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A chance to remedy errors

Anyone who has visited the Menominee Reservation in northern Wisconsin knows the grinding poverty that has devastated the Tribe, despite its best efforts to be the self-sufficient entity it once was.

Now, new research identifies the federal government’s 1954 termination of the tribe’s federal recognition as the cause of economic and social ravages that have lasted for four decades.

Despite warnings from officials in the Tribe and the State of Wisconsin, the federal government deeded away Menominee’s trust lands, stripped it of the ability to govern itself and declared its members to be non-Indians ineligible for programs available to Indian people. Members sold their land because they couldn’t afford the taxes and moved away in search of jobs and services. A hospital and clinic closed, use of drugs and alcohol rose, the telephone and electric companies were sold, and there were fewer funds for students and schools. Menominee was one of the only large tribes in the nation and the only one in Wisconsin to suffer termination.

The destructive termination experiment ended in 1973 when the federal government acknowledged its mistake and restored Menominee as a federally recognized Tribe. But scars remain to this day. Menominee is the fourth-poorest tribe in the U.S.

Menominee County and the Menominee Reservation rank at the bottom of Wisconsin counties in employment, income, education, health outcomes, housing and property values. The tribe’s forestry operation and small, outdated reservation casino do not generate the employment or income needed to rise above termination’s severe negative impacts.

Although the government acknowledges that termination was a mistake that deeply hurt the Menominee people, it has failed to take action to help remedy its errors. An opportunity now exists to make up for that shattering decision by approving the Menominee’s proposal to build a Kenosha entertainment center casino and help itself overcome an utterly devastating period in its history. The Kenosha community has already voiced its support for the project in two referendums.

Revenue from the Kenosha project would make a significant, measurable difference on the Reservation for the Menominee’s 8,500 members, who need employment, improved education, job training, housing and health services. For example, with casino funds, the College of the Menominee Nation could offer courses in health care, forestry and tourism that would prepare workers for employment on and off the Reservation. This revenue would also lessen the tribe’s heavy reliance on federal funding – nearly 57 percent of the tribe’s budget. There are no alternative sources of revenue that come close to matching the potential from the Kenosha project.

The La Follette School analysis has been submitted with other application material to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is available for anyone to see at http://www.lafollette.wisc.edu/publicservice/tribal.html. The federal government now has the ability to right its wrong and help the Menominee lift themselves out of devastating poverty.

Dennis Dresang
Madison, Wisc.


Mr. Dresang is director of the La Follette School’s Center for Wisconsin, State, Local and Tribal Governance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of a new study on the unmet needs of Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe.