MADISON, Wis. - In what was a Native woman's strong call for cooperative action between tribal and state legislators, Patricia DePerry, chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin, delivered the 3rd Annual ''State of the Tribes'' address before lawmakers at the Wisconsin State Assembly regular session on March 1. The annual event was held by invitation of Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch.
DePerry spoke on behalf of the 11 tribes in Wisconsin.
A drum ceremony and a Veteran's color guard procession kicked off the forum. Eagle staffs mingled with flags, as elected officials and representatives of the tribal nations of Wisconsin (Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Stockbridge-Munsee, Menominee and Ho-Chunk) met in the state Capitol's assembly chamber. Leon ''Boycee'' Valliere, Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, gave the opening prayer - an invocation delivered in both Anishinabe (Ojibwe) and English.
DePerry's speech covered issues facing the tribes, including gaming, sovereignty, racism and underfunded health, education and welfare programs. The outspoken tribal leader urged state lawmakers to uphold tribal sovereignty, ''a decree ordered by the United States government when treaties were signed.'' According to DePerry, ''It's not up for negotiation; it is not up for discussion. It is the law.''
She said tribes today have much to be hopeful about but many problems still exist, including poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse. ''We want for our tribes what the state wants for 'theirs': better health, better education; we want it all.''
DePerry shared childhood memories, being the oldest of nine children born to alcoholic parents. She attended a Catholic school where she was physically abused until she ''stood up'' to her nun schoolteacher and demanded an end to the abuse in seventh grade. ''The moral to this story is we need to be protectors of each other, of those that cannot, for whatever reason, stand up for themselves,'' she said.
This sentiment perhaps is a reflection of the current situation in Wisconsin among tribes vying for off-reservation casinos. Most tribes have on-reservation casinos; yet, due to varying geographic locations, there are only three large, profit-making casinos - those owned by the Ho-Chunk, Oneida and Potawatomi. Rural tribes in northern Wisconsin continue to battle the state and other tribes for off-reservation casino approval.
''That is tearing us apart,'' she said. ''Some of us have made it in gaming and some of us haven't.'' She used her home as an example. ''Red Cliff hasn't made it. We sit on the northernmost tip of Wisconsin. Apostle Island country, that's up north. We have problems up there, big-time problems.''
She also discussed the importance of lawmakers being more educated on the topic of treaty rights, which has been one of the top issues concerning Wisconsin tribes since the Voigt Decision of 1983, upholding the rights of the state's Chippewa tribes to hunt, fish and gather off-reservation.
DePerry, also recently chosen as the first woman to serve as chair of Wisconsin's Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, was critical of the state DNR. She told members of the Assembly that conflicts between DNR game wardens and tribal members stem from misunderstandings of tribal sovereignty.
In closing, she asked for continuing cooperation between the tribes and the state, ''whatever color we may be.''