State of the Tribes Address highlights racism and economic challenges, threats to Wisconsin’s environment

By: - May 12, 2021 6:45 am
State of the Tribes

John Johnson Sr. speaks at the State of the Tribes address on Tuesday. (WisconsinEye | Screenshot)

Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized Native American tribes are still dealing with generations of trauma, ongoing discrimination and the resulting economic challenges while working to protect the state’s natural resources, John Johnson Sr., president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said at the 2021 State of the Tribes address to the Wisconsin Legislature. 

Johnson spoke to a joint session of both chambers of the Legislature, Gov. Tony Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Attorney General Josh Kaul and four members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The annual State of the Tribes address is meant to be an opportunity for Wisconsin’s tribal governments to share the challenges they face while urging the state government to consider how Native Americans will be affected by its actions.

“When we call for a meaningful consultation with the state government, we seek to achieve more efficient, effective use of taxpayers’ dollars to protect and benefit what we love about our state and our nations,” Johnson said. “For all of us to collaborate to create a prosperous future for all, we must continue to work together. We must find common ground that overcomes historic wrongs, race, culture, traditions and history.” 

Wisconsin’s reservations are some of the poorest parts of the state and concentrated in parts of Northern Wisconsin that have been particularly affected by the opioid crisis, Johnson said. The Northwoods and the Native Americans who live in and around the reservations have also been harmed by COVID-19 and its effects on the tourism economy. 

Meanwhile, tribal governments don’t have access to the same revenue streams as local and county governments across the state, leaving the tribal casinos — which Johnson said provide jobs to more than just tribe members — as one of the few sources of funding for infrastructure and services. 

“Most people fail to realize casino revenue supports much of the tribe’s government services,” he said. “Many of those services like roads, bridges, public safety, sewer, water, and others are enjoyed by Native people and non-natives alike.”

The tribes also see themselves as stewards of the land they’ve called home for generations, he said, responsible for protecting the state’s plants and wildlife as corporate interests seek to extract resources with little regard for the environmental effects. 

“We make decisions, for example, based on the impact our actions will have on descendants seven generations from now,” Johnson said. “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 defended the harvesting and hunting rights the state’s tribes retain in their treaties with the federal government — saying the tribes catch a fraction of the walleye that are caught each year, yet are blamed for shrinking populations and subject to harassment for exercising their rights. 

While defending the way Wisconsin’s tribes have used the state’s resources for hundreds of years, Johnson criticized recent, more extractive actions in northern Wisconsin. 

Johnson unequivocally opposed the construction of mines in the region, saying the short-term economic gain is outweighed by the long-term effects and poisoning of the state’s water systems. 

“Mining is a constant threat to the environment,” Johnson said. “Local economies that remain long after the mine gives up its treasures — local taxpayers — foot the bill for persistent environmental damage. We welcome economic development. We welcome jobs. We are willing, however, to sacrifice to help the life-sustaining natural resources, earth, air and water. Without these we all cease to exist. Until there are proven protections in place for public health, safety and natural resources, mining must be rejected as a common threat to all.”

He also said environmental pollution caused by chemicals such as PFAS or farm runoff and actions such as a controversial wolf hunt that took place earlier this year threaten to harm the state’s ecosystems.

“Forever chemicals within our water supply; chronic wasting disease and other [diseases] in our deer population; mercury and other contaminants in our fish supply; rising temperatures heating our waterways, leading to algae blooms choking off fish populations and other aquatic life; reducing wolf populations to dangerously low population levels and eliminating contribution to wildlife sustainability,” Johnson said, “all of these threaten our prosperity and our futures.” 

Finally, Johnson addressed the historical and ongoing racism faced by Native Americans and said that the trauma caused by generational discrimination has reverberated through their communities. 

He asked for greater access to mental and behavioral health services while pushing for changes to ongoing sources of pain — such as the use of Native American images as mascots for Wisconsin schools. 

“There is no more enduring assault on a single culture in the United States than the ongoing assault on the culture of native people,” Johnson said. “As we learn more about the effects of trauma on human beings, we can easily see the lasting effects of those federal policies, and how those reverberate to our daily lives. Mental health services are desperately needed in the Northwoods, mental health challenges are the underbelly of many problems — homelessness, addiction, unemployment, crime, and the list goes on and on.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.