play in Wisconsin.”
Johnson talked about the history of genocide against Indigenous communities and how they still suffer from the efforts to destroy their culture.
“Much is made of cancel culture in modern America these days,” Johnson said. “We proudly stand before you as survivors of the ultimate cancel culture effort. There is no more enduring assault on a single culture in the United States than the ongoing assault on the culture of Native people. Federal policies, assimilation or extermination towards our culture, attempted to snuff out all resemblance of cultures and traditions.”
Johnson talked about the child abuse against children in their community for celebrating and embracing their culture. He said there were lasting negative effects of federal policies on their daily lives, homelessness, addiction, poverty. This trauma has negative effects on their mental health. He said his community needed mental health assistance and resources.
“Mental health services are desperately needed in the Northwoods,” Johnson said. “Mental health challenges are the underbelly of many problems: homelessness, addiction, unemployment, crime, and the list goes on and on.”
Indigenous communities in Wisconsin continue to draw awareness to the issues they face daily. They have resisted systematic oppression and poverty through supporting one another and teaching their youth about the harsh reality of society.
“Our people are a testament to tenacity and determination. Our people demonstrate every day a sheer will to succeed in both the modern world and our traditional world. Relentless education of all children is our strongest approach to breaking systemic racism, discrimination and bigotry repeated generation after generation,” Johnson said.
The information presented in this speech is a call for help to the U.S. government and elected officials in Wisconsin. Johnson urges Wisconsin residents and government representatives to pay attention to these issues because they affect everyone within the state and throughout the nation.
“This is not a plea for sympathy. Rather (it is) a call for understanding, acceptance and actions towards a more seamless way to coexist.”
The State of the Tribes address has been given annually since 2005. Each year, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council selects a leader from one of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized Indigenous nations to address the Wisconsin State Assembly.