Legislators hear 'State of the Tribes' address

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MADISON, Wis. -Wisconsin legislators heard the first "State of the Tribes"
address on March 8, delivered by Great Lakes Intertribal Council President
and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Ray DePerry. He
called for improved government-to-government relations and asked the
administration to mandate that its schools stop using American Indian
mascots.

"While we applaud the numerous school boards and districts that have
voluntarily taken the steps to eradicate this type of institutional
discrimination against our children, our tribes and our families, there are
approximately 40 public schools that maintain some reference to American
Indians," DePerry said.

De Perry represented 11 sovereign nations, nine of which officially
attended. Leon Valliere of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior
Chippewa gave the opening prayer in Ojibwe. DePerry asked for the blessing
of the elders who were present. Among those attending were Lt. Gov. Barbara
Lawton, various state agency heads, and representatives of the BIA and IHS.

DePerry stressed that there are 50,000 people behind the 11 nations who
make substantial economic contributions in the areas of employment, taxes
and charity. Their combined territory is now roughly a half-million acres
along the shorelines of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and the Mississippi
River.

He stressed that good communication between Native people and non-Native
society fosters awareness of Natives as human beings, which can motivate
non-Native understanding of more complex issues such as the sovereignty of
Indian nations. In his speech, he noted that most societal dialogue shows
no acknowledgment of Native people.

"The recognition of tribes as sovereign nations exists because our
ancestors and your ancestors believed that this was the right and proper
way that nations could live with one another," he said.

The customary use of American Indian historical figures and likenesses as
mascots and sacred cultural property as symbols has been explained by
educational institutions as a way to create school "spirit," especially in
athletics.

This custom has exposed children to objectifying caricatures and distorted
ceremonial dances and historical fallacies. Although those practices have
diminished in some cases, the custom is perpetuated by corporate marketers,
DePerry noted, and taken to a different level by members of secret
societies and hate groups.

"When I was young, 9 to 13, as I cheered for my favorite sports teams those
kinds of things never hit home," said DePerry in a later interview. "But
when we are able to look at disparaging images and the impact they have, we
understand why they have to be eradicated. There is no place for them in
that form - a school, an education system."

Gov. Jim Doyle's executive order issued last February, described in
DePerry's speech as a notable point of progress, initially directed
government agencies to accord tribal governments the same respect accorded
other governments.

De Perry said of his emphasis on the mascot issue: "We stand in that pit,
in that assembly hall, to face the state of Wisconsin like we have never
faced [it] before even though we are neighbors- isn't that ironic? And
believing in the power of the Legislature in what they can and cannot do,
looking at federal enactments of laws that have affected us so dearly, we
know that the state Legislature can have equal amounts of power.

"Isn't this an issue that has been tearing at Wisconsin for 10 or 15 years?
Churches have spoken out and tribal governments have spoken. I thought it
might be as simple as legislating - outlawing it - because local school
boards are not doing it willingly and there are a significant number of
others that haven't."

DePerry likened the situation to the era of civil rights legislation, when
schools were forced to integrate. He said that the political position of
minorities today is grounded in those laws.

Although it has been argued that mascot names like the "Chiefs" and
"Braves" used in Wisconsin are complimentary, the term "Red Raiders" stands
out as inescapably pejorative. The Bruce Elementary School in Bruce, Wis.
is one school still using this name. Superintendent Debra Brown said the
school no longer makes much use of the logo and that it had never been an
issue there.

"We have never had any complaints at all in regard to that, any formal
complaints," she said.

Meanwhile, the village of Monona, which the city of Madison surrounds, is
in the process of changing the name of Squaw Bay, which DePerry mentioned
in his address. Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, has said he would reactivate a
bill to ban all such names in the state. Another bill is being discussed by
other representatives that would allow residents to challenge a school
district's use of discriminatory terms.

In response to criticism that prejudice must be educated, not legislated,
away and that there are much larger issues facing Wisconsin tribes, DePerry
said, "I believe the Legislature can say there will be no caricatures, it's
ethically, morally wrong. It isn't happening. You have to start somewhere.
Let's not start with number five until we have taken care of number one.
Then I am going to educate you as to why we had to do that - now that I got
your attention.

"Maybe then you will listen to me, because when we come back to the House
next year, we will want to talk about some ... more positive things."