State of the Tribes address given to Wisconsin Assembly

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MADISON, Wis. – The chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin gave the second annual State of the Tribes address on March 7 to the state Assembly.

Gerald Danforth asked lawmakers for support on several federal, state and local issues essential to Wisconsin reservations and urban Native communities, particularly health care.

“Federal dollars, already heavily strained by military operations abroad, were re-directed to disaster recovery efforts. Like the state government, tribal governments also experienced the negative impact of federal budget rescissions. Nowhere was this more evident than in our health care systems,” Danforth said.

Danforth said that past cuts to the IHS budget, congressional neglect of the Medicare Modernization and Indian Health Care Improvement acts, and President Bush’s fiscal year 2007 budget proposal that would eliminate funding for all urban Indian clinics would overtax state and local agencies.

“We feel the Urban Indian Health Program needs to be reinstated and actually, from what we get from our office in Milwaukee, the budget needs to be increased – the need is growing.”

White House budget officials say that urban Indians can be served at community health centers and propose to eliminate the $33 million program.

The Indian Health Board of Minneapolis would lose a quarter of its funding, according to CEO Dr. Terry Hart, while the community health center nearby is staggering under its load of uninsured patients.

“Indians are nowhere, nowhere on this administration’s radar screen,” said Carol Sample, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, director of the Spotted Eagle High School in Milwaukee. She noted additional proposed cuts to educational and job training programs.

Danforth also called for expanded local government cooperation on economic development and environmental quality strategies with the 11 federally recognized tribes of Wisconsin.

“We believe that if we can get tribal and non-tribal leaders to focus on some common issues, the environment is one, some new ideas will broaden the impact and the effectiveness of what is being done,” Danforth said.

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has recently applied to the EPA to set its own water quality standards under current provisions of the Clean Water Act.

Three counties, the state representative from Green Bay and the governor’s office oppose the application, according to Larry Wawronowicz, deputy administrator for natural resources.

Danforth called for economic development necessary to keep payroll and purchasing dollars from casinos within Native communities. Expanded opportunities would have a positive effect on the surrounding areas, he said.

Tribes are still unable to meet all their needs, he said.

“It is difficult for most people to understand [that] housing and education needs are not being met. Unless they take some time to come here and see what we really do and what we are all about, they would think that an Indian tribe is only running a gaming operation.”

The Oneida provide social services, outpatient health care, a hotel, a K – 12 school, a higher education program with student grants, a public works department, an economic development department, a heritage program, health and fitness centers, a housing development program that is also HUD-sponsored, sewer and water service, and road maintenance and repair.

“The list goes on and on,” said Danforth.

Danforth asked lawmakers to pass a resolution recognizing the sovereignty of Wisconsin tribes to raise awareness of their status as nations.

“We are not creations of the state, like counties or municipalities, and we are not creations of the federal government. Tribes are nations of their own creation, with a long history and tradition of self-government.”

Public education about what the U.S. government swore to do in return for Indian people giving up “unbelievable amounts” of land is “sorely lacking,” he said later. “In part it was education, health care, protection – forever – and the terms used even in those days would make even the average reader understand. What binds the federal government to these responsibilities is the U.S. Constitution. It doesn’t get anymore principle-based than that.

“America has to come to terms with some of this. The government is the most powerful in the world, but the foundation has some very serious cracks in it. They are going to have to be addressed.”

He also stressed passage of several pending state bills.

Leon Valliere of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa gave the opening blessing again this year.

Danforth, current president of the Great Lakes Intertribal Council, prefaced his remarks with the value of cultural traditions, Native veterans, caring for others as exemplified in recent tribal assistance to disaster victims, the honoring of ceremonies, and the guiding vision of tribal elders for a better world for all people.

With that vision, he stressed that healthy and safe Native communities with adequate housing and education, and strategic environmental protection and economic development plans, would benefit all of the people of Wisconsin.

Before legislation to codify treaty obligations, Danforth said, Native people went without promised housing, education and health care. “Instead of getting treated, there were amputations from diabetes. People were dying,” he said.