Yesterday, Gary Besaw of the Menominee Nation delivered the Wisconsin State of the Tribes address. The address was the perfect opportunity for legislators, advocates, and citizens to learn more about Wisconsin’s tribal nations, their biggest accomplishments, and their biggest concerns. More importantly, the address served as a reminder that Wisconsin’s Native American people are strong, resilient, and prepared to fight—not only for the rights promised to their communities through treaties—but also for the well-being of all Native people in the state.
There is very little our country should be proud of when it comes to its treatment of Native American people—from genocide to the forced removal from land to boarding schools to broken treaties—Native American people have long suffered at the hands of the United States government. And it’s no surprise that today’s Native people are still suffering the consequences of these actions—including here in Wisconsin.
In our state, Native American children are less likely to graduate on time, are less likely to have health insurance, and are more likely to live in poverty. Forty-one percent of Native American children live in poverty and the median household income for Native American families in the state is less than half of what it is for white families.
What does this data tell us? It tells us that oppressive policies of the past and today’s institutionalized racism still continue to inflict harm upon Native American people. And it tells us that we’re not doing enough.
In fact, it seems like many of the policies being pushed by lawmakers today will only further harm Native communities. During the address, tribes voiced their concerns over a number of issues that could hurt the well-being of Native people and Native communities, such as drug testing for Medicaid eligibility, the legislature’s failure to appropriately address the opioid crisis, and the lack of consultation with tribes about laws or administrative rules that impact tribal nations.
It’s time for policymakers and advocates to truly begin to understand, listen, engage, and work with tribal nations. We must work together to create policies and programs that intentionally address the issues affecting Native communities—and we must stand up to oppose policies that will further marginalize Native communities. The hard work of advocating for Native communities in our state shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of Native people—it’s on all of us to do intentional work that will help build a better pathway to opportunity for every Native person in the state.
As Besaw reminded us yesterday, our country’s Indigenous people have lived here for over 15,000 years because of our non-negotiable responsibilities to our great-grandchildren: to care, to provide, and protect our children, families, and communities. If lawmakers held true to this value, maybe we would see less policies that hurt families and more policies that work to promote access and opportunity for every child in this state.